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What’s the Deal With Vitamin B12?

Vitamin B12. Photo: Science Source/Getty Images

Each morning, I take a gummy multivitamin for two reasons: (1) I want to live forever, and (2) they taste delicious (so much so, in fact, that I have to stop myself from snacking on them). But lately, I’ve heard from a number of my vegan and vegetarian friends that, instead of joining me in my sweet, sweet supplementation, they actually take individual vitamin B12 supplements every morning. I’m not sure what exactly B12 is or why it’s so important to ingest every day, so I checked in with two experts to find out.

So, what even is it? Well, the first hint is in the name: Vitamin B12 is, in fact, a vitamin. That means it’s essential for us to live, according to registered dietitian Amy Shapiro. But beyond that, vitamin B12 is known to help with our nervous system, blood-cell formation, digestion, and brain function, and helps prevent anemia and enhance our moods (so it also helps stave off depression, she noted). An important thing to note is that vitamin B12 is something that we don’t make ourselves; instead, we need to get it through our diets or supplementation. On top of that, it’s also a water-soluble vitamin, which means we need to replenish it every single day, since it doesn’t get stored in our bodies like fat-soluble vitamins.

Where can I find vitamin B12? Sarah Ball, certified health coach and registered dietitian for the University of Michigan Department of Nutritional Sciences, explained to me that vitamin B12 is mostly found in animal products — and that some of the best sources of the vitamin are clams, beef liver, eggs, and dairy. But beyond that, vitamin B12 can also be found in some fortified cereals and grains, as well as nutritional yeast. However, the vitamin doesn’t appear naturally in plant products, which is why vegans and vegetarians often need to turn to supplementation to get it.

Well, how much of it does a person even need? According to the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements, how much vitamin B12 a person needs depends largely on their age. But in general, it is recommended that men and women over the age of 14 ingest 2.4 micrograms of it each day, while pregnant women should take 2.6 micrograms and breastfeeding women need 2.8 micrograms per day. Shapiro added that certain people actually need more that that, including elderly people, those with gastrointestinal issues, alcoholics, and smokers.

What happens if I don’t get enough vitamin B12? From the sounds of it, vitamin B12 deficiencies can be quite dangerous. Ball explained that, if a person isn’t getting enough, they might appear to have a bit of a “brain fog,” which almost mimics a dementia-like state if the deficiency is bad enough. That means their memory can be hazy and their cognitive function may potentially be a bit off. Beyond that, however, Shapiro noted that vitamin B12 deficiencies can also cause someone to feel weak, fatigued, constipated, anemic, and even depressed.

Who shouldn’t take it, though? Well, as I said, vitamin B12 is necessary for living, so it’s generally pretty safe for most people to take B12 supplements (or ingest it through their diets). But Ball cautioned that people who are on certain medications might want to check with their doctors before taking a supplement, just in case there’s any form of drug interaction. Additionally, Shapiro told me that people with blood disorders, gout, heart concerns, or high blood pressure should be cautious before taking B12 supplements — they shouldn’t necessarily avoid it all together, but they should definitely check with their doctor and be careful before taking a B12 supplement.

What’s the Deal With Vitamin B12?