by Dr Gina Shaw, D.Sc, M.A., Dip NH, AIYS (Dip. Irid.)
The subject of vitamin B12 is not new to most vegans, vegetarians or raw fooders. The supplement companies have many people running to their local health (drug) stores in an effort to make themselves deficiency-free, but is this a good idea? A number of issues will be raised in this article and I will attempt to piece together some information from many different and reliable (non-financially-oriented) sources.
A vitamin B12 deficiency is a serious disorder and indications of a deficiency of vitamin B12, when they do reach a stage where they have shown up, can be quite severe. Fatigue, paleness, anorexia, mental confusion, delusions, paranoia, weight loss, respiratory problems, etc. are just some indications that a person may have a B12-deficiency. In my opinion, ME is often a B12-deficiency disorder. If you do think you may have a B12-deficiency, it would be wise for you to seek the advice of a health practitioner (such as myself) who is knowledgeable about B12-deficiencies, for immediate advice. I would strongly recommend that you do something to remedy the situation, as this deficiency can eventually lead to death if left unchecked.
UK official recommendations have decreased in recent years, the body's needs having been previously over-estimated. Indeed, the Department of Health recognises that some people have lower than average requirements of B12. A whole lifetime's requirement of B12 add up to a 40 milligram speck of red crystals, about one-seventh the size of an average tablet of aspirin!
Vitamin B12 is excreted in the bile and is effectively reabsorbed. This is known as enterohepatic circulation. The amount of B12 excreted in the bile can vary from 1 to 10ug (micrograms) a day. People on diets low in B12, including vegans and some vegetarians, may be obtaining more B12 from reabsorption than from dietary sources. Reabsorption is the reason it can take over 20 years for a deficiency disease to develop. In comparison, if B12 deficiency is due to a failure in absorption, it can take only three years for a deficiency disease to occur. Since vitamin B12 is recycled in a healthy body, in principle, internal B12 synthesis could fulfil our needs without any B12 being provided in the diet, but there are other factors to be taken into consideration such as whether there is sufficient cobalt, calcium and protein in our diet to ensure a stable vitamin B2 level and the condition of our intestines.
Among the many controversies surrounding vitamin B12, there is the argument that, although Intrinsic Factor is produced in our stomachs and that our intestines are known to produce vitamin B12, the bacteria is produced too low down in the intestines and cannot be absorbed by our bodies. This argument is still hanging around, however, according to Dr Vetrano it was disproved by research over 20 years ago and is nothing more than an obsolete scientific theory. Indeed, in a 1999 version of 'Human Anatomy and Physiology' by Marieb, it states quite clearly that we do indeed absorb vitamin B12 through our intestines.
Many people say that the only foods which contain vitamin B12 are animal-derived foods. This also is untrue. No foods naturally contain vitamin B12 - neither animal or plant foods. Vitamin B12 is a microbe - a bacteria - it is produced by microorganisms. Vitamin B12 is the only vitamin that contains a trace element - cobalt - which gives this vitamin its chemical name - cobalamin - which is at the centre of its molecular structure. Humans and all vertebrates require cobalt, although it is assimilated only in the form of vitamin B12.
B12 synthesis is known to occur naturally in the human small intestine (in the ileum), which is the primary site of B12 absorption. As long as gut bacteria have cobalt and certain other nutrients, they produce vitamin B12. Dr Michael Klaper argues that vitamin B12 is present in the mouth as well and intestines. Furthermore, Dr Virginia Vetrano states that active Vitamin B12 coenzymes are found in bacteria in the mouth, around the teeth, in the nasopharynx, around the tonsils and in the tonsilar crypts, in the folds at the base of the tongue, and in the upper bronchial tree. Absorption of the natural B12 coenzymes can take place in the mouth, throat, oesophagus, bronchial tubes and even in the upper small intestines, as well as all along the intestinal tract. This does not involve the complex enzyme mechanism for absorption (Intrinsic Factor) in the small intestine as required by cyanocobalamin. The coenzymes are absorbed by diffusion from mucous membranes (11).
External B12 coming into the body must be combined with a mucoprotein enzyme named Intrinsic Factor, which is normally present in gastric secretions, to be properly assimilated. If the Intrinsic Factor is impaired or absent, B12 synthesis will not take place, no matter how much is present in the diet. A B12 deficiency can be caused by antibiotics (from the drugs themselves and contained in milk and meat), alcohol (alcohol damages the liver, so drinkers need more B12) and smoking (and all high temp cooked food is smoky) and stress also raises B12 needs).
Many nutritional analyses of foodstuffs were carried out such a long time ago, and, as such, have not taken account of more up-to-date technology. According to Dr Vetrano, current books on nutrition in the U.S. now state that there is B12 in any food that contains quantities of the B vitamin complex, but previously they were just not able to assay the amounts. Nowadays, more modern technology has allowed them to discover that there is B12 in those foods rich in the B complex.
The author does not believe that a vitamin B12 deficiency is more widespread in vegans or vegetarians - this is probably just another marketing lie! In fact, many so-called studies 'showing vegans deficient' have to be carefully studied themselves - many of them do not prove vegans to be deficient at all! In fact, contrary to meat and dairy industry propaganda, meat-eaters are known to be more likely to have a vitamin B12 deficiency - this has been known since 1959!!(1)
Having said this, we must bear in mind that many vegetarians and vegans still take antibiotics or consume antibiotic-containing foods such as onions, garlic, strong radishes and other foods rich in mustard oil, which are lethal to intestinal flora. The trouble is that once we have damaged our intestinal flora, it is difficult to correct without proper and knowledgeable healthcare and dietary advice. It is of far greater importance to correct intestinal flora problems than to spend our lives relying on so-called supplements. People who have a physical problem because they think they are not getting enough vitamin B12, are in fact often not digesting, absorbing or assimilating their foods properly because of the condition of their gastrointestinal tract. When their intestines are healed, vitamin B12 can be utilized and produced once again
Indeed, Dr Vetrano argues that the real problem in so-called B12 deficiency is a failure of digestion and absorption of foods, rather than a deficiency of the vitamin itself. She further argues that vitamin B12 coenzymes are found in nuts and seeds as well as in many common greens, fruits, and many vegetables. If we ate 100 grams of green beans, beets, carrots, and peas we would have half of our so-called daily minimum requirement of Vitamin B12 coenzymes providing our digestion and absorption are normal. From Rodale's The Complete Book of Vitamins, page 236 we find the following clarification: "As you know, the B complex of vitamins is called a 'complex' because, instead of being one vitamin, it has turned out to be a large number of related vitamins, which appear generally in the same foods." (11)
The cause of malabsorption is commonly a gastrointestinal disorder and this was known by pathologists way back in the l800s. In this case, one's lifestyle must be assessed and brought into unison with the needs of the living organism.
According to Marieb's 'Human Anatomy and Physiology', vitamin B12 can be destroyed by highly alkaline and highly acid conditions. This assumes that the B12 in meat would be easily destroyed because the hydrochloric acid in our stomachs during the digestion of meat is highly acidic. This may explain why meat-eaters are just as likely to have a B12 deficiency as vegans - even though their diet contains vitamin B12. Also, as mentioned earlier, another problem for meat-eaters is that there are normally antiobiotics in meat plus the fact that many meat-eaters destroy their friendly bacteria in their intestines by constant putrefaction and the putrefactive bacteria naturally present in meat will give the body a hard time. So, the damaged intestines may not function well enough to enable adequate vitamin B12 levels to be asborbed.
Another side to the equation is that low serum B12 levels do not necessarily equate to a B12 deficiency necessarily. Just because there is a low level of B12 in the bloodstream, this does not mean that there is a deficiency in the body as a whole, it may well be being utilised by the living cells (such as the central nervous system). More reliable tests appear to be that of homocysteine levels and Methyl Malonic Acid tests.
Commercially, vitamin B12 tablets are made from bacteria and the bacteria is deeply fermented. A B12 supplement or injection may help in the short-term, should the levels fall low, but in the medium to long-term, I would recommend a B12-deficient person tries to get to the bottom of why they are continually becoming deficient, with the help of a Natural Hygienist.
According to Dr. John Potter PhD, of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, Seattle, "Food's magic is based on thousands of complex interactions of dozens of different phytochemicals which are difficult to recreate in pills. While 190 solid studies prove that fruit and vegetables benefit, supplements have only a smattering of evidence". Vitamins, minerals, hormones, etc. do not work in isolation, they work symbiotically. They work with other nutrients in order for their work to be carried out. When these highly complex substances are disturbed, their overall effectiveness can be reduced. However, too much of a nutrient is draining on our vital energy as the human (or non-human) organism may have to expel a nutrient overload. Also, it is doubtful whether, even if you do have a B12 deficiency, you have only a B12 deficiency. A healthier diet and living conditions, as well as a fast may be in order.
On the topic of supplements in general, Dr Douglas Graham, in his book 'Nutrition and Athletic Performance', argues that supplementation has proven to be an inadequate and incomplete method of supplying nutrients as scientists cannot match nature's refined balances. He says that since an estimated ninety per cent of all nutrients are as yet undiscovered, why would we want to start adding nutrients into our diet one at a time rather than eating whole foods? Most nutrients are known to interact symbiotically with at least eight other nutrients and considering this, the odds of healthfully supplying any nutrients in its necessary component package becomes 'infinitesimally minute'. More to the point he adds, 'there has never been a successful attempt to keep an animal or human healthy, or even alive, on a diet composed strictly of nutritional supplements'. So I would say that a reliance on supplements, without getting to the root of the problem isn't ideal.
Dan Reeter, at Bio-Systems Laboratories in Colorado is creating one of the world's most comprehensive computer facilities for soil biology testing. He says that, from his extensive tests, plants grown in organically-managed soil make significantly higher levels of usable vitamin B12. It has also been reported that vitamin B12 is present in wild fruits and wild and home-grown plant foods.
The author contends that animal and dairy produce is a poor source of Vitamin B12 since they are normally cooked and thereore the vitamin is contained in nutrient-deranged foodstuffs which will inevitably destroy the usability of the vitamin. Studies show that those following a typical animal-based diet require more vitamin B12 than those who do not. This is because the typical diet leads to digestive atrophy. Because B12 is peptide-bound in animal products and must be enzymatically cleaved from the peptide bonds to be absorbed, a weakened gastric acid and gastric enzyme secretions (due to a cooked food diet) causes an inability to efficiently extract vitamin B12 from external food. Nevertheless, raw food vegans can actually get more B12 by reabsorption from bile than they do from external food. Wolfe argues that the natural soil microbes and bacteria found on wild plant foods and unwashed garden plants are typically adequate to supply our B12 requirements. The natural microbes in the soil need to be duplicated and to colonise in our digestive tract, without fermentation or putrefaction.
Another point worth considering is that vitamin B12 Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA's) are based upon the average cooked food (meat and two veg), smoking, drinking person. Commercial interests have indeed grossly exaggerated our needs for many nutrients. These studies tell us nothing of the requirements for a healthy vegetarian. It is very difficult to determine precise individual needs of any vitamin or nutrient, and an overload of any vitamin or other nutrient creates an unnecessary burden on our vital domain. Factors such as rate of metabolism, stress, etc. can determine our differing and often changing needs. Dr Victor Herbert reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (1998, Volume 48) that only 0.00000035 ounces (1 microgram) of vitamin B12 is required per day. These minimum vitamin requirements may be inadequate to explain the needs of a healthy raw food vegan, for example, who may require less B12 due to an improved gastric ability and a high ability to recycle vitamin B12. (Cooking destroys microbes and a highly sterilised, cooked vegan diet may not provide the intestines with enough good quality flora). Absorption rates of B12 are inevitably higher in healthy individuals than in unhealthy individuals. Studies, based on healthy Indian vegetarian villagers, showed that none of them exhibited symptoms of B12 deficiency, despite levels of .3-.5 micrograms of B12.
I believe that Vitamin B12 deficiency is typically caused by lack of absorption in the intestinal tract rather than a lack of this vitamin in the diet. Annie and Dr David Jubb argue that people have lived in such a sterile, antiseptic environment for so long that these necessary symbiotic organisms have been less than present in our diet. They argue that by ingesting soil-born organisms you can maintain an enormous reservoir of uncoded antibodies ready to transform specific pathogens, the way nature intended - by eating a little dirt!
If a person is healthy and on a healthy vegan, high-percentage raw food diet and does not habitually over-eat, wrongly combine their foods and abuse their bodies generally, and is able to obtain quality produce and utilise fasting quite regularly I would suggest that it is unlikely that they will develop B12 deficiency symptoms providing their intestinal flora was not previously deranged. Vitamin B12 deficiency is usually symptomatic of a larger problem i.e. poor intestinal flora, poor absorption, gastric disorders , etc. and can also be attrributed to a lack of sunlight. There are indeed many factors involved here since adequate B12 levels, as mentioned, are dependent upon sufficient calcium, vitamin B12, zinc, cobalt, protein, etc.
I would also suggest that just because a wild fruit or organic plant food contains only a small amount, this does not mean it is deficient. It may just be because we only need a small amount anyhow. The pill pushers are quick to say that our soil is deficient, but according to Diamond and others, if a seed does not receive the elements it needs IT WILL NOT GROW (OR WILL GROW POORLY - author). Also, plants obtain nutrients from other sources in greater amounts: the sun, water and the air. Plants actually obtain only about 1% of nutrients from the soil.
If you do develop a B12 deficiency, certain urgent dietary adjustments may need to be made, and there is a possibility that fasting is in order. In any case, on switching to a healthier diet, be it vegetarian, vegan or raw food (for optimum health), we should go back to nature as much as possible and pay little attention to germ phobics who advise us to scrub our vegetables and fruits. Buy organic and eat home-grown or wild foods and do not clean them too scrupulously! Also it is important to ensure adequate nuts and seeds in the diet.