As vegans, we catch a lot of flack for various aspects of our diet, often from people with very little understanding of nutrition themselves. In many ways, I think vegans, in general, are very good at explaining the whys and hows of veganism. One particular quip that I hear frequently though is “If being vegan is so good for you why do you have to supplement with Vitamin B12?” This irks me to no end, but what bothers me more, is that I feel like there is a lot of debate out there about B12, and it is too important to mess around with, so hopefully, we can clear some things up here.
Vitamin B12 is derived from bacteria in the soil, not from animals. The reason that animals HAVE B12, is because they graze on this dirt. When a cow chews on grass, she is usually getting some clumps of dirt along with it that contain B12 (of course, this is cows that are even allowed to eat grass…we’ll get to that). Once upon a time, people didn’t have running water and kitchen sinks, and when they ate their vegetables, they ate some good ole dirt right along with it, and therefore B12. In the hyper sterile environments of today, we don’t eat dirty food anymore, and therefore no B12 to go along with it. Even if we did happen to eat some dirt on our potatoes or something, land has been so over-farmed over the last hundred years or so, that the B12 levels are not what they once were anyway. So the solution is to eat animals, right? I mean, that makes sense, right? That would be the “natural” way to get B12, or at least, that’s what they say…here’s the thing: If you think that cows, pigs and chickens are happily grazing on grass and getting their B12 the natural way, think again. They are fed filler foods that have been synthesized with vitamins like, you guessed it, B12.
This doesn’t mean we should write off B12 altogether. It is a very important vitamin! B12 keeps the nerve and blood cells healthy, it also helps to create DNA and prevents certain kinds of anemia. B12 is stored in your liver for anywhere from 3-7 years. This means that if you have been vegan for 4 years, and have never given any thought to your B12 intake, you better start or you coule be in for a world of trouble. By the time you start to see symptoms, it may be too late, but that is no reason to not take control of your B12 levels now. Some signs of a B12 deficiency are:[half]
- loss of appetite
- poor memory
- sore mouth or tongue
- weight loss
- tingling in hands or feet
- irreversible nerve damage
We don’t need much, only about 4-7 micrograms (mcg) per day, but that is how much we need to actually absorb, which means we need to take much more. The good things is that. The good news is that B12 is a water-soluble vitamin, so you don’t have to worry about taking too much, (some supplements have alarmingly high numbers on them, but it is nothing to worry about) you just pee out what your body doesn’t need. It is good to shoot for 250 mcg per day or 2500 mcg per week (again, don’t worry if your supplement says more than that). But what supplements should you use? Always make sure that your B12 comes from a vegan source; the easiest way to know this is that the label will say vegan. But there are different forms of B12 too! Here’s where it can get a little confusing….
“There are four forms of B12: the methyl and (deoxy)adenosyl- (these are the forms found in the human body), and hydroxy and cyano forms.
Most industrial fermentations produce the hydroxy form; during purification it is converted to cyanocobalamin because of its stability. The methyl form is made by treating the cyano form with a reducing agent and methyl iodide. The body converts the cyanocobalamin to its active form. The released cyanide is insignificant. The body has at least two cyanide detoxification enzymes (one in the liver, the other in the kidney) to handle dietary cyanide. These enzymes require adequate amounts of sulfur containing amino acids to be effective.” -Email from Red Star
Basically what this is saying is that most fortified foods (think soy milk, cereal, nutritional yeast), are fortified with B12 in the form of cyanocobalamin (pronounced: sin’-a-ko-ball’-a-mean), which is a form that is not found in the human body, in fact, it is not found in nature at all. This translates to a lower absorption rate, a cyanide waste product (although it is a safe amount), and less effectiveness. I am not saying that cyanocobalamin is BAD for you., I am saying that methylcobalamin is much better.
In addition to methylcobalamin (pronounced: meth’-ill-ko-ball’-a-mean) being the form of B12 that is found in the human body, making it easier to absorb, so you get more of it, it also has been thought that (although not 100% proven yet) that it has some other good effects on people that cyanocobalamin does not. Methylcobalamin is the specific vitamin needed for the health of the nervous system, and also for vision. Methyl B12 seems to help people who have out of whack sleep cycles regulate their sleep, probably by helping the body to produce melatonin (the sleep hormone). Because of this, it helps to regulate the circadian rhythm (your internal 24-hour clock), which in turn helps to regulate the amount of the stress hormone, cortisol, being produced. All around, methylcobalamin is the way to go.
Ways to take your B12:
- Sublingual tablets: Pop one of these onder your tongue every day (depending on the amount). They’re cheap, dont taste bad, and are convenient, but can sometimes take from 5-10 minutes to dissolve.
- Spray: This is my favorite. Spray once in your mouth. That’s it. It’s fast, easy, and just tastes sweet.
- Patch: I don’t have much knowledge of this personally, and I would love to know more about it.
- Injection: Obviously this is the least convenient, but the most effective for someone who is already deficient. This is administered by a doctor, for as long as they say that you need it.
There are a several different ways to take B12, but however you do it, make sure that you DO it! I leave my spray right in the bathroom next to my tooth brush, so that I can take it in the morning and forget about it.
What have your experiences with Vitamin B12 been? Do you supplement? What do you use?