From our blood cells to our nerves to our very DNA, vitamin B12 is a critical vitamin for our bodies. (It’s so important, in fact, that our guts have developed special receptors for it.) But there’s a lot of confusion about this important nutrient. For example, B12 deficiency is not obvious, and some of its symptoms are irreversible (nerve damage for example). On the flip side, despite what some supplements promise, it won’t boost your energy if you’re not deficient. To shed light on what to know and how to find that Goldilocks “just right” amount, here’s our very own Luke Bucci, Ritual’s Head of Research and Development.
Why do we need B12? What does it do in the body?
Humans need vitamin B12 for life - it is absolutely essential. Vitamin B12 is actually a series of very closely related, rather complicated molecules. One of its major functions is to make DNA for new cell growth (no new DNA translates to no new cells, including blood cells). B12 deficiency can also lead to nerve problems, poor mood, cognition and mental functions. Couple those issues with less energy and physical stamina, and you can see why skimping on this vitamin can really affect your health.
Is there a form that’s best? What should we be looking for on labels?
We prefer methylcobalamin (MeB12). It’s the form of B12 you’d find the most of in our bodies and in foods. However, supplements and fortified foods tend to use a different form - cyanocobalamin - because it has a longer shelf life than methylcobalamin. Our bodies need to and mostly can easily convert cyanocobalamin to MeB12, but there are potential problems with conversions. Cyanocobalamin also contains a cyanide molecule instead of a methyl one, but the amount of cyanide in cyanocobalamin is tiny and far less than what we get from healthy foods. So despite what you might read on the web, it is not a safety concern. That said, at Ritual, we cut to the chase and give you what is in healthy foods, what is most active in your body and what our bodies are really looking for in B12 - methylcobalamin.
What are the symptoms of B12 deficiency?
Tiredness, fatigue, weakness, constipation, numbness or tingling hands and feet, balance issues, forgetfulness, confusion and sad/grouchy mood are all possible signs that you need more B12.
What foods contain B12?
If you’re you’re a non-vegan, you can get it from animal foods - meats, dairy and eggs. Vegetarians and vegans have a harder time. Nori and dulse seaweeds are the only viable sources of B12 for strict vegans, and you need to eat a lot. Other algae (like spirulina), seaweeds and certain kinds of mushrooms have what I like to call pseudo-B12, which does not work in the human body.
So if you’re vegetarian or vegan, how hard is it to meet your RDA?
If you’re a strict vegan, be aware that studies have confirmed that you’re likely to be deficient in B12, unless you’re taking supplements with B12. If you’re just a non-meat eater, then you have a better chance of getting enough, but many studies show that even then it can be tough. Food fortification has helped somewhat (though if you’re gluten-free, you’re out of luck, as you mostly get it in breads and grains). My rule of thumb is that if you’re not eating meat, B12 supplementation is usually a good idea.
Do vegans need a B complex or will B12 alone suffice?
In general, B12 alone is good enough because most plant foods have plenty of the other B vitamins (though vitamin B6 can also sometimes be a problem).
Are there any other populations who need more? Or health conditions that might cause a deficiency?
According to the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements, there are several groups that need to pay attention to getting plenty of B12: older adults, anyone with less stomach acid (including taking OTC drugs that block stomach acid), alcoholics and anyone with GI conditions that hamper absorption.
Can you get too much?
No - B12 has been shown to be safe even from massive injectable doses or oral megadoses. It does have cobalt, but the amount is so small that you’d have to eats handfuls of pure B12 and not much else to even get close to cobalt toxicity. If you ingest excess B12, your body simply does not absorb it - you can figure out where that ends up.
If B12 is found in animal foods, where does B12 for vegan supplements come from? How can it be called vegan?
Chemical synthesis is the major source of B12 in any form. Many supplement providers simply wash off the resin used for that and throw it into vitamin pills. They don’t mention it on product labels because in small amounts it is considered a “processing aid.” Ritual takes great care to source methylcobalamin without this resin because we see it as plastic and unnatural. Instead, we use an inert carrier to boost the volume of B12 material (usually starch, fiber or a calcium salt) so that is can be evenly distributed when mixing all the ingredients that go into a batch of our vitamins. That way, every pill has the same amount of B12 as the label says it does. We obsess over the details so you don’t have to.