All B12 is not created equal! Part 1 – Supplements

Vitamin B12 is one of those vitamins that the human body can’t do without.  Trust me – I am one silly vegetarian who managed to deplete myself of B12 in my late 20’s and it was debilitating!

Pregnancy, breast feeding and teaching 10 – 13 aerobic classes a week used up all my stores of B12 and left me lifeless and empty.  Literally dragging my body around before crashing into a heap at every opportunity.  I had blackouts and couldn’t remember how I had gotten somewhere, let alone when I’d left home.  Lack of B12 didn’t’ even come into my radar at the time, I just assumed that I had delayed post-natal depression as I felt so down and miserable.  When I finally rocked up at the Doctors, he knew exactly what it was and after a few weekly shots of vitamin B12 and a couple of doses of iron, I was bouncing off the walls again!

The reach of vitamin B12 stretches far and wide within us.  Not only do we need it for red blood cell formation, we need it to maintain the health of all cells within our body; the health of our nerves, our brain (yes including mental health issues of depression and anxiety) and our heart.  We also need it to help make DNA (genetic material in all cells), to keep our hormonal balance in check and for vision.

Vitamin B12 is obtained from animal products especially liver and grass fed meats (more specifically, B12 is produced from bacteria in the guts of these animals), which of course is not so good for us as herbivores!  Vegetarians can get some from dairy and eggs of course, but where plant based sources are concerned, we are limited to sea vegetables, spirulina, chlorella, white button mushrooms and nutritional yeast.  However, there are a couple of points to note here:

  • B12 in button mushrooms comes more from the skin and interestingly enough is comparable to B12 obtained from animals so therefore thought to be bacteria derived.
  • Some nutritional yeast contains B12 but this depends on what medium the yeast is grown on. Many brands fortify nutritional yeast with B12, so take a note of the ingredients label as to what ‘type’ of B12 the yeast has been fortified with.  Nutritional yeast can also be padded out with rice flour.
  • It has been suggested that the B12 in sea vegetables and plant based sources is not able to be utilised effectively by the body, so it’s best not to rely on this as your main source of B12.

It is generally agreed that anyone on a plant-based diet should supplement with B12 and I don’t disagree, but before supplementing, perhaps it’s a good idea to find out a little more about this supplement and how it works?  And just so that we vegetarians and vegans don’t feel singled out, here’s an interesting little fact – many people who consume meat products are also deficient in B12.  This goes to show that there are other factors at play here that go way beyond plant based diets.

As well as getting the correct amount of B12, we also need to know that we are getting the right ‘type’ of B12.   Did you know that there are actually four different forms of vitamin B12?  They are:

  • Methylcobalamin
  • Cyanocobalamin
  • Hydroxocobalamin
  • Adenosylcobalamin

The two types we are mainly concerned with here are Methylcobalamin and Cyanocobalamin, as these are the two most commonly found types of supplements.  Hydroxocobalamin and Adenosylcobalamin are more likely to be prescribed by a practitioner for specific conditions. For example I’ve had genetic testing done and based on my genetic make up, my practitioner makes me a ‘gene powder’ that contains andenodsylcobalamin as it works best for my particular detoxification issues.

Cyanocobalamin is the most used form of B12 supplement, probably because it is cheap and it is synthetically made (it doesn’t exist in nature).  Cyanocobalamin, as the name indicates, contains a cyanide molecule (cyano).  Not toxic enough to kill you obviously, but the body does need to be able to remove it by detoxification (via the liver).  Bottom line is that if the body is already struggling to detoxify, it could probably do without it! Even if your body detoxifies well, a plant based lifestyle is also about ‘no harm’ and that also means no harm to ourselves with synthetically made ‘stuff’!

Another interesting fact – hydroxocobalamin is used in cases of cyanide poisoning as it readily binds with the cyanide to become cyanocobalamin.

Methylcobalamin on the other hand is found in nature (from bacteria) and the ‘methyl’ part indicates that this form of B12 is ready and available for the body to use.  Another word that is sometimes used to show that the vitamin or mineral is available for use is ‘activated’ (this term is sometimes used on the supplement packaging).  Methylcobalamin also plays another important role in regulating the release of cortisol (stress hormone) and is considered an important nutrient for vision.

Fortunately these days, many practitioners are cottoning onto the fact that an activated B12 supplement is far better than the cyanocobalamin, but it’s not a bad idea to check what you’re currently taking and perhaps change it next time around.

Next time we’ll have a look at what we can do as vegetarians and vegans to maximise our B12 absorption!