Vitamin B12 (also known as cobalamin) is a water soluble vitamin and part of the B complex group (a group of eight vitamins that were initially thought to be the singular vitamin B). Like many of the other vitamins the discovery of vitamin B12 was the result of research into a cure for a disease. This time researchers were searching for a way to treat pernicious anemia (a lack of red blood cells in the body which is now known to be caused by vitamin B12 deficiency). Up until the 1920s this condition often resulted in death. However, in 1926 George Richards Minot and William Perry Murphy followed up on initial research by George Whipple which revealed that beef liver could increase the production of red blood cells in anemic dogs. They wanted to see if this applied to humans too and started to feed their patients large amounts of liver. In 1926 they announced that a daily diet of one pound of liver per day could help cure pernicious anemia. However, they did not manage to isolate the factor in liver that helped prevent pernicious anemia. This search took over 20 years but in 1948 a breakthrough was finally made when an American research team led by Karl Folkers and two researchers in England, E. Lester Smith and L.F.S. Parker, announced that they had managed to isolate vitamin B12 into red crystals. The discovery of vitamin B12 was not only significant as a cure for the deadly pernicious anemia but also because it was the last of the vitamins to be discovered.
The main function of vitamin B12 is to work with vitamin B9 to produce DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and RNA (ribonucleic acid), both of which hold important genetic information for the body’s cells. It is also required by the body’s cells so that they can properly absorb vitamin B9. On top of this vitamin B12 has a number of further functions which include:
– Assisting in the production of red blood cells.
– Assisting in the production of melatonin which can help improve sleep cycles.
– Assisting in the production of myelin which covers and protects the nerves.
– Assisting in the production of serotonin which can help improve your mood.
– Possible improvements in mental function.
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for vitamin B12 is 0.0015mg for both men and women. It is found naturally in all animal products with liver, fish and dairy products (such as egg, milk and cheese) being particularly rich sources. Some enriched whole grain products also contain vitamin B12.
Not getting enough vitamin B12 in your diet is rare. However, unlike other vitamins, B12 requires a substance called intrinsic factor to be present in the intestine so that it can be properly absorbed. If you have problems with your stomach and don’t produce enough intrinsic factor you may not absorb enough of this vitamin from the foods you eat. A lack of vitamin B12 reduces the production of red blood cells in the body which eventually leads to pernicious anemia which is characterised by fewer, larger blood cells. It can lead to difficulties balancing and walking, weakness and in the worst cases dementia. Long term deficiencies can also cause permanent nerve damage.
Since animal products are the major source of vitamin B12 vegans may require supplementation in order to meet the RDA. At present, this vitamin is not thought to be toxic in large doses. However, I still recommend that you consult your doctor before starting on the supplements.
As you can see from this article vitamin B12 is very important. Not only does it help maintain and produce your body’s cells but it also protects your nervous system. If animal products are a regular part of your diet then you should easily be meeting the RDA for vitamin B12. However, if you are a vegan or rarely eat animal products you should go see your doctor and ask their opinion on whether or not you require vitamin B12 supplementation.