Vitamin B12 is an important vitamin for the blood, heart, brain, nerves and is significantly involved in various metabolic processes in the body. In Germany, up to 25 percent of men and up to 50 percent of women are affected by a B12 deficiency. In this article we explain why this is the case and why especially vegans or people with gastrointestinal diseases are affected.
What are the functions of vitamin B12 in the body?
Vitamin B12 is involved in the formation of blood and cells, in energy metabolism and the body's own detoxification, it also protects the cardiovascular system and is indispensable for the brain and nervous system. It is also essential for the development of nerve cells in the spinal cord.
The term vitamin B12 does not stand for a single chemical substance, but for several compounds. Cobalamin, as it is also called, must be actively transported through the mucosal cells in the intestine into the body. A special protein, the so-called intrinsic factor, is also necessary for vitamin B12 absorption. It is produced by the stomach mucosa and enters the intestine together with the food pulp.
What foods contain vitamin B12?
Vitamin B12 is an essential vitamin, which means that the body cannot produce the vitamin itself. Instead, it must be taken in with food. It is produced exclusively by bacteria (and blue-green algae) and is only found in animal foods. It is therefore easier to become vitamin B12 deficient on a strict vegan diet. Good food sources are meat, fish, eggs and milk (products). The food richest in vitamin B12 is liver. In plant foods, vitamin B12 is only present if bacterial fermentation has occurred (e.g. in sauerkraut), but then only in very small amounts, which are not enough to cover the recommended intake.
How much vitamin B12 do we need?
The recommended intake for adults is 4.0 µg vitamin B12 per day. Pregnant women are recommended to take 4.5 µg per day, breastfeeding women 5.5 µg per day.
How do I recognise a vitamin B12 deficiency?
Vitamin B12 deficiency is more common than often thought. A deficiency can be nutritionally related to a vegan diet, where no meat, fish, dairy products or eggs are eaten. For people on a vegan diet, our pharmacists recommend supplemental intake of vitamin B12 in the form of a supplement. Special care should be taken with fully breastfed babies of vegan mothers. These babies are at increased risk of developing a vitamin B12 deficiency. A B12 deficiency should also be avoided at all costs during pregnancy.
Proportionally, vitamin B12 is stored in large quantities in the liver. What is particularly deceptive is that deficiency symptoms often only appear after years of insufficient intake. Too much vitamin B12 can hardly be absorbed because the body does not absorb unneeded amounts through the intestinal wall.
Vitamin B12 deficiency in chronic inflammation of the stomach
Chronic inflammation of the stomach (CED) or gastrointestinal diseases can favour a vitamin B12 deficiency, because on the one hand the inflamed intestinal mucosa has absorption problems and on the other hand vitamins are excreted more quickly due to chronic diarrhoea. A deficiency can also develop if acid blockers are taken for too long. These block the formation of gastric acid in the cells of the gastric mucosa. However, these cells also form the intrinsic factor, which is necessary for the absorption of B12 but is missing due to the stomach medication.
Vitamin B12 deficiency common in older people
Vitamin B12 deficiency is also often observed in older people. In this population group, an undersupply of vitamin B12 occurs, for example, due to mucosal changes in the stomach. However, certain medications are often prescribed (such as acid blockers or diabetes medications) that promote a B12 deficiency. Antibiotics, cortisone, psychotropic drugs and many others hit the stomach, disturb the digestion and worsen the absorption of vitamins.
If you suspect a vitamin B12 deficiency, it is best to contact your family doctor. He or she can quickly and easily determine the deficiency with a laboratory test. If you have further questions about vitamin B12 or supplementation with food supplements, please contact our pharmacists at Saint Charles Pharmacy Vienna or Berlin. We will be happy to advise you.