Vitamin B12

By Bonnie Jenkins, Advanced Natural Wellness

If you’ve got flagging energy levels, your doctor might suggest taking vitamin B12. But you don’t have to have a deficiency to experience problems. Recent studies show that even the low end of so-called “normal” B12 levels can create havoc with your health, prompting scientists to view this nutrient in a whole new light.

Some experts even suggest that B12 could rival vitamin D as the newest nutrient that many Americans – especially older people – don’t get enough of. But boosting your levels can be as easy as popping a pill. Here’s why you need more of this important vitamin.

Boost Your Brain

A high B12 status helps you maintain a healthy brain. In one recent study of nearly 6,000 seniors at the University of Oxford, researchers found that older people with lower-than-average B12 levels were six times more likely to show signs of brain shrinkage – a possible forerunner to impaired cognitive function and Alzheimer’s disease. Low B12 levels can negatively impact the brain in another way. B12 helps keep homocysteine levels under control – an important factor since high homocysteine concentrations can damage neurons in the brain.

Even seemingly adequate B12 levels may impair cognition in older people. In another study, a high blood level of methylmalonic acid (a sensitive measure of B12 status that rises when the body has too little B12) predicted faster declines in cognitive health. But this nutrient’s role in brain health doesn’t end there. Low levels have also been linked to depression. A classic study from the National Institute of Aging found women with low B12 levels were more than twice as likely to develop depression as women with normal B12 status. Newer research from Spain confirms the connection, but found that a low B12 intake led to more depression only among women, not men.

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Beef Up Your Bones

It turns out that there’s more to bone health than calcium and vitamin D. B12 plays a critical role, too. In the Framingham Offspring Osteoporosis Study of 2,567 men and women, those with low B12 levels had lower-than-average bone mineral density. In another study, researchers found that frail women were more likely to have low B12 levels.

Being frail increases the likelihood of falls, which can lead to fractures. B12 appears to help bones by aiding osteoblasts (bone-building cells) and lowering homocysteine levels, which (at high levels) weaken bones by interfering with collagen cross-linking.

More May Be Better

As we age, our stomachs produce less gastric acid, which reduces the body’s ability to absorb naturally-occurring B12 from foods like red meat. People who regularly take antacids like Prilosec and Zantac increase their risk for impaired B12 absorption even more. To make up for these conditions, it’s smart to take supplement B12.

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But how much should you take? That depends on your current levels. The next time you’re scheduled for a blood test, ask your doctor to check your B12 levels. But, even if they comeback as “normal,” that doesn’t mean you have optimum levels for good health.

A B12 level of less than 350 picomoles per liter or less than 474 picograms per milliliter is not optimal. There’s no official upper limit for B12 intake, so overdoing it isn’t a big worry. However, taking high doses of 1,000 mcg. or getting B12 injections aren’t necessary unless your blood levels are truly suboptimal.

Synthetic B12 – the kind found in supplements and fortified foods like cereals – doesn’t require stomach acid for absorption, so it’s particularly well-suited for older people. While supplementation is the best way to ensure that you are getting enough B12, adding foods rich in this vitamin can also boost your levels. B12 is most abundant in protein-rich animal foods. But not all of these foods are equal. For instance, one study shows that dairy products and fish were better than meat and eggs for raising B12 blood levels.

One Last Thing …

While brains and bones are the most apparent targets of increasing your vitamin B12 levels, your eyes and ears may benefit, too. Harvard researchers discovered that women over 40 with higher B12 levels had a 34 percent lower risk of developing age-related macular degeneration. By lowering homocysteine levels and increasing antioxidant levels, blood vessel function in the eye improved after supplementing with 1,000 mcg. of B12.

There may also be a connection between B12 deficiency and hearing. One study found that low levels of vitamin B12 were linked to a higher risk of hearing loss in a small group of healthy women in their 60s.

Research Brief …

Can you spare seven and a half minutes a week to help ward off diabetes? A new Scottish clinical trial has found that spurts of high-intensity exercise can significantly improve factors like insulin resistance and glucose tolerance linked to the risk of type 2 diabetes. The researchers discovered that burning just 250 extra calories a week significantly improved how well insulin functioned in young sedentary men.

The 16 couch potatoes the scientists recruited participated in six training sessions over two weeks, totaling just 15 minutes of intense exercise. Each every-other-day workout consisted of four to six 30-second sprints on a stationary bike. By the end of the two weeks, the men showed a 23 percent improvement on how well their bodies cleared glucose from the bloodstream. Plus, the benefits lasted for 10 days after the workouts stopped.

If you are at risk of diabetes or suffer from insulin resistance, give these mini-workouts a try. Just make sure that you check with your doctor first, then ease into your exercise program.


Babraj B, et al. “Extremely short duration high intensity interval training substantially improves insulin action in young healthy males.” BMC Endocrine Disorders. 2009;9:3.

Christen WG, et al. “Folic acid, pyridoxine, and cyanocobalamin combination treatment and age-related macular degeneration in women: the Women’s Antioxidant and Folic Acid Cardiovascular Study.” Archives of Internal Medicine. 2009;169:335-341.

Sánchez-Villegas A, et al. “Association between folate, vitamin B(6) and vitamin B(12) intake and depression in the SUN cohort study.” Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics. 2009;22:122-133.

Vaes BL, et al. “Vitamin B(12) deficiency stimulates osteoclastogenesis via increased homocysteine and methylmalonic acid.” Calcified Tissue International. 2009;84:413-422.

Vogiatzoglou A, et al. “Vitamin B12 status and rate of brain volume loss in community-dwelling elderly.” Neurology. 2008;71:826-832

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