Subtle Power Outage

Coming up short on vitamin B12 can drive down your energy levels.

By Lisa James

January 2010


Many people are walking around with less-than-optimal levels of various nutrients. Most of these shortages aren’t large enough to cause dramatic deficiency diseases such as scurvy, with its loosened teeth and open sores. Instead, symptoms tend to be of the general, “I just don’t feel right” variety.
Vitamin B12 is an excellent example. Also known as cobalamin, it is required for proper nerve function and energy production. And B12 deficiencies are more common than you might think.

Deficit Risks

Almost all dietary vitamin B12 is found in foods of animal origin, such as dairy, eggs, fish, meat and poultry. That puts vegans, vegetarians who don’t eat any animal products whatsoever, at risk for deficiency. This can be a particular problem for women of childbearing age. One study found a link between low blood levels of vitamin B12 in mothers-to-be and a higher risk of birth defects in their babies (Pediatrics 3/09).

However, the largest group of people at risk for vitamin B12 deficiency are older adults. That’s because of the complex nature in which the gastrointestinal tract extracts B12 from food, one which requires adequate amounts of stomach acid and digestive enzymes. Anything that reduces levels of these key chemicals can result in vitamin B12 malabsorption, such as the reduction in acid secretion that often occurs among seniors. Other possible causes include gastric bypass surgery, inflammatory bowel disease and the use of medications that reduce acid levels (Journal of the American Medical Directors Association 3/08).

In addition, vitamin B12 absorption requires the presence of intrinsic factor (IF), secreted by special cells in the stomach. Older people are prone to atrophic gastritis, an inflammation of the stomach lining that reduces both stomach acid and IF.

A vitamin B12 deficit interferes with the production of red blood cells, which carry the oxygen required for energy generation. This can lead to the development of pernicious anemia, marked by fatigue and weakness. Because B12 is also needed for proper nerve function, symptoms such as tingling and numbness may appear.

Brain and Heart

Vitamin B12 is essential for the production of myelin, a fatty substance that protects nerves. This may explain why deficiencies have been linked to tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, a condition that may involve nerves in the inner ear. B12’s protective effects extend to the brain. Low vitamin levels have been associated with cognitive decline (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 11/07), while supplementation has helped ease depression in acutely ill, older hospital patients (Clinical Nutrition 10/07).

Vitamin B12 also works with two other B vitamins, B6 and folic acid, to reduce levels of homocysteine, a protein metabolism byproduct linked to cardiovascular disease. Actually, the trio’s effects on homocysteine may make them useful in reducing risk for a number of ailments. For example, a study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that the vitamin B12-B6-folic acid combination reduced the risk of age-related macular degeneration, a major cause of blindness, by 34% in women (2/23/09).

At one point the only way to correct vitamin B12 deficits was via injection. Fortunately, B12 is now available in capsules, liquids, sprays and tablets, and supplementation has been shown to raise blood levels (International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research 3/06). If you have pernicious anemia (or any pre-existing condition) discuss B12 supplementation with a healthcare practitioner.
If your fuel tank seems to constantly run dry, have yourself tested for vitamin B12 deficiency. An extra shot of this energy nutrient may be just what you need to achieve ignition.

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