10 Surprising Ways Vitamin B12 Benefits Your Entire Body
Vitamin B12 benefits your entire body from your head down to your toes. Here's the full story on what happens when you get enough vitamin B12.
Increased energy and vitality
One of the most notable vitamin B12 benefits is a boost in energy. So if you’re feeling sluggish and you’re not sure why, a lack of vitamin B12 (cobalamin) may be to blame. This water-soluble vitamin aids in red blood cell formation, which prevents against a type of anemia that can often make people feel weak and tired, explains Joy Bauer, MS, RDN, the nutrition expert for NBC’s TODAY show and author of From Junk Food to Joy Food. Get your mojo back by asking your doctor to check your B12 levels. If they are on the low side, it’s time to up your intake, she says. “Vitamin B12 is found naturally in a wide variety of animal foods like fish, meat, poultry, eggs, milk, and other dairy products, plus fortified foods like breakfast cereals, nutritional yeast, and some plant-based milks such as almond milk or soy,” says Bauer.
Improved heart health
Vitamin B12’s role in promoting heart health may get overlooked, but it’s essential, says Liz Weinandy, RD, a dietician at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio. Vitamin B12, B6, and folic acid work together help to reduce homocysteine, which is an amino acid “that can build up in blood and damage arterial walls, thus playing a role in heart disease,” she explains. Low B12 is one surprising heart risk—here are five other risk factors for heart disease that you may not know about.
Healthy nervous system
Vitamin B12 benefits your nervous system directly and keeps it in tip-top shape; when this nutrient is in short supply, you may develop that annoying “pins and needles” sensation in your extremities and/or numbness or tingling in the hands, legs, or feet, says Dana Greene, RD, a dietitian in Brookline, MA. This usually occurs with anemia, but that’s not always the case, she says. “Vitamin B12 helps produce the fatty sheath called myelin that surrounds and protects your nerves.” When you are deficient in B12, your nerve cells can’t function properly. Pins and needles are one clue you may be low in this vitamin; here are 11 silent signs you’re not getting enough vitamin B12.
Ability to walk and move
If nerve damage from B12 deficiency continues unaddressed, it can alter the way you move. “This can sometimes affect balance and make you more likely to fall,” says Greene. “This is one of the easier things to correct, and by doing so we can prevent any declines in quality of life that occur with mobility issues and falls.”
Your oral health
There are many signs your tongue can reveal about your health, and a B12 deficiency is one of them. A mild deficiency can trigger tongue inflammation (glossitis). Greene says this painful condition can affect how you eat and speak. Your tongue may be red and swollen or look smooth since the tiny bumps along your tongue that contain your taste buds stretch out and disappear.
Another important function vitamin B12 benefits is our vision, and vitamin B12 deficiency is typically related to nervous system damage that affects the optic nerve leading up to the eye. The best defense is always a good offense. “B12 is found mostly in animal foods such as meat, poultry, fish and dairy products. If you don’t eat animal foods, be sure to get B12 from fortified foods or a supplement,” says Weinandy.
Some research suggests that a vitamin B12 deficiency may be linked to dementia and memory problems. The potential link may be a result of high levels of homocysteine in the blood, but it’s too early to draw any firm conclusions, according to the US Office of Dietary Supplements. It’s not clear whether B12 supplements can help with these brain issues, but here are some vitamins that can help improve your memory.
People with a B12 deficiency often look pale or have a slight yellow tinge to their skin, also known as jaundice. Glitches in your body’s red blood cell production affect the size and strength of these cells. They may be too big to travel in your body, resulting in pale skin, Greene says. If they are too fragile, they may break down and cause an excess of bilirubin, which results in an orange-yellow skin tone.
Your gut health
We all know that eating enough fiber and drinking enough water are keys to healthy bowel movements, but a vitamin B12 deficiency can also cause constipation, diarrhea, loss of appetite and weight loss, says Will Bulsiewicz, MD, a gastroenterologist in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Sometimes these GI symptoms are a result of B12 deficiency, but other times B12 is a marker of another underlying digestive disease. “Vitamin B12 relies on the production of intrinsic factor by the stomach and is absorbed in the last part of the small intestine,” he says. “Therefore, stomach or small bowel disturbances can create a B12 deficiency.” Crohn’s disease is a classic condition that can present with B12 deficiency, weight loss, and diarrhea. “In this case, it is inflammation of the small bowel from the Crohn’s disease that causes the symptoms, not the B12 deficiency itself,” he says. The exact mechanism by which B12 deficiency causes GI symptoms is still unknown.
Your newborn’s personality
Could vitamin B12 be a key to a calmer baby? Possibly: A study in the journal Early Human Development found that mothers-to-be who increase their levels of B12 in early pregnancy are about eight times less likely to have babies who cry excessively, a condition known as colic. Choosing a safe and effective supplement is important whether you’re pregnant or not—here are 13 vitamin brands that experts trust most.
Are you at risk?
The US Office of Dietary Supplements lists the average daily recommended amounts for vitamin B12 for people in various stages of life. Most of us get enough B12 from food but certain populations may be at risk for deficiency, including people on a strict vegan diet, those taking long-term antacids for heartburn, and elderly people and those who’ve had surgery to removes the part of the bowel that absorbs B12. “Vitamin B12 in supplement form may be necessary if a person has a moderate to severe deficiency. It is preferable though, that for most people, they get it from food,” Weinandy says. If you decide to take a B12 supplement, look for one that contains the vitamin as “methylcobalamin”—it’s easier for the body to use. And before you buy, read up on these other simple ways to make your vitamins more effective.
- Joy Bauer, RDN, nutrition expert for NBC's TODAY show, author of From Junk Food to Joy Food
- Liz Weinandy, RD, dietician, Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, Columbus, OH
- National Institutes of Health: "Vitamin B12 factsheet."
- Dana Greene, RD, dietitian, Brookline, MA
- Will Bulsiewicz, MD, gastroenterologist, Mount Pleasant, SC
- Early Human Development: "Maternal vitamin B-12 and folate status during pregnancy and excessive infant crying."
- National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements: "Vitamin B12."