Vitamins are essential nutrients that our bodies need to function properly and stay healthy. Our bodies can’t make vitamins on their own so we rely on food, sun, or supplements to help us get our daily dose of vitamins. Vitamin B12 is one of the eight B-vitamins. It helps keep your body’s blood and nerve cells healthy and helps make DNA, the genetic material in all of your cells. Vitamin B12 also helps prevent megaloblastic anemia, a blood condition that makes people tired and weak.
The amount of vitamin B12 you need each day depends on your age. Children need less than adults. Pregnant and breastfeeding women need the most. Most people in the U.S. get enough vitamin B12 just from the foods they eat but there are a number of medical conditions that make absorbing vitamin B12 from food difficult. Absorbing vitamin B12 also gets harder as we age. Many older adults don’t have enough hydrochloric acid in their stomach to absorb the vitamin B12 that’s naturally present in food. People over 50 should get most of their vitamin B12 from fortified foods or dietary supplements because, in most cases, their bodies can absorb vitamin B12 from these sources.
Vitamin B12 can be naturally in many animal foods and is also sometimes added to fortified foods. Foods made of plants (fruits, vegetables, grains) do not naturally contain vitamin B12 but may be fortified with it. Animal foods that contain vitamin B12 include fish, meat, chicken, dairy, and eggs. The most commonly fortified foods contain vitamin B12 are cereals and nutritional yeast.
There are also a lot of supplements on the market that contain vitamin B12. It is found in most multivitamins and B-complex vitamins. When you look at a supplement label, vitamin B12 uses several names including cyanocobalamin, adenosylcobalamin, methylcobalamin, and hydroxycobalamin. You may find supplements in pill that you swallow or ones place sublingually under the tongue. Research has not shown that any form of supplemental vitamin B12 is better than the others. If you are deficient in vitamin B12, a healthcare professional may prescribe you vitamin B12 as a shot or as a gel that’s sprayed in the nose.
If you don’t get enough vitamin B12 through diet or supplementation, it is possible to develop vitamin B12 deficiency. It can take several years to develop, though, as your body stores 1,000 to 2,000 times as much vitamin B12 as you’d typically eat in a day. Symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency usually start as feeling tired or weak. These are the symptoms of megaloblastic anemia. You might also have pale skin, heart palpitations, loss of appetite, weight loss, and infertility. Your hands and feet might become numb or tingly. Other symptoms include problems with balance, depression, confusion, dementia, poor memory, and soreness of the mouth or tongue.
Vitamin B12 has been getting some hype lately. Manufacturers often promote vitamin B12 supplements for energy, athletic performance, and endurance. But vitamin B12 doesn’t provide these benefits in people who get enough B12 from their diet.