B12 is an important water-soluble vitamin. In contrast to other water-soluble vitamins it is not excreted quickly in the urine, but rather accumulates and is stored in the liver, kidney and other body tissues. As a result, a vitamin B12 deficiency may not manifest itself until after 5 or 6 years of a diet supplying inadequate amounts. Vitamin B12 functions as a methyl donor and works with folic acid in the synthesis of DNA and red blood cells and is vitally important in maintaining the health of the insulation sheath (myelin sheath) that surrounds nerve cells. The classical vitamin B12 deficiency disease is pernicious anemia, a serious disease characterized by large, immature red blood cells. It is now clear though, that a vitamin B12 deficiency can have serious consequences long before anemia is evident. The normal blood level of vitamin B12 ranges between 200 and 600 picogram/milliliter (148-443 picomol/liter).
A deficiency often manifests itself first in the development of neurological dysfunction that is almost indistinguishable from senile dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. There is little question that many patients exhibiting symptoms of Alzheimer’s actually suffer from a vitamin B12 deficiency. Their symptoms are totally reversible through effective supplementation. A low level of vitamin B12 has also been associated with asthma, depression, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, tinnitus, diabetic neuropathy and low sperm counts. Clearly, it is very important to maintain adequate body stores of this crucial vitamin.
Vitamin B12 is not absorbed very well so much larger amounts need to be supplied, through the diet or supplementation. The richest dietary sources of vitamin B12 are liver, especially lamb’s liver, and kidneys. Eggs, cheese and some species of fish also supply small amounts, but vegetables and fruits are very poor sources. Several surveys have shown that most strict, long-term vegetarians are vitamin B12 deficient. Many elderly people are also deficient because their production of the intrinsic factor needed to absorb the vitamin from the small intestine decline rapidly with age.