We all need vitamin B12 to survive, and of course vegetarians and vegans are no exception. The problem is that B12 is only produced naturally by bacteria that are usually found in the guts of animals. This makes meat and dairy products the best natural sources of vitamin B12 – not ideal for those of us who don’t eat meat!
Practically every medical body recommends that vegans (and sometimes vegetarians) take vitamin B12 supplements. It’s very difficult to get enough of this essential nutrient in a meat-free diet, and B12 deficiency is definitely something you should be concerned about.
What Does Vitamin B12 Do?
Vitamin B12 (also called cobalamin) plays an extremely important role in a number of biological processes. It’s essential for DNA synthesis and cell metabolism, which together make B12 crucial for energy production.
We also need B12 to synthesize fatty acids and to form healthy red blood cells that carry oxygen around our bodies. Healthy nerve and brain function requires vitamin B12 too.
Slightly more abstract (but no less important), is the fact that high levels of B12 reduce the levels of homocysteine in the body. This is a good thing, as homocysteine is a known risk factor for a number of cognitive, cardiac and circulatory problems, including potentially fatal heart disease.
What Happens If I Don’t Get Enough B12?
Most people can cope just fine without B12 for a few weeks or months, as the vitamin is stored in the body for far longer than many other substances. And so the initial symptoms of B12 deficiency tend to be mild and hard to diagnose.
However, if your B12 levels remain low for too long, the consequences can be serious. Leaving B12 deficiency untreated for just six months can cause permanent damage to the nervous system. Your brain tissue will also sustain damage, which could be irreversible.
More research is definitely needed in this area, but chronic B12 deficiency has been linked to a number of other unpleasant illnesses such as Alzheimer’s (see here).
Pregnant vegetarian and vegan women need to be particularly careful, as a B12-deficient infant may sustain lasting damage to both the brain and the nervous system. Stunted development is also a very real possibility.
How Do I Know If I Have Vitamin B12 Deficiency?
The best way to know for sure is to get your blood levels checked by a doctor. It’s a simple and reliable procedure. But unfortunately the truth is that many vegetarians (and the vast majority of vegans) who don’t take B12 supplements are, to some extent, B12 deficient.
- Shortness of breath
- Canker sores
- Bruising more easily than normal
- Poor (or sometimes even absent) reflexes
- Lack of vibration and soft touch sensation
- GAVE syndrome (a gastrointestinal issue)
As B12 deficiency also affects the brain, a number of mental symptoms may also be apparent:
- Poor memory
- Changes in personality
- Becoming irritable
- Psychosis and dementia if left untreated
In the worst case scenario, untreated B12 deficiency will eventually be fatal. Sometimes this can happen within as little as three years.
Basically, you really don’t want vitamin B12 deficiency, but it’s alarmingly common among vegans and vegetarians. So how can you get more B12 in your diet?
Vegan Sources of Vitamin B12
As mentioned earlier, the best sources of B12 are meat and dairy products. Reliable and natural vegan-friendly sources of B12 simply don’t exist. Claims that seaweed and other plants are some kind of miracle solution are everywhere on the Internet, but they’re not backed by any kind of scientific evidence.
If you’re vegan, you only really have two choices: take supplements or eat lots of B12-fortified foods.
Many cereals are now fortified with B12 in the US and much of the rest of the western world. This began as an effort to increase the average citizen’s B12 intake, and the program has been extraordinarily successful.
Lots of vegans rely on fortified foods for their vitamin B12, as they can potentially remove the need to take regular B12 pills. And it’s not just cereals anymore either – soy and almond milk, nutritional yeast and meat substitutes can all be fortified with B12.
The B12 used in these products is vegan-friendly, as it’s produced in laboratories using bacteria cultures rather than extracting it from animals.
The main issue is getting enough B12 from fortified foods alone. The amount of B12 varies enormously between different products, and you’ll spend half your life studying labels for nutritional info. Even if you find good fortified foods, you’ll need to eat them two or three times per day to maintain healthy B12 levels.
Fortified foods often also contain cyanocobalamin. This is a type of B12 that does not occur naturally – it only exists as a product of laboratory production. The natural form of B12 that you would get from a meat-based diet is methylcobalamin. This form has a number of advantages over cyanocobalamin, and so we always recommend finding supplements or fortified foods that contain methylcobalamin.
You can find out more about the differences in our Methylcobalamin vs Cyanocobalamin article.
Vitamin B12 Supplements
Taking B12 supplements is the easiest, cheapest and most reliable way to boost your B12 intake. Most vegans will only need to take a single 2000mcg pill once or twice per week to ensure adequate levels of B12. Of course this can be split into taking 1000mcg tablets 2-4 times per week or any other equivalent. (More dosage info here.)
Note that taking a multivitamin will not be sufficient on its own. (Find out more here.)
You’ll also want to be careful that your supplements definitely contain methylcobalamin rather than cyanocobalamin.
If you want to play it really safe, you can always take extra tablets. Many people take a 1000mcg tablet every day. B12 is a water-soluble vitamin, so any excess is easily excreted. There is essentially zero risk of overdosing or taking too much B12, so don’t worry about it. You can read more about this here if you’re still concerned.
It can be difficult to find vegan methylcobalamin B12 supplements in stores, but fortunately Amazon comes to the rescue. We always recommend these sublingual vegan tablets from Deva Vitamins. They’re basically the perfect B12 supplement, and we’ve never had any problems with them.
For any vegetarians reading this, you have a few more options. Good alternatives include these capsules from Thorne Research and these tablets made by Pure Encapsulations. Both will do the job brilliantly.