Vitamin B12, or cobalamin, is a water-soluble vitamin that plays an important role in many body functions. The body cannot produce it, so the only way to maintain healthy B12 levels is through diet or supplementation. What are the health benefits of vitamin B12 and what foods include it? This essential vitamin is found primarily in animal products, but fortified foods may also contain B12. Of course, you can also get B12 through oral supplements and even injections. For adults, the average recommended daily intake, or RDI, is 2.4 mcg.
Vitamin B12 offers many health benefits that have been backed by research and studies from nervous system health to brain and bone health. Keep reading to discover 12 health benefits that vitamin B12 has to offer!
Promotes a Healthy Nervous System
Vitamin B12 can help support your nervous system. When levels get too low, it can cause uncomfortable sensations, such as pins and needles or numbness and tingling in your legs, hands, and feet.
Vitamin B12 plays an important role in the production of myelin (a fatty sheath that protects your nerves). If you don’t have enough of this essential vitamin, your cells can’t function properly.
If left untreated, vitamin B12 deficiency can damage the nervous system in a number of ways:
- Peripheral neuropathy: Many people with vitamin B12 deficiency develop neuropathy, which disrupts nerve signals between the spinal cord and other parts of the body. It can cause pain, tingling, numbness, loss of sensation, or loss of muscle mass.
- Mental health issues: Higher levels of homocysteine (caused by low B12) and issues with the production of neurotransmitters can affect your mental health. It can cause hallucinations, delusions, depression, dementia, and even cognitive decline.
- Risk of stroke: High levels of homocysteine in the blood has been linked to an increased risk of stroke. It may also increase the risk of other vascular diseases.
Making sure that your body gets enough vitamin B12 is important for living a healthy, pain-free, and active lifestyle.
May Support Brain Health
Vitamin B12 plays a crucial role in memory function. In fact, a deficiency in this vitamin has been linked to memory loss in older adults. One study of adults with early-stage dementia found that omega-3 and vitamin B12 supplements helped slow cognitive decline.
Another study found even a small decline in B12 levels can impair memory.
More research is needed to clarify the relationship between vitamin B12 and memory function, but the evidence looks promising. Along with memory function, B12 may also help prevent brain atrophy. Brain atrophy is the loss of brain neurons and is usually an indicator of dementia or memory loss.
May Help Maintain Healthy Movement
You already know that a vitamin B12 deficiency can cause tingling and numbness, but this is just the start of the nerve damage that can arise from low levels of this essential vitamin. If left untreated, the problem can progress and actually alter the way that you move.
Eventually, nerve damage caused by B12 deficiency can affect your balance and coordination, increasing your risk of falling.
Assists with Red Blood Cell Formation
The body needs vitamin B12 to produce red blood cells. When levels get too low, it can reduce red blood cell production and even keep them from developing properly.
When you don’t have enough B12, your red blood cells become larger in size and oval in shape. Healthy red blood cells normally are small and round. The bigger size and irregular shape make it impossible for red blood cells to move into the bloodstream at a healthy pace. This can lead to the development of megaloblastic anemia.
Anemia occurs when the body doesn’t have enough red blood cells to transport oxygen to your organs. It can cause a wide range of symptoms, including:
- Chronic fatigue
- Difficulty walking
- Numbness in the hands and feet
- Weight loss
- Rapid heart rate
Maintaining healthy levels of B12 may help prevent anemia and maintain normal red blood cell production.
Red blood cells are vital to your overall health. They carry oxygen to your vital organs, but they also help remove carbon dioxide from the body by transporting it to your lungs to exhale. Eating foods rich in B12 or supplementing this vitamin can help ensure that your red blood cell production is healthy and normal.
May Keep Your Bones Healthy
Maintaining healthy levels of vitamin B12 can help support bone health. One study involving over 2,500 adults found that people with B12 deficiency also had low bone mineral density. Bones with low mineral density are more fragile and at a greater risk of developing osteoporosis.
Other research has linked low B12 with osteoporosis and poor bone health overall, especially in women.
Osteoporosis can cause a wide range of symptoms, including:
- Pain, particularly in the back
- Higher risk of bone fractures
- Loss of height
- Stooped posture
Some people develop chronic pain due to joint imbalances, skeletal deformities, and tension. Although more research is needed, there is evidence of one patient with pernicious anemia (anemia caused by B12 deficiency) reversing severe osteoporosis with vitamin B12 supplementation.
Making sure that you get enough vitamin B12 may help keep your bones healthy and strong. Healthy, strong bones are your best defense against osteoporosis and the pain associated with it.
May Lift Your Mood
Vitamin B12 may help lift your mood and fight depression. The relationship between B12 and mood is still not understood, but it’s believed that this vitamin plays a role in the production and metabolizing of serotonin. Serotonin is responsible for regulating mood, anxiety, and happiness. It’s believed that low levels of B12 can decrease serotonin production, which can lead to depression. Supplementing B12 or eating foods rich in this essential vitamin may help uplift your mood.
One study looked at the effectiveness of B12 in people with depression and low levels of vitamin B12. Researchers found that those who took antidepressants and B12 supplements were more likely to have improved depression symptoms compared to those who took anti-depressants alone.
Other research has linked low vitamin B12 with a doubled risk of severe depression. It’s unclear whether B12 supplements are useful for depression in people with normal B12 levels. However, a deficiency is common, especially among older adults.
High levels of B12 have been linked to a greater chance of recovery from major depressive disorder and better treatment outcomes.
Supports Overall Health and Well-Being
Vitamin B12 plays a crucial role in many vital body functions, including:
- Production of DNA: The body’s genetic code. DNA ensures the proper formation of every body part. Without B12, the body would not be able to make red blood cells and cells would be unable to divide.
- Regulating Homocysteine: B12 helps regulate homocysteine levels. If levels get too high, it can cause damage and inflammation.
Healthy levels of vitamin B12 help support your overall health and well-being. A deficiency can cause a number of issues, including:
- Mobility issues
- Tingling and numbness
- Oral health issues
- Vision problems
- Unstable moods
Eating foods rich in B12 or supplementing this vitamin can help prevent these issues.
Supports a Healthy Immune System
To keep your immune system running in tip-top-shape, it’s important to make sure that you’re getting enough vitamins and minerals including vitamin B12.
Vitamin B12 also helps with white blood cell production. Without white blood cells, your immune system can’t function properly.
A deficiency in B12 may hinder immune function, but if you have an immune system disorder, it can greatly increase your risk of deficiency. One example is Grave’s disease, which is an autoimmune system disorder that attacks the thyroid gland and causes hyperthyroidism. This condition increases the risk of developing pernicious anemia, which is linked to B12 deficiency.
Even if you aren’t suffering from an autoimmune condition, it is crucial to make sure that you maintain healthy B12 levels. Any interference with white blood cell production can affect your immune function.
May Help Improve Chronic Fatigue
If you’re suffering from chronic fatigue, you know how debilitating this condition can be. Some days, you just don’t have the energy to get out of bed and go through your normal routine. Whether it’s caused by fibromyalgia, chronic pain, viral infection, trauma, hormone imbalance or another issue, chronic fatigue can be difficult to manage.
While vitamin B12 isn’t a magical cure for chronic fatigue, it may provide the energy boost you need to get through the day. B vitamins play an important role in the body’s energy production. They don’t necessarily give you an energy boost (like caffeine does), but they can help your body produce more energy.
If your B12 levels are low and you’re suffering from chronic fatigue, supplements or eating foods rich in B12 may help improve your energy levels. One of the first signs of a deficiency is weakness and fatigue, so it’s not surprising that reversing the deficiency can help boost your energy.
Supports Heart Health
Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide. A number of factors can lead to the development of heart disease, but the foods you eat and the supplements you take can support or promote heart health.
One of the factors associated with heart disease is high levels of homocysteine. As you know, B12 plays an important role in the regulation of homocysteine. A severe deficiency of this vitamin can elevate homocysteine levels. Studies have found that vitamin B12 can help lower homocysteine levels and may reduce your risk of heart disease in the process.
Other research shows that the combination of vitamin B12 and folic acid may help prevent heart disease. Randomized clinical trials have found that folic acid can reduce homocysteine levels by as much as 25%. The addition of B12 can reduce it by an additional 7%.
Promotes Healthy Skin, Hair and Nails
Vitamin B12 is necessary for cell production, which means that it’s also necessary for healthy skin, hair, and nails.
Research has shown that low B12 levels can cause:
- Hair changes
- Nail discoloration
For those who have a deficiency in B12, supplements may improve these dermatologic symptoms.
Promotes Eye Health
Considering B12’s role in nerve health and function, it’s not surprising that this vitamin is important to your eye health.
A deficiency can cause nervous system damage that affects the optic nerve. This damage interferes with nerve signals that travel from your eye to your brain. Eventually, this can lead to blurred and impaired vision.
Scientists still don’t understand the role B12 plays in the visual system, but they do know that low levels can impact your vision.
Age-related macular degeneration, or AMD, is a common condition that affects older individuals. It can impair vision and cause other eye problems. Slowing the progression of AMD can be challenging, but research shows that a combination of B12, B6, and folic acid can reduce the risk of developing AMD by 40% in females.
Vitamin B12 can impact eye health in other ways. One study from 2017 found that B12 deficiency may be linked to Neuropathic Ocular Pain and Dry Eye Disease. Although optic neuropathy is a less common symptom of B12 deficiency, it still poses a major risk to your eye health.
Prevention is the key, so supplementation or eating foods rich in B12 may help you avoid these eye problems or slow the progression of vision loss as you age.
Who is at Risk of a Vitamin B12 Deficiency?
Anyone can be at risk of a vitamin B12 deficiency, although it’s more common in adults aged 60 and older.
A deficiency can develop in one of two ways:
- Your diet is lacking in B12 foods, OR
- Your body is unable to fully absorb this vitamin
Those who are at greatest risk of a B12 deficiency include:
- Those following a vegan diet. Animal products are the main source of B12. Fortified foods and B12 supplements can help vegans maintain healthy levels of this vitamin.
- People with digestive disorders, like celiac and Chron’s disease. These conditions make it more difficult for the body to absorb nutrients, including B12. Proper management of these conditions and supplements can help keep B12 levels in the healthy range.
- People who have had gastrointestinal surgeries, including bowel resection and bariatric surgeries. These procedures can make it more difficult for the body to absorb nutrients.
- Those using proton pump inhibitors for GERD or acid reflux.
- Those who do not eat a varied diet. Meat and fish are the primary sources of B12, and if you’re not eating enough of these foods, you may be deficient in B12.
Younger people who eat a varied diet are generally at a lower risk of developing B12 deficiency, but it’s not unheard of. Older adults (over age 50) and those who are on strict diets may have lower-than-normal levels of this vitamin. You can have your B12 levels checked to confirm whether you’re deficient or your levels are a little lower than they should be.
If you’re suffering from a B12 deficiency, supplements and diet changes may help reverse the problem and provide you with many of the benefits listed above. Getting enough B12 is crucial to your overall health, and supplements are a simple way to fix the problem without having to make significant diet changes. Supplements come in many forms, including capsules, liquids, powders, injections, and even sublingual products.