Vitamin B12 Deficiency and Depression

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Note from Katie: There is a good reason I regularly eat liver (or take capsules) and it isn’t the taste! Kayla Grossman, R.N. (who blogs at Radiant Life Catalog) is sharing her knowledge about an essential vitamin that can affect mental health (and deficiency can lead to depression). Enter Kayla…

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.

It has even been shown to support support the body nutritionally and hormonally, clear skin and strong nails.

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.

Additional Resources

Linus Pauling Institute: Vitamin B12

Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: B12

USDA Food Composition Database

About the author: Kayla Grossman, R.N. is a registered nurse turned researcher and real food advocate who blogs at Radiant Life Catalog (my source for supplements like Vitamin C, Astaxanthin, Probiotics, & Vitamin D and air filters, water filters, and more).

Have you ever struggled with vitamin B12 deficiency? Share below!

Sources
Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. WellnessMama.com is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.

Comments

76 responses to “Vitamin B12 Deficiency and Depression”

  1. Sara H. Avatar

    Gina,
    Please read Chris Kresser’s articles on b12. He has some excellent information. One is that you can’t get b12 from plants (spirulina). He is a former vegetarian and a clinician so he sees what actually works on people.

    A b12 deficiency is dangerous to ignore. It is basically opening the door to cancer. I lost a friend recently who was a vegan. She had 132 tumours throughout her body. Though I can’t prove it I strongly suspect she was deficient in b12.

    1. Gina Avatar

      Thank you Sara for your feedback and information. And coincidentally I’ve JUST finished watching some of Chris Kressers videos. This is all very new and interesting to me, but I intend to get myself sorted. When listening to Chris’ health background, it sounded like mine. I’m SO sorry to hear about your friend. I’m convinced like Chris said, that all of our health problems are due to the things that we eat, as well as what we don’t eat, as per this example.

  2. Gina Avatar

    I read this article, and instantly thought that’s me. I’m almost 47 and have suffered with depression practically all my life. My memory is atrocious, and I am ALWAYS tired! Numerous Blood tests over the years have shown that I have a B12 deficiency. But then I start to take pills and then stop. And the fact that I’m not a meat or dairy eater as well could have a lot to do with it. But I will definitely get on the case now, especially when I saw you mention adrenal function as well, because a Homeopath/nutritionist told me years ago after some tests that my adrenal glands were ‘knackered’! But the whole point of me writing in, is that nobody, looking through all the comments, has yet mentioned Spirulina!!!! That’s meant to be an excellent source of Vit B12, and as a matter of fact, I’m going to take some right now……..

      1. Virginia Raghoo Avatar
        Virginia Raghoo

        Hi Katie,

        I have someone who is on paxyl for depression. Is this a bad medication to use. She has been on it for about 10 years and it is so difficult to get her off it. Mood swings, vomiting, etc. occurs when she tries to go off these pills. Any suggestion please!!!

        Thank you

        1. Nancie Teresa Biver Avatar
          Nancie Teresa Biver

          Hi there, I was on Paxil for ten years. In my experience, it is a very challenging drug to get off of and live without. There are a lot of support groups out there (check Facebook) and also check online. There are resources and support for help with withdrawal getting off and getting back to life and making it through the worst of it.

          I think these B vitamins are a good resource as well. There is a man who wrote a book called and has a website called The Road Back. I have not tried his program but he recommends specific supplements for people getting off Paxil.

          It is quite a journey to undertake. But it is possible and research in healthy recovery options can make a big difference. Good luck!

  3. teresa rey Avatar
    teresa rey

    hi katie how do you feel about nutritional yeast? it has lots of the b vitamins.

  4. Sara H. Avatar

    Hi Laura,
    Unless I’m missing something (or misunderstood what you meant) methylcobalamin is not cyanocobalimin.Cynocabalimin is inferior in its absorption to methylated b12 (methylcobalimin). Jarrow has a good one and I think Seeking Health. They are sublingual because that is the best way to absorb b12. Some people have to avoid dairy and others just won’t eat liver. Still others don’t absorb enough through food (MTHFR). I would agree though if you can its always better to get it through food-but not always possible for certain people.

  5. Laura Avatar

    B12 deficiency also increases nerve pain. If you have any condition which causes pain – arthritis, sciatica, carpal tunnel, frequent headaches, etc, then low B12 will cause the pain to be intensified, often by as much as 10 times worse!

    The problem I had is that there are NO natural B12 supplements. They are all cyanocobalamine, which has a cyanide component in it, and which causes an overdose on a harmful element while the body is still in a state of deficiency for B12. It caused heart palpitations in myself, and one of my children who was also low on B12.

    We finally settled on Raw Milk, and about 2 eggs per day (average) as being the best means of resolving the B12 deficiency. It worked! I also have red meat, and liver regularly, as far as I am able. Raw milk not only helped me GET more B12, it also helped heal my digestive system a bit more so I could ABSORB more B12.

    1. Marisa Avatar

      So sorry no supplement worked for you, but the brand (Quantum Nutrition Labs) that Katie recommends is actually the only supplement out there that is probiotic-generated, and that makes it a live source. Yes, practically all the others are derived from coal tar.

    2. april Avatar

      Good to know! I just found out I’ve a b12 def. And only a week ago just started with raw milk and pastured eggs. Your re is encouraging!

    3. april Avatar

      Katie, can the beef liver capsules be broke open and mixed in with ground beef when cooking?

    4. rachel Avatar

      Cyan-colbalamin is the toxic form of B12 but it is NOT the only choice. METHYLcobalamin is the healthy
      form of B12 and the type most supplements use. I like B12 patches (without folic acid in them) by Living Nutritionals (they also make a D3 patch), B12 cream by Biolabs Pro, or I use DEVA vegan B12 2500mcg. which is bioactive fast dissolve. I do not eat animals and find it very easy to simply take a supplement; just make sure you get enough Iron/folate or B12 does not absorb.
      There is a TERRIFIC book about B12 written by an RN, Sally Pacholok who once had a serious B12 deficiency “Could it be B12”. Thank you again for the helpful information, rachel.

  6. Amy Avatar

    I agree that a lack of B 12 is a huge factor in depression. The more I study into it, I think much of the mental illness out there is a vitamin deficiency. If there is a deficiency, no amount of antidepressants will solve the problems, but only numb people to life. We have found some amazing vitamins from a not-for-profit company called True Hope. I have seen their vitamins solve very severe clinical depression, as well as bi-polar, and drug-induced scitzophrenia. Though I’m sure they won’t work for everyone, it is worth a try, to make sure your body has all the vitamins it needs before going to medication. For Hethet’s question about whether home-made beer is good for it, many people with B vitamin deficiencies crave beer, because of the brewers yeast in it, but it is a double edged sword, as beer depletes the B vitamins. I am starting to think many alcoholics are very B vitamin deficient as well. There is a very interesting old book called, Mind, Body and the B-vitamins, which explains a lot about this.

    1. Katie L Avatar
      Katie L

      Amy, check out the book “The Mind Game” by Phillip Day for more on curing many mental illnesses through nutrition.

    2. Lena Avatar

      The true hope vitamin are great!!! Definitely help me and my sis. I agree many mental disorders are from nutrition deficiencies!

  7. Sara H. Avatar

    Amanda,
    You will have to supplement. You want to make sure that you take a methylated form of folate and B12 (should be taken together). Jarrow has a good methyl b12 and Solgar a good folate (metafolin). Do not take within 2 hours of taking vit C which will compromise absorption. 40-50% of the population has at least one MTHFR mutation and that makes regular folic acid toxic to those people. If you don’t get tested its better to avoid folic acid (which is synthetic) and take folate which is a better absorbed anyway. That might be one reason why going gluten free has helped so many people-avoiding the folic acid that the government requires in our fortified food.

    Something else to note is that most doctors use the wrong test to test for b12. The test should read ACTIVE b12 in the blood but most tests read inactive making the persons b12 status look better than it really is.

    Chris Kresser’s website chriskresser.com really has some articles on b12 worth reading.

  8. Sheri Avatar

    I love Universal Nutrition Uni-Liver Tablets. It’s liver in a pill-form! And, it is made from grass-fed beef.

  9. Amanda Avatar

    Very interesting! I’m a vegetarian are there any foods that I can eat with an adequate amount of b12?

    1. Marcela Avatar

      Eggs are reasonably high. In food it is really only found in animal products (to my knowledge). The supplements, however, are vegetarian (it’s actually produced by a bacteria — but plants are not able to store B12, which is why the only food sources come from animals). If you don’t have enough eggs or dairy in your diet (or you’re vegan), it’s definitely a good idea to take one of the supplements mentioned in this thread.

    2. Al Avatar

      Hi Amanda!
      I’ve been on raw food,mostly vegan (occasionally raw yolk from my free range hens,less and less raw meat-I get pretty sick on cooked meat although I like the taste of it 🙁 ,almost no fish…maybe 2 times x year,no dairy)
      for 4 years now,and I feel much better (not perfect!) than the year I tryed eating meat once a week,as I was told for B 12 and protein.
      Seemingly,B12 is damaged by heat (cooked meat,or eggs,or dairy),so that makes little sense ( to me).
      Also,I’ve read the bacteria responsible for B12 are found on NOT TOO CLEAN vegetables (organic,not from over polluted areas,etc.)
      You gotta “eat dirt”,walk bare foot in dirt and grass,etc.,get back in touch with nature!
      Everything is so boiled,pasteurized,CLEAN nowdays,it can’t be good..
      I also quit body soaps (just scrub!) 12 years ago and shampoo 4years ago,and am experimenting with alternatives for dishes…not totally tryumphant yet.
      I would really like to know other’s stories,as there isn’t too much info about this kind of experiments…
      I hope yo find your answers!

  10. Cheryl Avatar

    I have always struggled with lack of energy and mood swings. Was once diagnosed with depression and was prescribed antidepressants but refused to take them. Found that staying healthy was the best medicine. Can anyone recommend an affordable B supplement?

    1. Clare Perry Avatar
      Clare Perry

      Hi,

      I have started a patch vit b which is working well – you wear for 24 hours and then remove – helps energy and sleep – you can use 2-3 x a week early days but def imporvement.

    2. rachel Avatar

      DEVA fast dissolve B12 with Bioactive Methycobalamin is terrific. I buy 3 bottles at a time.
      This seems to be a more natural versus totally artificial B12.

  11. Tracy Revalee Avatar
    Tracy Revalee

    I was diagnosed with bipolar illness 30+ years ago. My functional medicine doctor and psychiatrist prescribe B12 complex as part of a huge supplementation profile; I also have the MTHF gene mutation. In addition to a gluten/sugar/dairy free diet, the protocol works.

  12. Liz Avatar

    I love your blog! I’m also very interested in health and take it very seriously as far as my family is concerned. Penelope has been eating B-12 heavy foods from an early age so I’m happy to say she loves liver and shellfish, pretty much everything on the list. Great post, very informational!

  13. Mindy Avatar

    Excellent article. I have clinical B12 deficiency. My doctor isn’t sure yet specifically why. I receive an intramuscular injection monthly since adding B12 to my diet proved ineffective to raise levels and diminish symptoms. My symptoms were very like those from MS and Alzhiemers Disease, but my brain scans were clear. My left leg remains affected and drags still, but has not worsened since injections. The key here that I’d like to express is how important it truly is to seek medical counsel when things start to go wrong. I’m not vegetarian. I eat meat. I have taken supplements. I’ve taken the pills my chiropractor gave me for B12 (liver parts or something like that) and I continued to decline…
    I thought I was going to lose all my memories. I didn’t care much about the leg and other weakness issues. I didn’t like the fatigue, but could deal with it. I certainly can attest to the depression angle, but that was rarely an issue for me specifically ( though it did surface from time to time). It was the severe memory loss and symptoms of dementia (didn’t recognize my daughter at times. Didn’t know my sister amongst other general confusion and memory glitches) that I couldn’t accept. It was this that lead me to make an appointment with a neurologist. Now, I feel like me again! B12 shot every month, a high dose of folic acid and vitamin D daily, and maintaining my healthy habits! All better!

  14. cori Avatar

    thanks for this article! I have perniscious anemia and have had it for about 4 years now and I am 31 years old. I take a b12 shot every month because my body doesn’t absorb b12 from food. I’ve always been curious about what causes it the disease and if I can ever be cured, but I’ve had a hard time finding any information. would be curious to know if you have any info on it. I have also struggled with anxiety which im sure can be attributed to my b12 issues.

    1. Rachel Avatar

      Ask your doctor, or look around, for oxygen therapy. It does wonders for anemia as well as cooking regularily in an iron pan!

      1. Marcela Avatar

        The iron pan’s a great tip for iron deficiency, but despite the name, “pernicious anemia” has to do less with “anemia” and more to do with an inability to absorb B12 effectively from the digestive tract (hence Cori’s need for injections). A lack of B12 (because of pernicious anemia, diet, or other absorption issues) can sometimes lead to secondary iron deficiency because the body may not be able to properly utilize iron even if you are getting it in your food (especially if you’re also low on folate), which is one other reason why WellnessMama’s tips (or injections in some cases) are important.

    2. Al Avatar

      Hello Cori;
      Wondering if you’re doing any better?
      Seems like “leaky gut” and other inflammatory conditions can have to do with B12 deficiencies…
      Curious to read about you,and others who know anything about this!

  15. Heathet Avatar
    Heathet

    Thanks for the great post! What about home made beer and marmite as good sources of b vitamins? I’d love to hear your opinion.

  16. Kerri Avatar

    Timely article! My 8-year old son has definitely dealt with some depression and sadness in the last few months and I really think he is deficient in B vitamins. Any suggestions for chewable versions for kids that might help as a supplement?

    1. April Avatar

      There are many b-12 vitamins on the market that dissolve under your tongue. Check the directoons and for lozenges.

    2. Marisa Avatar

      The brand that Katie recommends should be diluted in water. You can add any juice, cool tea (I make peppermint w/honey, then refrigerate), or honey/lemon mix to disguise the taste. I have taken this for years, and children just need 1/8 to 1/4 tsp a day. I’d also start slowly, then increase after 3-5 days, as the body likes it so much, it immediately uses it.

  17. Sharon Avatar

    Thank you for this article. I’ve struggled with these issues as well as getting enough B vitamins. I’ve also learned recently that my body expresses B vitamins because of the MTHFR mutation. My blood work shows it pushes it out into my blood and doesn’t use it. The doctor has put me on a special methylated form of B vitamins that includes folate ( which was touched on in the article). That is essential and we want to make sure it’s not folic. I’ll look into the liver issue more. It’s interesting, over 30 years ago I was told by a person I needed to take liver capsules. ..I took them for awhile and then stopped. Sounds like he wasn’t far off.

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