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Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin) - Deficiency Risk and Symptoms

2 min read

Nutrient Name

Vitamin B12 - also known as Cobalamin.

Potential for deficiency

Very Common

Deficiency of Vitamin B12 in elderly people is common, affecting around 10% of people aged 75 or over, and 5% of people aged 65 to 74. This is believed to be either because of poor diet or because they have less stomach acid, which the body needs to absorb Vitamin B12.

In the UK the most common cause of Vitamin B12 deficiency is pernicious anaemia – a condition where your immune system attacks healthy cells in your stomach, preventing your body from absorbing Vitamin B12 from the food you eat.

A lack of vitamins in people's diet is a more uncommon reason for deficiency, but does occur in vegan diets, fad diets or have a generally poor diets over an extended period of time. Vegans can often be deficient because Vitamin B12 is predominantly obtained from animal protein - meat.

What does Vitamin B12 do?

Like all of the 8 B vitamins, Vitamin B12 plays a role in converting carbohydrates into glucose, metabolising fats and proteins, and keeping the nervous system working properly. B12 plays a crucial role in producing nucleic acids (e.g., DNA), the body's genetic material.

Together with Vitamin B9 (Folate) it helps regulate the formation of red blood cells. Together with Vitamin B6 and B9, it also helps control blood levels of the amino acid homocysteine, a potential marker for heart disease risk.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) confirms that clear health benefits have been established for the dietary intake of Vitamin B12 in contributing to:

  • normal red blood cell formation
  • normal cell division
  • normal energy metabolism
  • a normal function of the immune system
  • normal homocysteine metabolism (heart health)
  • normal neurological and psychological functions
  • the reduction of tiredness and fatigue

Food Sources

Vitamin B12 is produced exclusively by microbial synthesis in the digestive tract of animals. Therefore, animal protein products, in particular organ meats (e.g., liver, kidney), are the main source of Vitamin B12 in the human diet. Other good sources include fish, eggs and dairy products.

Vitamin B12 is a water-soluble vitamin and as such, it is unlikely to reach toxic levels - it is considered safe and non-toxic.

Symptoms of deficiency

  • fatigue
  • shortness of breath
  • diarrhoea
  • nervousness
  • numbness, or a tingling sensation in the fingers and toes

Severe deficiency of B12 can cause neurological damage.

Related Supplements

A healthy balanced diet is the best way to consume all the nutrients we need. Sometimes however this isn't possible and then supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying any supplements or herbal medicines.