It is often referred to as the “energy vitamin”. It is one of the main reasons that moms continue to slip infamous foods like beef liver into family meals.
It is well-known for helping with red blood cell formation, healthy circulation, proper digestion and immune system function.
This nutrient is vitamin B12, and its physical benefits are some of the most-talked about in popular medicine. Yet, we often forget that vitamin B12 is also vital for psychological well-being.
Accumulating scientific research points to vitamin B12 as one of the strongest nutritional factors influencing mental health. Let’s take a minute to talk about why B12 is such an important player in maintaining brain function and promoting positive moods.
Vitamin B12 and The Nervous System
Vitamin B12 has the largest and most complex chemical structure of all the vitamins. It is present in several unique forms, each of which actually has the mineral cobalt hidden within. For this reason, you will also see all of the variations of vitamin B12 called the “cobalamins.” The impressive chemical constitution of cobalamins makes a lot of sense when we think of the wide range of functions these nutrients are expected to play in the body.
Looking at the nervous system alone, vitamin B12 works in a diverse number of areas.
Here are just some of the ways in which vitamin B12 supports the brain and central nervous system:
- assists in normal nerve growth and development
- improves communication between nerve cells
- promotes stable adrenal function
- provides emotional and mental energy
- helps with the ability to concentrate
- bolsters memory function
- has calming effects to balance moods
How exactly does B12 Work?
It is apparent from the list above that vitamin B12 impacts various dimensions of psychological health, but exactly how it does so is a more complicated question. When we get down to the nitty-gritty science of it, the precise mechanisms used by vitamin B12 to act on the nervous system are not entirely clear. Nonetheless, scientists have a few generalized predictions about the pathways this nutrient uses to get its important work done.
The first is through a process called myelination. All the cells in the nervous system are wrapped in an insulating coating called a myelin sheath. This protective layer, made up of protein and fatty substrates, helps electrical signals to transmit quickly and efficiently between nerve cells.
Normally, vitamin B12 helps to build and maintain these myelin sheaths, keeping conversations between cells going and the nervous system running strong. However, when there is a lack of vitamin B12 in the tissues, as seen with dietary vitamin B12 deficiency and other conditions, the myelin coating on cranial, spinal and peripheral nerves is compromised. Without this shielding, nerve signaling becomes slow and sporadic, leading to a host of neurological symptoms from trouble walking to changes in cognitive function and mood.
B12 also helps with the production of neurotransmitters, those tiny chemical messengers that communicate emotional information throughout the brain and body. It does this in collaboration with a compound called SAMe (or S-Adenosylmethionine in fancy scientific terms), which is naturally found throughout the body as well.
Together, B12 and SAMe (along with other helper vitamins like B6 and folate) regulate the synthesis and breakdown of several important mood-controlling chemicals such as serotonin, melatonin and dopamine. Without enough B12, this elaborate production system falters and neurotransmitters can no longer be released at adequate rates. As levels of neurotransmitters plummet, symptoms of mental health disorders, like depression, can arise.
Vitamin B12 and Depression
As you may have guessed by now, vitamin B12 deficiency is a serious problem when it comes to mental health. Although a lack of B12 can negatively affect the brain in many ways, studies connecting B12 deficiency and depression are particularly compelling.
Observational studies have found that as many as 30% of patients that are hospitalized for depression are deficient in vitamin B12.(1) Many practitioners assume that this number is actually much higher, seeing as B12 testing is not yet a standard procedure when it comes to treating psychiatric patients.
One interesting study followed 115 people diagnosed with major depressive order for six months and monitored their B12 status along the way. Researchers found that higher vitamin B12 levels were correlated with better long-term psychological functioning. Furthermore, they discovered that individuals whose moods improved the most over the course of the study had the highest vitamin B12 levels in the blood, while those whose depression did not change had the lowest levels.(2)
Another group of researchers looked at the B12 levels in almost three hundred elderly people with depressive symptoms, and compared them to those of people who were not depressed. They found that people with B12 deficiency were far more likely to be depressed.(3)
Since that time it has been shown that elderly men and women with vitamin B12 deficiency are 70% more likely to experience depression than those with normal B12 status.(4). This is very important as we know that our ability to absorb B12 decreases as we age, in turn increasing rates of B12 deficiency.
The message behind these studies and statistics is both glaring and essential, and yet time and again screening for B12 deficiency left out of conventional psychiatric treatment. It is high time we start looking at nutritional factors like B12 when it comes to mental health care.
Sources of Vitamin B12
We know that having ample amounts of B12 in the body is an essential piece for maintaining a healthy brain and stable mood. But what does this mean for you?
One of the first steps is to make sure you are getting adequate amounts of B12 in your diet. The Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) for vitamin B12 is just 2.4 mcg/day. Many people following a standard, varied diet will reach this amount, however those who avoid or limit proteins for any reason may experience difficulty in getting their RDA. The primary food sources of B12 are animal based and include fish, meat, poultry, eggs, milk and other dairy products.
Specifically, the top 5 foods most concentrated in B12 are:
1. Shellfish (clams, mussels, crab)
2. Organ Meats (like beef liver)
3. Wild-caught Fish (such as salmon, trout, mackerel)
4. Grass-fed Beef
5. Pastured Eggs
If B12 has been depleted for some time, supplementing may be necessary. Generally, vitamin B12 is best assimilated when taken as part of a full spectrum B-Complex that contains all of the other vitamins in the B group (such as B1, thiamine, niacin, riboflavin, folate etc.).
Food-based supplements like grass fed Desiccated Liver (this is the first ever USA sourced grass fed liver) will naturally provide this synergistic combination, as will fermented options like Premier Max-B-ND Live Source Vitamins.
It is also important to note that there are factors aside from diet that influence our B12 levels, and this is where many problems with deficiency arise. For example, certain medications prevent the full absorption of B12 from the gastrointestinal tract. Antacids in particular are known to diminish B12, because hydrochloric acid is necessary for cleaving B12 from foods so that it can be absorbed by the intestines. Health conditions associated with gastric inflammation also create problems with B12 assimilation. Many autoimmune conditions such as thyroiditis fall into this group.
If you are concerned that you may have a B12 deficiency that is impacting your moods and well-being, it is always best to have a conversation with your healthcare provider. Assessing for and treating B12 deficiency can be a very important piece of the recovery process in affected individuals, and a treatment that can be done relatively simply at that.
Have you ever struggled with vitamin B12 deficiency? Share below!