Most children and adults in the United States consume recommended amounts of vitamin B12. Some people—particularly older adults, those with pernicious anemia, and those with reduced levels of stomach acidity (hypochlorhydria or achlorhydria) or intestinal disorders—have difficulty absorbing vitamin B12 from food and, in some cases, oral supplements. As a result, vitamin B12 deficiency is common, affecting between 1.5% and 15% of the general population. Evidence from the Framingham Offspring Study suggests that the prevalence of vitamin B12 deficiency in young adults might be greater than previously assumed. This study found that the percentage of participants in three age groups (26–49 years, 50–64 years, and 65 years and older) with deficient blood levels of vitamin B12 was similar. The study also found that individuals who took a supplement containing vitamin B12 or consumed fortified cereal more than four times per week were much less likely to have a vitamin B12 deficiency.
Individuals who have trouble absorbing vitamin B12 from foods, as well as vegetarians who consume no animal foods, might benefit from vitamin B12-fortified foods, oral vitamin B12 supplements, or vitamin B12 injections.
Vitamin B12 Deficiency
Vitamin B12 deficiency is characterized by megaloblastic anemia, fatigue, weakness, constipation, loss of appetite, and weight loss. Neurological changes, such as numbness and tingling in the hands and feet, can also occur. Additional symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency include difficulty maintaining balance, depression, confusion, dementia, poor memory, and soreness of the mouth or tongue. The neurological symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency can occur without anemia, so early diagnosis and intervention is important to avoid irreversible damage. During infancy, signs of a vitamin B12 deficiency include failure to thrive, movement disorders, developmental delays, and megaloblastic anemia. Many of these symptoms are general and can result from a variety of medical conditions other than vitamin B12 deficiency.
Typically, vitamin B12 deficiency is treated with vitamin B12 injections, since this method bypasses potential barriers to absorption. However, high doses of oral vitamin B12 may also be effective. The authors of a review of randomized controlled trials comparing oral with intramuscular vitamin B12 concluded that 2,000 mcg of oral vitamin B12 daily, followed by a decreased daily dose of 1,000 mcg and then 1,000 mcg weekly and finally, monthly might be as effective as intramuscular administration. Overall, an individual patient’s ability to absorb vitamin B12 is the most important factor in determining whether vitamin B12 should be administered orally or via injection. In most countries, the practice of using intramuscular vitamin B12 to treat vitamin B12 deficiency has remained unchanged.
Folic acid and vitamin B12
Large amounts of folic acid can mask the damaging effects of vitamin B12 deficiency by correcting the megaloblastic anemia caused by vitamin B12 deficiency without correcting the neurological damage that also occurs. Moreover, preliminary evidence suggests that high serum folate levels might not only mask vitamin B12 deficiency and could also exacerbate the anemia and worsen the cognitive symptoms associated with vitamin B12 deficiency. Permanent nerve damage can occur if vitamin B12 deficiency is not treated. For these reasons, folic acid intake from fortified food and supplements should not exceed 1,000 mcg daily in healthy adults.
Groups at Risk of Vitamin B12 Deficiency
The main causes of vitamin B12 deficiency include vitamin B12 malabsorption from food, pernicious anemia, postsurgical malabsorption, and dietary deficiency. However, in many cases, the cause of vitamin B12 deficiency is unknown. The following groups are among those most likely to be vitamin B12 deficient.
Atrophic gastritis, a condition affecting 10%–30% of older adults, decreases secretion of hydrochloric acid in the stomach, resulting in decreased absorption of vitamin B12. Decreased hydrochloric acid levels might also increase the growth of normal intestinal bacteria that use vitamin B12, further reducing the amount of vitamin B12 available to the body.
Individuals with atrophic gastritis are unable to absorb the vitamin B12 that is naturally present in food. Most, however, can absorb the synthetic vitamin B12 added to fortified foods and dietary supplements.
Individuals with pernicious anemia
Pernicious anemia, a condition that affects 1%–2% of older adults, is characterized by a lack of intrinsic factor. Individuals with pernicious anemia cannot properly absorb vitamin B12 in the gastrointestinal tract. Pernicious anemia is usually treated with intramuscular vitamin B12. However, approximately 1% of oral vitamin B12 can be absorbed passively in the absence of intrinsic factor, suggesting that high oral doses of vitamin B12 might also be an effective treatment.
Individuals with gastrointestinal disorders
Individuals with stomach and small intestine disorders, such as celiac disease and Crohn’s disease, may be unable to absorb enough vitamin B12 from food to maintain healthy body stores. Subtly reduced cognitive function resulting from early vitamin B12 deficiency might be the only initial symptom of these intestinal disorders, followed by megaloblastic anemia and dementia.
Individuals who have had gastrointestinal surgery
Surgical procedures in the gastrointestinal tract, such as weight loss surgery or surgery to remove all or part of the stomach, often result in a loss of cells that secrete hydrochloric acid and intrinsic factor. This reduces the amount of vitamin B12, particularly food-bound vitamin B12, that the body releases and absorbs. Surgical removal of the distal ileum also can result in the inability to absorb vitamin B12. Individuals undergoing these surgical procedures should be monitored preoperatively and postoperatively for several nutrient deficiencies, including vitamin B12 deficiency.
Strict vegetarians and vegans are at greater risk than lacto-ovo vegetarians and nonvegetarians of developing vitamin B12 deficiency because natural food sources of vitamin B12 are limited to animal foods. Fortified breakfast cereals and fortified nutritional yeasts are some of the only sources of vitamin B12 from plants and can be used as dietary sources of vitamin B12 for strict vegetarians and vegans. Fortified foods vary in formulation, so it is important to read the Nutrition Facts labels on food products to determine the types and amounts of added nutrients they contain.
Pregnant and lactating women who follow strict vegetarian diets and their infants
Vitamin B12 crosses the placenta during pregnancy and is present in breast milk. Exclusively breastfed infants of women who consume no animal products may have very limited reserves of vitamin B12 and can develop vitamin B12 deficiency within months of birth. Undetected and untreated vitamin B12 deficiency in infants can result in severe and permanent neurological damage.
The American Dietetic Association recommends supplemental vitamin B12 for vegans and lacto-ovo vegetarians during both pregnancy and lactation to ensure that enough vitamin B12 is transferred to the fetus and infant. Pregnant and lactating women who follow strict vegetarian or vegan diets should consult with a pediatrician regarding vitamin B12 supplements for their infants and children.
Vitamin B12 and Health
Cardiovascular disease is the most common cause of death in industrialized countries, such as the United States, and is on the rise in developing countries. Risk factors for cardiovascular disease include elevated low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels, high blood pressure, low high-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels, obesity, and diabetes.
Elevated homocysteine levels have also been identified as an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Homocysteine is a sulfur-containing amino acid derived from methionine that is normally present in blood. Elevated homocysteine levels are thought to promote thrombogenesis, impair endothelial vasomotor function, promote lipid peroxidation, and induce vascular smooth muscle proliferation. Vitamin B12, folate, and vitamin B6 are involved in homocysteine metabolism. Evidence supports a role for folic acid and vitamin B12 supplements in lowering homocysteine levels, but results from several large prospective studies have not shown that these supplements decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Dementia and cognitive function
Researchers have long been interested in the potential connection between vitamin B12 deficiency and dementia. A deficiency in vitamin B12 causes an accumulation of homocysteine in the blood and might decrease levels of substances needed to metabolize neurotransmitters. Observational studies show positive associations between elevated homocysteine levels and the incidence of both Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Low vitamin B12 status has also been positively associated with cognitive decline.
Despite evidence that vitamin B12 lowers homocysteine levels and correlations between low vitamin B12 levels and cognitive decline, research has not shown that vitamin B12 has an independent effect on cognition. In one randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, 195 subjects aged 70 years or older with no or moderate cognitive impairment received 1,000 mcg vitamin B12, 1,000 mcg vitamin B12 plus 400 mcg folic acid, or placebo for 24 weeks. Treatment with vitamin B12 plus folic acid reduced homocysteine concentrations by 36%, but neither vitamin B12 treatment nor vitamin B12 plus folic acid treatment improved cognitive function.
Additional large clinical trials of vitamin B12 supplementation are needed to assess whether vitamin B12 has a direct effect on cognitive function and dementia .
Energy and endurance
Due to its role in energy metabolism, vitamin B12 is frequently promoted as an energy enhancer and an athletic performance and endurance booster. These claims are based on the fact that correcting the megaloblastic anemia caused by vitamin B12 deficiency should improve the associated symptoms of fatigue and weakness. However, vitamin B12 supplementation appears to have no beneficial effect on performance in the absence of a nutritional deficit.
Health Risks from Excessive Vitamin B12
In Dietary Reference Intakes: Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Vitamin B12, Pantothenic Acid, Biotin, and Choline, the IOM states that “no adverse effects have been associated with excess vitamin B12 intake from food and supplements in healthy individuals” .
Findings from intervention trials support these conclusions. In the NORVIT and HOPE 2 trials, vitamin B12 supplementation (in combination with folic acid and vitamin B6) did not cause any serious adverse events when administered at doses of 0.4 mg for 40 months (NORVIT trial) and 1.0 mg for 5 years (HOPE 2 trial).
Adapted from National Institute for Health Dietary Supplements Fact Sheet for Professionals – Vitamin B 12