Vitamin B-12 (Cobalamin) is a crucial B vitamin that is needed for nerve tissue health. It is also important for brain function and helps in the synthesis of red blood cells which carry oxygen round via the protein known as haemoglobin.
It naturally occurs in all animal foods except honey. There are no plant-based foods that contain this particular vitamin but can be industrially produced through bacterial fermentation synthesis.
According to Bridget Kezaabu, a freelance nutritionist, the vitamin helps in the formation and regulation of DNA, the genetic material in all cells and prevents a type of anaemia called megaloblastic anaemia that makes people tired and weak.
She says, “The metabolism of every cell in the body depends on vitamin B-12. It plays an important role in the synthesis of fatty acids and energy production. Vitamin B-12 also enables the release of energy by helping the human body absorb folic acid.”
The human body produces millions of red blood cells every minute. These cells cannot multiply properly without vitamin B-12. The production of red blood cells reduces if vitamin B-12 levels are too low. Anaemia can occur if the red blood cell count drops.
Humans only need about 3 g (micrograms) of vitamin B12 a day, but the consequences of its deficiency can be deadly. It is, therefore, important that you make sure you are getting as much as you need.
Kezaabu says, “People who do not get enough B12 can suffer from weakness, diarrhoea, hair loss, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, pale skin, and mental conditions such as depression, confusion, memory problems, and fatigue.”
Note, however, that these symptoms alone are not specific enough to diagnose vitamin B-12 deficiency. You will need to see a doctor first to help you with diagnosis. It can result in irreversible and potentially severe damage, especially to the nervous system and brain. Also, because it is part of the red blood cell formation, a deficiency of this vitamin can lead to anaemia.
It is always better to maintain a balanced diet and receive healthful amounts of nutrients before active treatment is required. The symptoms of deficiency are easily avoided with a healthy diet.
She says, “Once symptoms escalate, they can include neurological changes, such as numbness and tingling in the hands and feet. Some people may have difficulty maintaining balance.”
Infants who lack vitamin B-12 may develop face tremors, as well as reflex problems, feeding difficulties, irritation, and eventual growth problems if the deficiency is left untreated.
Who is at risk?
Paul Lutaakome, a nutritionist at Jinja Referral Hospital, says vegans face a risk of vitamin B-12 deficiency, as their diet excludes animal-sourced food products. Pregnancy and lactation can worsen deficiency of this vitamin in non-meat eaters. This is because plant-sourced foods do not have enough of the B-12 vitamin to guarantee long-term health.
He says, “People with pernicious anemia, an autoimmune disease that affects the blood may lack vitamin B-12. Patients with this disorder do not have enough intrinsic factor (IF), a protein in the stomach that allows the body to absorb vitamin B-12.” People with chronic alcoholism may lack vitamin B-12, as their bodies are also not able to absorb nutrients efficiently.
“Gastritis and inflammatory bowel disease may lead to a deficiency because these conditions cause the absorption of nutrients to be compromised. Individuals on diabetes treatment may also suffer vitamin B12 deficiency because some of the medication interferes with the absorption of vitamin B-12,” he remarks.
Paul Lutaakome, a nutritionist at Jinja Referral Hospital, recommends that vitamin B-12 can be found naturally in animal products such as fish, meat, eggs, poultry and dairy products such as milk, cheese, and yoghurt. It does not typically occur in plant foods.
Plant-based milk and cereals that are fortified with vitamin B-12 or a supplementation, especially for vegans is recommended for vegans.