The Facts About Vitamin B12

Article #14: The Facts About Vitamin B12 by Robin Hur

Vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient; it is involved in the production of red blood cells and in the utilization of nervous system-dependent carbohydrates. The inability to absorb B12 leads to so-called “pernicious anemia” in which abnormal red cells are formed, while a lack of B12 in the diet raises the risk of damage to nerves of the spinal cord. Inasmuch as nutritionists report that there is little, if any, of the vitamin in plant foods it behooves strict vegetarians to assure themselves of adequate supplies of B12.

A Mt. Sinai researcher suggests adults need about 0.1 microgram of B12 per day. However, this recommendation is based on observations of individuals taking conventional diets. Normal diets contain gross excesses of fat, protein and refined foods, all of which tend to elevate needs for B12.

Indian researchers found that high-fat intake causes marked B12 deficiency in laboratory animals fed normal amounts of the vitamin; saturated fats, in which beef, eggs and dairy products are extremely high, had an especially severe effect. High protein diets tend to deplete the vitamin in the blood, liver and kidneys of laboratory animals; animal proteins evidently produce more rapid loses than plant proteins. A diet dominated by refined foods more than doubled the B12 needs of baboons. Diets high in animal products, fat and refined carbohydrates lead to conditions in which absorption of B12 is inhibited in humans also.

It appears adults taking low fat, whole food vegan diets should need no more than 0.05 micrograms of B12 daily. The National Research Council recommends adults take 100 times that amount, or 5 micrograms per day. With consistent inconsistency they recommend 1.0 microgram of B12 per day for infants, which is a high multiple of what breast-fed tots get.

It’s not altogether clear that nonsmoking vegans need any B12 as such in their diets. The vitamin is normally synthesized by bacteria in the lower regions of the digestive tract and nonsmoking vegans evidently develop the capacity to absorb adequate amounts of their bacterial supplies. British researchers report that only one nonsmoking vegan is known to have suffered from “manifest symptoms and signs” of B12 deficiency. On the other hand, the serum B12 levels of British vegans tend to be very low during their first few years on a vegan regime. And as long as serum levels remain low the possibility of neurological damage persists.

There are several ways in which vegans can protect themselves against declining amounts of B12 in their blood and elsewhere. They could of course take supplements, but supplemental B12 should not be necessary if the diet itself is a sound one. To this end vegans should avoid high levels of fat and protein and avoid tobacco and refined foods. These moves will keep B12 needs down and facilitate synthesis and absorption of the vitamin. As added precautions vegans can include good sources of cobalt and/or B12 itself in their diets.

Each molecule of Vitamin B12 contains a molecule of cobalt so the diet must include a source of cobalt if the intestinal flora are to synthesize the vitamin. Seaweeds are incredibly rich in cobalt: the amount of kelp it takes to flavor a single bowl of salad contains enough cobalt to synthesize a year’s supply of B12. And there is growing evidence that raising cobalt intake raises the body’s supplies of B12.

The serum B12 levels of rabbits rise when they are fed inorganic cobalt or hay and oats grown in soil containing normal amounts of cobalt. Hamsters fed inorganic cobalt and no B12 had relatively high tissue levels of B12 and seemed to be obtaining entirely adequate amounts of the vitamin.

The Cal-Berkeley researchers who conducted the hamster study reported their result to be “a new finding among the nonruminants.” Prior to this finding, though, a Russian researcher had reported that the combination of iron, vitamin C and cobalt had a positive effect on B12 deficiency in humans.

Vegans who want to get their B12 ready-made need look no further than their gardens. An ounce of the roots of leeks, beets, and other vegetables would provide .1 to .3 micrograms of B12 which is more than a day’s needs. By eating vegetables right out of the garden one inevitably takes in a little soil and healthy soil contains healthy amounts of B12.

When livestock are taken from open areas and put in feedlots, broiler “hotels,” and hog “factories,” the animals must be given supplemental B12 to compensate for their inability to nose (or beak) around the soil. All foods in the wild tend to pick up B12-bearing soil and micro-organisms. South African researchers discovered bats that live exclusively on fruit need as much of B12 as humans. The “fruit bats” get plenty of B12 when living in the wild but when brought into captivity and fed store-bought fruits they developed severe B12 deficiency.

Seaweed contains not only enormous amounts of cobalt, but rather substantial amounts of B12 itself. Concentrations vary widely, however, ranging from 0.004 micro-grams per gram for kelp to 0.6 micrograms per gram for calothrex parientina. Two ounces of the latter would provide an adult with a whole year’s supply of B12. It would require about a third of an ounce of kelp per day to obtain all one’s B12 needs in the form of active B12 from kelp. In view of the large amount of cobalt in kelp, though, vegans should need no more than sprinkling amounts of that (or any other) seaweed.

Seaweeds are actually species of algae. Other algae, including the “moss” that grows on the north sides of trees and the “scum” that builds up in ponds, are also good sources of B12. Algae from Lake Chad is dried into B12-rich cakes which have a taste and texture not unlike cheese. You can get a week’s supply of B12 from the water you take in while swimming in a fresh water pond or an unchlorinated swimming pool.

Greens and sprouts offer the broadest possible array of vitamins and minerals: if grown in soil rich in cobalt and iodine they are apt to provide everything the body needs except a source of energy. Vegans who raise their own food can assure themselves of adequate intakes of iodine and cobalt by enriching their soil with seaweed. Those who rely on store-bought foods can include a little seaweed in their diets. Both groups can boost their B12 intakes by eating, rather than discarding, the stringy roots of common vegetables and eating in the wild. AH vegetarians should avoid tobacco and refined foods and keep fat and protein intakes down; these moves will lower B12 needs, enhance absorption of the vitamin and insure the individual good health.

There are reports that greens and sprouts contain active B12. Comfrey was said to be a rather good source of the vitamin but British researchers claim they found no B12 in comfrey. Meanwhile, we have plenty of known sources of the vitamin in our gardens, forests, ponds, lakes and oceans. We need only reunite ourselves with our natural surroundings to abound in what our bodies need.

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