Vitamin B12 and Your Mental Health 

by | Jun 9, 2023 | Nutrition

Medical Review by Chris Palmer, MD

vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is an essential vitamin. It battles fatigue, makes your immune system more resilient, and even helps synthesize DNA.

But did you know that B12 also affects your mitochondria? 

It does! And if it affects your mitochondria, then we at Brain Energy believe it also affects your mental health. And there’s research that supports this, highlighting B12’s role in reducing the symptoms of mental conditions like depression and schizophrenia.

Despite how important this nutrient is, B12 deficiency is becoming more prevalent throughout the world. An estimated 6% of adults under 60 in America have a B12 deficiency, with even more people suffering from the condition worldwide. In fact, the problem is so concerning that there’s now an entire conference devoted to addressing B12 deficiency.

Clearly, B12 is a big deal.

But what does B12 actually do? And how can you get enough of it in your diet? In this article, we’ll cover all that and more. But first, let’s start by defining vitamin B12.

 

What is Vitamin B12?

Vitamin B12, also known as cobalamin, is an essential water-soluble vitamin that plays a role in all sorts of biological functions, including: 

  • Red blood cell formation: Vitamin B12 is a key player in the production of healthy red blood cells, which help deliver oxygen to all parts of the body.
  • Nerve cell formations: B12 also plays a critical role in the creation of nerves. In fact, B12 is responsible for the production of myelin, a fatty substance that forms a protective sheath around nerve fibers. This myelin sheath facilitates the proper conduction of nerve impulses and helps maintain the integrity and function of the nervous system.
  • Cell division: B12 is essential for proper division and formation of cells throughout the entire body.
  • Energy production: Mitochondria are responsible for generating the majority of cellular energy adenosine triphosphate (ATP), but they can’t make that energy until food has been broken down into a form the mitochondria can use. That’s where B12 comes in. It helps metabolize carbohydrates, fats, and proteins by converting these macronutrients into usable energy for the body. 
  • Methylation cycle: Another way B12 helps the mitochondria is through its role in the methylation cycle. This is a cycle that occurs naturally in the body and helps maintain the integrity and function of mitochondrial DNA and gene expression. Without B12, the methylation cycle can’t function properly, which can directly damage the cells and their mitochondria.
  • Protection against oxidative stress: All cells (and their mitochondria) are susceptible to oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is a process that occurs when there’s an imbalance in the body between a flood of harmful free radicals (which are generated by mitochondria themselves or when the body is exposed to stressors like alcohol, tobacco, processed sugar, etc.) and the body’s ability to neutralize them with antioxidants. B12, along with other B vitamins, act as a cofactors for enzymes involved in antioxidant defense systems. By supporting this antioxidant activity, B12 helps protect mitochondria from damage.
  • Nerve cell maintenance: Nerve cells help the brain communicate with the rest of the body through signals that get sent from the brain to the nerve cell, then back again. These nerve cells operate in a vast, connected network that span across the body and require high levels of energy to carry out their functions. B12 plays a key role in this energy-production process by helping efficiently and accurately transmit nerve impulses.
  • Cognitive Function: B12 is involved in neuron formation and effective neural pathway function. This has powerful effects on mood and mindset. In fact, studies show that consuming B12 deficiency has a strong impact on schizophrenia, depression, bipolar-related manic episodes, and mood disorders with psychotic features

Clearly, getting enough vitamin B12 is important for mitochondrial, mental, and overall health. But how can you get enough B12 in the first place?

To answer that question, let’s look at some of the most concentrated whole-food sources of B12 out there.

 

Whole-Food Sources of Vitamin B12

In nature, vitamin B12 is found in animal-sourced foods such as:

  • Beef
  • Venison, bison, and other wild game
  • Eggs
  • Fish (salmon, sardines, etc.)
  • Shellfish (mussels, oysters, shrimp, lobster, etc.)

 

Plants do not naturally contain Vitamin B12, but if you’re vegan, vegetarian, or abstain from animal products for one reason or another, you must supplement. Certain plant-based foods may be fortified with vitamin B12. Some of the most common foods fortified with B12  include: 

  • Plant-based milk alternatives (almond, coconut, etc.)
  • Plant-based yogurt alternatives (almond, coconut, etc.)
  • Nutritional yeast
  • Algae (kelp, dulse, laver/nori, etc.)

If a person is vegetarian, their whole-food-based B12 options are broader and could include foods like:

  • Eggs (chicken, duck, quail, goose, etc.) 
  • Certain cheeses and dairy products (cottage cheese, Swiss cheese, etc.)

These foods can all combine to help people meet their B12 needs, no matter what their food preferences may be.

 

Special Considerations: What to Do When You Need More B12

 

Even with all of these whole-food options, you may still find yourself low on B12 for many reasons, including: 

  • Autoimmune disease 
  • Gut dysfunction (IBS, Crohn’s, Ulcerative Colitis, etc.)
  • Certain genetic dispositions
  • Taking certain medications that inhibit or decrease B12 absorption (like metformin, antacids, birth control, and others)
  • Elderly individuals (the gut absorbs less B12 as we age)
  • Major or chronic life stress (the body uses more B12 under stress)

 

In these cases, B12 supplements could be just the thing to help keep your B12 levels in tip-top shape! 

There are a multitude of B12 supplement types, including sprays, liquid, and capsules. B12 supplements come in two distinct variations: cyanocobalamin and methylcobalamin. While some health gurus claim that one form works better than the other, the truth is that different people often respond better to one form or the other. You should work with your doctor or dietitian to find the B12 type and amount that works best for your individual situation.

Conclusion

As we’ve seen here, vitamin B12 performs many functions that span from your head to your toes, so it’s incredibly important to include plenty of whole-food B12, like meat and eggs, into your nutrition plan. 

If you’re just starting to focus on getting more B12, remember that it’s okay to start small. This doesn’t have to be a huge overhaul of your diet. You could start with just adding some extra B12 foods to one meal per week. That could look like adding some cheese to your omelet, including some smoked salmon to your salad, or making a plan to grill up a steak for dinner Friday night. If you’re vegan or vegetarian, you could sprinkle a little nutritional yeast on your broccoli or have a glass of warm B12-fortified coconut milk before you go to bed. Small changes can make a big difference over time. 

And if you’d like to learn more about B12 and its connection to mental health, check out this resource to watch multiple documentaries following those overcoming B12 deficiency.

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Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not medical advice. You should consult with your healthcare provider before starting any treatments for any medical conditions. 

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