Last week I mentioned B12 and how extremely important this vitamin is. Vit B12 is a nutrient needed by the body’s nerve and blood cells. It helps make DNA which is in all cells. Absorbable B12 is limited to animals’ foods and not plants, as plants neither make nor require this nutrient as it is only produced by certain bacteria and archaea. Plants only contain analogues meaning they are molecules that resemble vitamin B12 in structure, but appear biologically inactive.
B12 production and absorption
B12 is produced below the ileum in the intestines too low for it to be absorbed back into the body so it needs to be consumed. There are 2 steps required for the body to absorb B12 from food 1) hydrochloric acid in stomach separates B12 from protein to which it is attached in food. 2) Combines with intrinsic factor a protein made in stomach and is then absorbed. The World Journal of Gastroenterology found a prevalence of about 15% in the elderly with a B12 deficiency. According to the Harvard Medical School up to 30% of people ages 50 and over suffer from atrophic gastritis, a thinning of the stomach lining. As such reduced stomach acid as we age and or thinning of the stomach lining all reduces the amount of B12 absorbed. Also, Vegans were cited as most at risk for developing a B12 deficiency as the only reliable dietary sources of vitamin B12 are animal-derived products. Even lacto-vegetarians where eggs and dairy products are eaten, on average, consumed less than half the adult Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of 2.4 mcg of B12.
B12 deficiency and its effects
Vitamin B12 and folic acid or folate are needed to produce healthy red blood cells that can divide and produce functionally. With either a B12 or folate deficiency a type of anemia can develop called megaloblastic anemia. This type of anemia is where the number of red blood cells is lower than normal are not produced normally and instead come out as large immature cells. Because the cells are large, they may not be able to exit bone marrow to enter the bloodstream. This is crucial as red blood cells transport oxygen throughout the body. When your body doesn’t have enough red blood cells, your tissues and organs don’t get enough oxygen. Ample folic acid can actually hide a B12 deficiency and this can cause serious consequences. B12 protects the nervous system and without it, permanent damage can result:
- Numbness and tingling in the hands and feet
- Difficulty walking
- Muscle weakness
- Memory loss
Symptoms tend to develop slowly and may not be recognized immediately and may be passed off as something else. These symptoms include:
- Weakness and fatigue
- Light-headedness and dizziness
- Palpitations and rapid heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
- A sore tongue that has a red, beefy appearance
- Nausea or poor appetite
- Weight loss
- Yellowish tinge to the skin and eyes
People will give the argument that some humans and other animals that are purely vegetarian live fine without any effects, witnessed from people in different parts of the world. This is very important to note, as their environment, hygiene and food harvesting practices vary drastically from ours. In fact, purely vegetarian or specifically vegan areas in India or Iran have shown to get their B12 sources from the soil they plant their vegetables in and the water they drink. The soil in which plants are grown is a night soil, which is human manure (feces) which has B12 bacteria in it. Once harvested these plants are eaten unwashed which have the soil still present on them as well as the water, they drink that are contaminated with bacterial B12 from feces. This is how they are saved from a B12 deficiency, but what saves them could potentially kill most people, not indigenous to the area or at very least make them gravely ill. Interestingly enough people living in these areas showed a larger growth of microflora as their gut appears to modify the types of bacteria in it. This could be why they can handle these additional potentially dangerous bacteria that most could not. This is so prevalent as a study on Indian immigrants in the UK experienced higher incidence of B12 deficiency because of improved hygiene and reduced intake contaminated food and water than their counter parts back home. Even other animals as chimpanzees or pandas will favour ripe fruit where insects are found that coincidently high in B12. Terminate, crickets and grubs are all high sources of B12
Infants of Vegan Mothers
Vegan or near vegan mothers who breastfeed have to be very careful as B12 deficiency incidents are very high in these infants. The fetus first obtains its initial store of B12 through the placenta and under normal conditions will have enough stored for up to 3 months. Repeated pregnancies of B12 deficient mothers have even more chance of B12 infant deficiency. Which brings up about long-term neurologic consequences – severe developmental abnormalities and irreversible neurological damage for these infants.
Vegetarians/Vegans or others with certain issues as the elderly mentioned above should have their B12 monitored. Supplementation and foods fortified with B12 should all be considered. If new to being vegetarian/vegan you most likely will have B12 reserves for up to 3 years.
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Mikkie Nettles, Certified Personal Trainer/Holistic & Sports Nutritionist
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