Understanding Vitamin B12

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Are you wondering why vitamin B12 is needed to help keep you healthy, where to get it, the recommended amounts and who may be especially at risk of deficiency? Read on.

What is it?

Vitamin B12, also known as cobalamin, is an essential water-soluble vitamin that plays an important role in forming healthy red blood cells and DNA synthesis.  It’s also involved in the development and function of brain and nerve cells.  

A vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to anemia, a type of blood disorder which may cause symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath and feeling light-headed. Vitamin B12 deficiency can also cause numbness and tingling in the hands and feet as well as memory issues and confusion.

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Where do you find vitamin B12?

  • Animal Sources: Vitamin B12 is unique in that only animal sources naturally contain vitamin B12, such as fish, red meat, eggs, poultry and dairy products such as milk, cheese and yogurt.
  • Fortified foods such as fortified soy, almond or rice milk and fortified breakfast cereals also contain vitamin B12. 
  • Check the nutrition facts table to determine if a food is fortified with vitamin B12. Use the % Daily Value which allows you to compare the vitamin B12 content of different foods. Remember, 5% or more is a little; and15% or more is a lot.
  • Vitamin B12 is also available in supplement form and as a prescription medication.
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How much do you need?

The daily amount you need depends on your age, gender and life stage, with the following Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs):  

Men and Women, 19 years and older2.4 micrograms/day
Pregnancy, 19 years and older2.6 micrograms/day
Lactation, 19 years and older2.8 micrograms/day

Did you know?

No Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL) has been set for vitamin B12, as there’s no established toxic level.  Our bodies are able to remove what’s not needed. However, if you’re thinking about taking a supplement, always speak with your healthcare provider first to determine an appropriate dose for you.

Some groups at risk of vitamin B12 deficiency

Vegetarians and vegans

Since Vitamin B12 is unique in that only animal sources naturally contain it, those following a vegetarian and especially vegan diets may not be getting enough vitamin B12 and are at risk for deficiency. Therefore, it’s important to choose foods fortified with B12 to help reduce the risk of deficiency.

Older adults

As we age, we may have difficulty properly absorbing B12 from food due to various conditions.  One may be due to a lack of stomach acid, which is common in older adults. Stomach acid is needed to release vitamin B12 from food into its free form for absorption.  In fact, Health Canada advises those older than 50 years to meet the RDA mainly by consuming foods fortified with vitamin B12 or a supplement containing vitamin B12. These sources already contain B12 in its free form, so may be more easily absorbed.  Remember, always speak to your healthcare provider before taking a supplement to make sure it’s right for you.

Individuals with digestive disorders or have had intestinal surgery

Those with certain digestive disorders such as celiac disease or Crohn’s may be unable to properly absorb vitamin B12 from food. As well, certain intestinal surgeries can negatively impact vitamin B12 absorption and therefore increase the risk for deficiency.

Types of vitamin B12 supplements

If you have low vitamin B12 levels a supplement may be recommended by your healthcare professional. Vitamin B12 supplements are available in various forms such as tablets or liquids you swallow; sublingual tablets you dissolve under your tongue or intramuscular injections administered from your doctor.  All forms can help increase vitamin B12 levels in your blood.  Speak with your healthcare professional to determine the best form for you.   

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