B12 And Veganism - What You Need To Know

Molly Waring-Moore • March 23, 2020

Vegan B12 Deficiency Header

It’s actually likely that we’re all ‘deficient’ in B12, whether you’re vegan or not. However what people believe is a deficiency is more likely than not to just low levels of the vitamin.

It’s the most popular reason people give for trying to ‘debunk’ veganism and while it’s true, in part, it’s not actually an issue with veganism, it’s an issue with our whole food system. Here’s why we could be deficient, the effect it might be having on you and what you can do about it...

Why do we need B12?

B12 is essential for so many systems within the body. As detailed by Patrick Skerrett for Havard Health, B12 is needed to make red blood cells, nerves, DNA, and carry out other functions. If these functions start to break down, we can seriously compromise our immune system.

While that sounds pretty scary, deficiencies of that level are very rare. It’s more likely that people have very low levels of B12, rather than not enough to function. Low levels of B12 will still have an effect on the way you feel, but it’s not a cause to receive emergency treatment.

Dr McDougall has done extensive research into the issue of B12 so here are the facts:
“On average, for someone raised on the Western diet, about 2 to 5 milligrams of B12 are stored, mostly in the liver. This means most people have at least a three year reserve of this vital nutrient...”

“It actually takes, on average, 20 to 30 years to become deficient after becoming a strict vegan. That is if no vitamin B12 were consumed—which is impossible, even on a strict vegan diet, because of bacterial sources of B12 from the person’s bowel, contaminated vegetable foods, and the environment.”

Vegan B12 Deficiency Cows

Why are we all ‘deficient’ in B12?

As we explained in our ultimate How To Go Vegan Guide, it’s recommended that vegans supplement their B12 as they are not getting it from an animal source. B12 is not actually synthesised by animals or plants, but by bacteria. This bacteria lives in the stomachs of some animals like cows and sheep and will synthesise the B12 of produce that they eat.

Humans also have this B12 synthesising bacteria in our gut so surely we should be able to do what animals can? The truth is, we used to be able to. We used to get our B12 directly from the plants we were eating. This is because it was alive in the dirt, fertilised by faeces that contain even more of this bacteria to start the B12 synthesis. The process would begin once we consumed this bacteria and then continue in our gut and get absorbed through our intestines.

What has changed? We got too clean. We started sterilising, using pesticides, cleansers and antibiotics. We’re even feeding antibiotics to the livestock that fertilise the plant food. This means the vital bacteria is no longer available to help us absorb B12. (Source)

So now the micro amounts that we need to be exposed to are still there, we just struggle to absorb them.

Vegan B12 Deficiency Soil

Symptoms of B12 deficiency

It is uncommon for people to have a true deficiency. The symptoms of a deficiency are:

  • Weakness, tiredness, or lightheadedness
  • Heart palpitations and shortness of breath
  • Pale skin
  • A smooth tongue
  • Constipation, diarrhea, loss of appetite, or gas
  • Nerve problems like numbness or tingling, muscle weakness, and problems walking
  • Vision loss
  • Mental problems like depression, memory loss, or behavioral changes

Symptoms of low B12 levels

While B12 deficiencies are uncommon, low levels of B12 are still linked to a lot of milder symptoms in the body. Such as:

  • Fatigue
  • Brain fog
  • Problems with thinking & reasoning
  • Irritability
  • Low mood
  • Digestive problems
B12 Vegan Supplements

How can you supplement B12?

It’s always important to consult your doctor on matters of health. We cannot give you medical advice! If you are suffering from the symptoms of deficiency, see your doctor and arrange for a blood test to get to the bottom of it.

If you are not suffering from any of the more severe deficiency symptoms, you can simply supplement yourself.
As with most vitamins and supplements, your body will dispose of any B12 it does not need. If you were to begin using supplements, your body will not store anything that it is unable to. It will not have an adverse effect on any other systems in the body.

It is recommended to find B12 in the form of methylcobalamin and hydroxycobalamin as these are believed to be the most efficient.

You can also incorporate B12 into your diet through fortified plant milks and cereals. We also recommend looking out for something called ‘nutritional yeast’ which can be incorporated into meals like a seasoning and adds a cheesy tastes. Nori (seaweed) has also been tested to be a great source of B12 so consider adding it in to your diet with some vegan sushi or just as a plant based snack throughout the day.

Added benefits of B12 supplements

In addition to ensuring you have enough B12 to function properly, you might experience some added benefits as your therapeutic levels rise.

Some people reported increased focus on tasks, improved mental clarity and generally better brain function.

It is also linked to an improved metabolism as gut health increases. This will help to give you boosts of energy and aid towards weight loss efforts.

Vegan B12 Deficiency Cows
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