Vitamin B-12 for Brain Health
Updated: Jul 11, 2022
Make sure you are getting enough vitamin B-12. This vitamin supports brain function, and it is especially important for us as we age and begin to have more difficulty absorbing this vitamin from food sources.
Be on the alert for a possible deficiency in vitamin B-12. We need Vitamin B-12 to improve focus and concentration as well as reduce the chances of getting dementia.
Why We Need Vitamin B-12
We need Vitamin B-12 to help form our red blood cells and our DNA, but B-12 is also important for the development and function of our brain and nerve cells.
Vitamin B-12 is found naturally in animal products: meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products. This is the reason why vegans (who do not eat animal products) really need to check their B-12 levels and take supplements if their B-12 levels are low.
Vitamin B-12 binds to the protein we eat and then in our digestive system it is separated from that protein so it can be absorbed into our body.
If we do not have a balanced digestive system, the B-12 may not be separated from the food protein and then it will not be absorbed into our body. This can happen if there is not enough hydrochloric acid in our stomach to separate B-12 from the food protein.
This malabsorption of B-12 can be due to a health condition, but it also tends to happen as we age. Research shows that there is an increasing risk of vitamin B12 deficiency in the elderly due to low hydrochloric acid in their stomach.
If there is a problem of malabsorption through the digestive system, B-12 supplements can be taken sublingual (under the tongue) so that the B-12 will be absorbed through the tissue straight to the bloodstream, rather than be absorbed through the digestive system.
Vitamin B-12 shots are also available for those who have low levels of B-12, especially if they are already experiencing B-12 symptoms of deficiency.
It is important for everyone to check their vitamin B-12 levels.
How Vitamin B-12 Help our Brains
A deficiency in vitamin B-12 can cause tiredness and insomnia. Lack of sleep can lead to other health issues as well.
How do we feel when we don’t get enough sleep? Besides most probably feeling short tempered, we also have difficulty concentrating.
Vitamin B-12 influences Melatonin secretion and Melatonin helps us sleep. Sometimes Vitamin B-12 can improve sleep and as a result we will be more focused.
Vitamin B-12 also helps with memory and learning because it helps with communication between nerve cells. Vitamin B-12 is linked to the production of a neurotransmitter – the chemical between nerve cells that allows information to pass between them. When there is less neurotransmitter, it affects our focus and concentration.
Bill Caradonna, R.Ph., N.D, a registered Pharmacist and Licensed Naturopathic physician writes:
“I have not seen anything that has worked as dramatically as B12 shots for improving focus or concentration in adults of all ages”
I just want to emphasize the importance of the neurotransmitter and how a deficiency of B-12 can affect it. Most of the medications that are given to people who have Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia, help build up the amount of neurotransmitter between the nerve cells.
Making sure there is enough vitamin B-12 can improve cognition! If someone is diagnosed with dementia, always check B-12 levels.
B-12 Reduces the Risk of Dementia
A deficiency in Vitamin B-12 may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia.
A deficiency in B12 and other B vitamins can cause a higher production of an amino acid in our blood called homocysteine. A high level of homocysteine has been shown to cause a higher risk of heart disease and stroke. What is less known is that high levels of homocysteine are also associated with brain degeneration.
In his book “The Better Brain Book”, Dr. David Perlmutter writes:
“High levels of homocysteine can cause direct damage to the hippocampus, the memory center for the brain that is most affected by Alzheimer’s disease. … elevated homocysteine levels are associated with high levels of inflammation, which is believed to play a role in the formation of amyloid plaques in the brain.”
It's important to check levels of homocysteine and make sure they are not being raised due to a Vitamin B-12 deficiency.
A seven-year preliminary study, Vitamin B12 May Reduce Risk of Alzheimer's Disease , shows that vitamin B12 may protect against Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers found a relationship between lower B-12 levels and higher homocysteine levels that increased the chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease:
On a personal note, when my mother was still in the early stages dementia, I directed my father to give my mother vitamin B-12 daily.
To my surprise, a few weeks later my mother called me on the telephone by herself. I was quite shocked. My mother had not been able to find my long-distance phone number and call me by herself for over half a year.
I can only attribute this change to her taking vitamin B-12!
Do Vegans Have to Take Vitamin B-12?
To answer this question I’m going to tell you about what happened to Emmy-award winning cooking show host Christina Pirello.
I was fortunate to attend a cooking class with Christina several years ago when she visited. I was so impressed by her knowledge and experience that I went to every cooking class she gave while she was here. I guess you can say she became a guru for me in the field of nutrition.
Christina’s story is quite remarkable. In her early 20’s she was diagnosed with terminal cancer and told she only has about 9 months to live. Fortunately she learned about the macrobiotic diet which put her in remission, and Christina survived. Understanding that food has the power to heal, Christina became a macrobiotic teacher and chef. Today she is in her 60's!
With so much info circling the internet, it’s important for me to find info that is true, and Christina is one of the sources I trust. Several years ago when I discovered that my B-12 levels were low, I turned to Christina’s website to learn what I should be eating to increase Vitamin B-12. I was quite surprised to read her story about her own vitamin B-12 deficiency!
You can read Christina’s full story here. which also has some great info about vitamin B12, but I’ll summarize her story for you.
Christina had a brainstem aneurysm which could have killed her. The doctors discovered that she was severely deficient in Vitamin B-12 which, as described earlier, caused her homocysteine levels to increase. This in turn caused her veins and arteries to become very thin which caused hemorrhaging in her brain. Yikes!
As a vegan, Christina had thought she could get enough Vitamin B-12 naturally though fermented foods, but she was dead wrong. Christina writes:
"analysis of fermented soy products, including tempeh, miso, shoyu and tamari, found no significant B12… In the final analysis, at least for the moment, the current nutritional consensus is that no plant foods can be relied on as a safe source of vitamin B12."
Christian now acknowledges that in her macrobiotic diet she did supply herself with enough vitamin B12
There are no plant sources of useable Vitamin B12 for those of us who choose not to eat any animal protein. I choose to take sublingual supplements and injections of the vitamin, rather than enriched packaged foods.
Christina’s story makes it clear as does the message on most vegan sites. If you are not eating animal products, you must take Vitamin B-12 supplements!
Which brings us to the question vegan sceptics often ask: if a vegan diet is healthy, why do you need supplements? This may be the answer.
The Need for Vitamin B-12 Supplements
The answer to why a vegan diet isn't good enough to not supplement, is that perhaps once upon a time we would have received enough vitamin B-12 from our environment, but I’m not sure we would want to do that today!
Vitamin B-12 is produced by bacteria. So if we lived in unsanitary conditions, we might be getting more vitamin B-12 from bacteria in feces and or perhaps from non-potable water. I’m not sure we would want to get our natural vitamin B-12 in this way because we would also be transmitting some pretty horrible illnesses to go with it.
If conditions were less sanitary, we might be getting more B-12 from the bacteria on the foods we eat as described on the Forks Over Knives Site.
I’ll pass on the bacteria and take vitamin B-12 supplements instead, but how much do we need to take? As I wrote in the article The Importance of Vitamin D
it is important to check your vitamin levels and ask your health practitioner how much you need to take. Until writing this article, I always assumed that because vitamin B-12 is a water soluble vitamin, which means the vitamin is not stored in the body and excess vitamins are cleared out in the urine, that I didn’t need to worry about reaching toxic levels. On the other hand fat soluble vitamins like vitamin A in Beta Carotene, that are stored in the body can be dangerous if you take too much.
So even though my B-12 levels had returned to normal, I have continued to take the higher dose of Vitamin B-12 that my doctor prescribed when my blood test showed I was deficient.
Dr. Neal Barnard, the president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, gives a very nice summary in this clip about Vitamin B-12 and says we only need to take a minimal dose to keep our levels normal.
I also found another reason to not continue taking high doses of vitamin B-12. Preliminary research showed that there may be a correlation between high dosage of Vitamin B-12 supplements and hip fracture in older women.
So get tested, consult with your health practitioner and take the minimal dose that you need of vitamin B-12.
While doing research for this article, I was also quite surprised to read besides besides anemia, insomnia, cardiovascular disease and dementia a deficiency in vitamin B-12 can also cause:
Loss of appetite
Mouth ulcers (symptom of the anemia)
In summary, vitamin B-12 supplements are not just for those of us who do not eat meat. Please check your vitamin B-12 levels and consult with your health practitioner, especially if you are older and may have poorer absorption of this very important vitamin.
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