For many, vitamin B-12 brings to mind injections to boost energy. While this relates to the vitamin's traditional role of keeping red blood cells healthy, emerging research reveals that B-12 also offers many other health benefits.
Recent evidence reveals that even the low end of "normal" B-12 levels can create havoc with health, prompting scientists to view this nutrient in a whole new light.
Some experts now suggest that vitamin B-12 may rival vitamin D as the latest key nutrient that many Americans - especially older people - don't get enough of and could benefit from more. Most people, however, don't need injections. Inadequate B-12 levels are quite common and harmful, but fortunately easy treated.
Health benefits of vitamin B12:
- Boost Brain Power. A high B-12 status helps you maintain a healthy brain. Older people with lower-than-average B-12 levels were found to be six times more likely to show signs of brain shrinkage, a possible forerunner to impaired cognitive function and Alzheimer's disease. (University of Oxford study)
- Deter Depression. B-12's involvement with brain health may help explain its link to depression. A classic study from the National Institute of Aging found women with low B-12 levels were more than twice as likely to develop depression as women with normal B-12 status. More recent research from Spain suggest the same but found that a low B-12 intake led to more depression only among women, not men.
- Beef up Bones. In the Framingham Offspring Osteoporosis Study of 2,567 men and women, those with low B-12 levels had lower-than-average bone mineral density. In another study, frail women were more likely to have low B-12 levels. B-12 appears to help bones by aiding osteoblasts (bone building cells) and lowering levels of the amino acid homocysteine.
- Ease Eye Disease.A Harvard study observed that 34% of participants had a reduced risk of age related macular degeneration when taking high doses of B-12. By lowering homocysteine and providing antioxidant effects, blood vessel function in the eye improved after supplementing with 1,000 micrograms of B-12.
- Halt Hearing Loss. There may be a connection between B-12 deficiency and hearing. One study found that low blood levels of vitamin B-12 were linked to a higher risk of hearing loss in a small group of healthy women in their 60's.
As we age, our stomachs produce less gastric acid - a condition referred to as atrophic gastritis - which reduces the body's ability to absorb naturally occuring vitamin B-12 that's bound to protein in foods like red meat. People who regularily take medications such as Prilosec, Prevacid and Zantac increase their risk for impaired B-12 absorption.
There is no official upper limit for B-12 intake, so over doing it is not a big concern. However, taking high dose supplements of 1,000 micrograms or getting B-12 injections are necessary only if blood levels are truly suboptimal. And extra B-12 is not a magic elixir.
This vitamin is most abundant in protein foods of animal origin, though absorption varies. In one study, dairy products and fish, in particular, were better than meat and eggs at raising B-12 blood levels. Best food sources are:
- Fortified breakfast cereal.
- Wild salmon.
- Light, water packed tuna.
- Non fat plain yogurt.
- Low fat cottage cheese.
- Non fat milk.
- Tenderloin beef.
Synthetic B-12, found in supplements and fortified foods like cereals, don't require stomach acid for absorption, so are particularily suited for people 50 and older. Some experts suggest the time is right for B-12 fortification of foods, much like the addition of folic acid to enriched grains.
In summary, vitamin B-12 is essential for the maintenance of healthy nervous tissue and plays a role in energy metabolism in the body.
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