Coenzyme B12 is perhaps the most intriguing nutrient there is. The most chemically complex vitamin we know of is also the only one exclusively synthesized by microorganisms. This is a molecule absolutely vital to our existence yet neither our bodies, nor those of other animals, nor any of the tissues comprising plants, can actually produce it. Rare are the moments in which our utter dependence on other life is so wonderfully illustrated. The biological nuances of B12 are profound and mysterious, but ultimately we are left with just one succinct take-home message; without it, we die.
A key performer in a myriad of systems like red blood cell formation, DNA synthesis, and our basic neurological scheme, when B12 is lacking, the results aren’t good. Pernicious anemia, essentially when your body’s immune system causes inflammation in the stomach, often results, which eventually leads to the devastation of cells within the gastric lining called parietal cells. The problem with killing these is that they produce something called intrinsic factor, which is itself, fundamental to the absorption of B12. Like most illnesses, a B12 deficiency is caused by some serious snowballing effects.
To get accurate baseline knowledge on your current levels, you need to take charge in the one place you probably think you shouldn’t; your doctor’s office. Most doctors have only a vague understanding of B12 deficiency. Most will start out screening patients for macrocytic anemia. Unfortunately, this is a condition that develops as a result of already being very deficient, and it usually takes 2 or more years to truly develop. More nutritionally savvy doctors may order a ‘vitamin B12 level’, but this is only effective in proving the absence of a deficiency, and very little else. Clearly, this isn’t tackling the issue.
To get answers, you need to order a methylmalonic acid test (MMA). MMA’s are far more accurate than the basic B12 level. It’s even been said that they have the potential to detect deficiencies as early as 10 days after an onset (putting things into perspective; it can take decades for a deficiency to rear its head). Labtestsonline.org, a government-run website with the self-proclaimed subtitle of, “A public resource on clinical lab testing from the laboratory professionals who do the testing”, states that, “Methylmalonic acid is not ordered frequently. Until there are more data supporting a consensus of its clinical usefulness and long-term benefits, it will probably not be routinely ordered by doctors.” Your basic doctor is trained in medicine, not nutrition. Unless you’re truly broke (some insurance providers won’t cover this test. Mine did, and I still had to pay $85.), you need to have this test done at least every few years, regardless of your diet. Here’s why:
Meat Isn’t A Guarentee:
A study from Tufts University in 2001 found that roughly 40% of the 3000 healthy men and women they had studied had low levels of B12. These people were not vegetarian or vegan. After being assessed, their diets were actually found to contain as much a three times the daily recommended intake of this nutrient. Dr. Katherine Tucker, a nutritional epidemiologist and the chief investigator of the study, was rather surprised at her findings. “We thought that low concentrations of B12 would increase with age. But we saw a high prevalence of low B12 even among the youngest group.” What is vital to gather here is that deficiencies were not correlated whatsoever with meat or fish consumption. According to Dr. Tucker, “It’s not because people aren’t eating enough meat. The vitamin isn’t getting absorbed.”
B12 is only produced by bacteria and since bacteria are everywhere, plants contain it through association. It is for this reason only that animals are said to have B12 stores. They eat the plants, and their residues become concentrated within the flesh of the animal. The majority of B12 deficiencies are not due to diet, but to the body’s inability to absorb it.
Say Yes To Vegetables:
In 2010 the National Library of Medicine’s National Institutes of Health published a study on the discovery of sources of vitamin B12 in traditionally prepared Korean foods from the nutritional surveys of centenarians. Not only were the people studied over 100 years old, but they were fundamentally vegetarians. As explained by the author, “Recently, for the first time, we reported the significantly high level of vitamin B12 content in some Korean traditional foods, soybean-fermented foods such as Doenjang, Chungkookjang, Kochujang, and Ganjang and vegetable-fermented foods such as Kimchi, and some favorite seaweed foods, that were not listed previously in Food Composition Tables.” Some of these foods can take up to 10 months to ferment, a length of time that simply has no place in America’s food system. Perhaps this is why no one’s heard about it?
People swear that in order to not die, those eating a purely vegan diet must take B12 supplements. One should view this with skepticism, not total rejection, but skepticism, because the vast majority of supplements available today are in a form called cyanocobalamin (CCB). There are only a small handful of naturally occurring and optimally absorbable forms of this vitamin present in the body, and this is not one of them. CCB is a form of B12 that is not found anywhere in nature. The ‘cyano’ actually comes from cyanide, and it’s thought that the only reason people feel an energy boost after taking these supplements is due to the body’s vital reflex of forcing itself to excrete the potassium cyanide that often forms during CCB metabolism. The remaining cobalt is then added to the other essential puzzle pieces already present in the body. So, that jolt of energy may actually be just that; a short lived jolt, sponsored by the self-protecting nature of our physiology. If supplements are deemed are the only viable option for you, which may in fact be the case, it is recommended that you only take methylcobalamin patches, a quality adenosylcobalamin supplement, or hydroxocobalamin, usually through injections. Aim for 1000 mcg dosages daily.
But It’s Not Hopeless:
The real problem originates in three possible ways; something is competing for your B12 stores (a parasite like H pylori); something is destroying it (cyanide poisoning, chlorinated water exposure, overconsumption of tea); or something is preventing its absorption (lack of intrinsic factor). One culprit is processed food. Additives, antacids and the heavy phosphate contents in soda, beer, and ice cream block iron absorption, which directly affects B12 status. So just avoid eating garbage. Some believe that previous generations never faced this epidemic because they just ended up eating a little more dirt. Banish the thought of dirt being “dirty”. It’s not! It’s our life force. High quality soil of a healthy nutrient composition is what allows food (us) to grow. Chemically treated, pasteurized foods do not provide healthy soil residues. Relative to almost every other vitamin, only miniscule amounts of B12 are needed for humans to survive. Sadly, we are now faced with residues of pesticides and herbicides, not B12. It’s not hopeless though. If you listen to your body, and use your mind, equilibrium can be reached.
Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Vitamin B12 — Health Professional Fact Sheet. (2011, June 24). Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS). Retrieved May 2, 2013
Stabler, S. (2013, January 10) Retrieved May 2, 2013 http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMcp http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMcp1113996
Knox, K. (2009, September 15). Get the Right Laboratory Test for Vitamin B12 Deficiency. Natural health news. Retrieved May 2, 2013
Vitamin B12 Deficiency Anemia-Exams and Tests. (2008, November 19). WebMD – Better information. Better health.. Retrieved May 2, 2013
Shomon, M. J. (2009, September 15). Do You Need B-12?. Thyroid Disease Information – Hypothyroidism – Hyperthyroidism – Thyroid Cancer – Autoimmune Disease – Hashimoto’s – Graves’ – Goiter – Nodules – Metabolism – Weight Loss – Diet – Hormones – Hormonal Balance – Perimenopause – Menopause. Retrieved May 2, 2013
Methylmalonic Acid: The Test. (2012, February 10). Lab Tests Online: Welcome!. Retrieved May 2, 2013
Kwak, C. S. (2012, February 10). Discovery of Novel Sources of Vitamin B12 in Traditional Korean Foods from Nutritional Surveys of Centenarians.National Center for Biotechnology Information. Retrieved May 2, 2013