Vitamin B12 – A Bacteria Story

Maybe you’ve heard, but an increasing number of Americans are deficient in Vitamin B12 (also called cobalamin).

This water-soluble vitamin is vital to our brain health and overall function. In fact, a deficiency is associated with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease. Although people can get this vitamin through consuming animal products, animals don’t actually make this vitamin at all. Neither do plants. Bacteria are the sole synthesizers of B12.

So how do we end up getting our recommended daily values from animals products then? 

Like humans, all animals have a microbiome. The bacteria that make up a healthy microbial environment create Vitamin B12 as a byproduct. Many write off vegetarian and vegan diets as not well suited for humans because animal products are thought to be the only source of cobalamin in our food supply. Research has found there are natural sources of B12 suitable for both vegetarians and vegans, however. Nevertheless, both meat eaters and non-meat eaters suffer from a deficiency of B12 in today’s world. It is not enough to simply eat animal products and hope you are not deficient because of it.

How does this happen?

For one, the B12 that is in our diets does not always get absorbed. We need optimal stomach acid levels in order to properly digest and absorb B12 from food. Many people suffer from low stomach acid levels. Causes range widely from our diet to even parasites (which are much more common than most realize). Either way, various things compromise our stomach acid. Acid blockers compound the problem and make it even worse. Although it seems counterintuitive, low acid levels frequently cause heartburn. Furthermore, B12 is not the only vitamin that goes unabsorbed when our stomach acid pH is not in the proper range. The bottom line is, low stomach acid leads to poor nutrient absorption all around.

Maybe there is another piece to the puzzle.

Since bacteria in the microbiome synthesize B12, humans actually can and do create cobalamin internally. This synthesis happens in the intestines for most people though. This occurs past the point where it would be absorbed and utilized by the body. If we think about this a little further, why would the bacteria that create a vitamin we need to function exist in a part of our bodies where we can’t even get the benefit of the vitamin they create? This just doesn’t seem right. Our bodies are designed better than that.

Maybe a better answer is that those bacteria migrated downstream. The inhospitable environment in their original home forced them to move. As a result, we lost out on the benefits of our own B12 factory. Stomach acid levels are part of the story, but antibiotics play a huge role as well. Antibiotics kill bacteria indiscriminately. It doesn’t matter if it is the bacteria that is causing an illness or if it is the bacteria creating a necessary nutrient. They all die as a result.

Even a single course of antibiotics forever changes the microbiome. Yes, there are absolutely things we can do to rebuild our gut flora, but it will never be the same as it was pre-antibiotic. Some of the strains of beneficial bacteria are simply too delicate. It is common for antibiotics to be part of the protocol when raising animals for food as well. This fact may contribute to animal products being unable to prevent a B12 deficiency in humans.

So what can we do?

First and foremost, avoid acid blockers, antacids, and antibiotics whenever possible. Consuming probiotics is another awesome way to seed our gut microbiome. There has even been an animal study done with Lactobacillus Reuteri that showed supplementing with this specific strain of bacteria helps with the internal synthesis and absorption of Vitamin B12.  Gut health is majorly important. It is the foundation of the immune system, and we need to nourish it.

Additionally, Vitamin B12 supplementation may be necessary. The world we live in compromises our health and drastically diminishes our body’s ability to manufacture this vitamin or receive it from our food supply. In an ideal world, we would get all our nutrients from our diet alone. When that is not possible, supplements can be extremely helpful. In some cases, they might be essential.

Work with a practitioner who can help you on your journey toward improving your gut health. You don’t want to overlook the importance of your diet. However, the world’s best diet won’t account for much if your gut can’t absorb what you are eating. When the gut is healthy, the body is happy.

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