Vitamin B12 is one of the eight B vitamins and plays a key role in the normal functioning of the brain, the nervous system, and in the formation of blood. Also called cobalamin, this vitamin is involved in the metabolism of every cell in the body. In addition, B12 assists the body in converting carbohydrates and fats into energy, making red blood cells, producing DNA, and protects the nervous system. Vitamin B12 can be found in animal products such as meat, eggs, fish, and dairy. However, in a vegan diet it should be supplemented daily to prevent deficiency, despite the fact that the body requires only a small amount of B12 for proper functioning.
Risks of B12 Deficiency in Childbirth and Pregnancy
This is especially important in regards to childbirth and rearing children on a vegan diet. In a report published by the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. E.D. Shinwell, and Dr. Rafael Gorodischer summarize their observations on a group of vegan children born to parents who were members of a vegan religious community in Israel and do not believe in supplementation. Of the undisclosed number of infants that were breastfed for three months, and then given a solution of diluted homemade soymilk for three months to a year, 47 infants were found to have severe growth retardation, and 25 of them had high protein deficiency, iron and B12 anemia, and zinc deficiency. Out of the group, three babies were dead upon arrival, and an additional five died shortly after being admitted to a hospital.
Another study completed by the National Institute of Health, Trinity College Dublin, and the Health Research Board of Ireland, concluded that women, “with low levels of B12 were 2.5 to three times more likely to have a child with neural tube defect.” Those women in the study who were classified as deficient were five times more likely to have a child with a birth defect.
On a more positive note, two studies confirmed the good news that with supplementation, and a properly designed diet, vegan children do grow normally. In 1988, Dr. Tom Sanders in the UK studied 39 vegan children who were breastfed for six months at a minimum, when there was B12 supplementation. The children were then monitored for twenty years. In all of the subjects, the children had normal growth and development. Following this, in 1989, Dr. Connell conducted a study in Summertown, Tennessee, which was also long term and monitored 404 vegan children. He discovered that the subjects, developed normally and had a slower growth curve, but they reached the same level of growth as omnivorous children by the age of 10.
Symptoms of B12 Deficiency
Of the many symptoms that may arise to indicate a level of B12 deficiency, low energy may be the first indicator. Many people report that when eradicating meat and dairy from their diet, their energy level decreases. This can possibly be attributed to a decrease in the body’s intake of B12. Other symptoms include:
- feeling weak, lethargic, and lightheaded
- pale skin
- a sore red tongue or bleeding gums
- feeling sick to the stomach and weight loss
- diarrhea and constipation
If the level of vitamin B12 stays low for a long time, it can cause nerve system degeneration. If this happens, you may have any of these neurological symptoms:
- numbness or tingling in fingers and toes
- a poor sense of balance
- impaired memory
- hyperactive reflexes
- dementia, a loss of mental abilities
Preventing B12 Deficiency
When animal products like milk, cheese, and eggs are incorporated into one’s diet, B12 deficiency will likely be prevented. However, Vensanto Melina, Registered Dietician, and author of Raising Vegetarian Children, asserts that the claim that animal products contain essential nutrients that are not found anywhere else is false. She clarifies that Vitamin B12 comes from bacteria, and in animal products is present as a result of bacterial contamination. To further this assertion, in an interview, raw food expert and author David Wolfe stated that a very large percent of meat-eaters are also unknowingly B12 deficient.
One can prevent deficiency by supplementing B12 daily in the form of a vitamin pill or liquid supplement. David Wolfe claimed that the most viable food source of B12 is spirulina, a blue green algae, which can be purchased as a powder supplement or in pill form. Other sources recommend intake of foods fortified with synthetic B12, but that may require vigilant label reading and several portions daily to ensure that enough B12 has been consumed. The most economical method is a vitamin pill or the liquid vitamin supplement, which is absorbed by the body easier.
The daily recommended value for persons over the age of 14 is 2.4 micrograms, and for pregnant and lactating women 2.6-2.8 micrograms. Based on the risk of birth defects among women with low or deficient B12, it is highly recommended that women who are of child bearing age begin taking the daily recommended amount of B12 prior to pregnancy. If choosing a liquid supplement, be sure to check the label an avoid supplements that contain artificial additives such as sugar, casein, or soy, discern the shelf life, and check if the supplement is free from propylene glycol (chemical stabilizer used in antifreeze), sorbitol (can cause diarrhea), or glycerine (sweetener that can raise blood sugar levels).