The B12 Craze: Should You Be Supplementing?
The latest trendy product around town isn't a hot handbag. It's a vitamin.
B12 has entered the spotlight as a cure-all for everything from low energy to digestion issues to dementia, and people everywhere are getting it shot into their veins or are popping it in pill form. Trendy West Coast juice bar Earthbar offers B12 injections on its menu, and socialites like DJ-model Chelsea Leyland cite the shots as keys to their healthy routines. Heidi Klum's trainer David Kirsch sells it in spray form, and spa brand Bliss stocks Nutricosmetics Glow Sticks packed with the vitamin.
"There’s a mythology built up around B12 that it’s the only thing that gives people energy," says nutritionist-to-the-stars Oz Garcia, who often tests clients for deficiencies and also offers an IV drip vitamin formula that includes B12 for particularly run-down, jet-lagged clients.
One reason it's so popular is that many celebrities do it—and the other is that many people really don't get enough. One large study found that nearly 40 percent of adults were deficient, and some doctors say it's probably much higher. So should you be supplementing? We got all of the need-to-know facts:
What it's good for
All B vitamins help your body convert food into usable energy, which is, well, a pretty key process. And B12 plays a big role in cell metabolism, the production of red blood cells, and the maintenance of the central nervous system. Its very long to-do list (make red blood cells! protect nervous system!), involving so many crucial body processes, is what makes getting enough B12 important. And you thought you were busy.
"Basically, B12 can help with a litany of systems," says nutritional consultant and health coach Mara Feil. "There are lots of times people go to the doctor with unexplained low energy, low mood, depression, etc., and one of the catch-alls is 'is this person deficient?'"
"It's really good for the heart," adds Garcia, "and we know now, for instance, from a number of interesting studies out of Europe in particular, that the use of B12 is very protective of the human brain." No wonder everybody wants a piece, right?
Getting B12 in your diet
Of course, the best idea is to make foods rich in B12, like beef, oysters, salmon, and eggs, part of your regular diet. But unfortunately, there are no vegetarian or vegan sources (other than fortified foods like soy milk) of the vitamin.
Some claim spirulina and other sea vegetables are sources, "but they actually contain a compound that resembles B12, and it’s not absorbed as well in humans, so it's generally not considered a reliable source," Feil says.
Even among those ingesting it, absorption can be a big issue, especially for those with digestive problems and older people who lack the stomach acid needed to assimilate it.
B12 supplements and shots
If you're going to try supplementing, one option is stocking B12 next to your multi. But don't just grab the first bottle you see. There are two kinds—cyanocobalamin and methylcobalamin—and the majority of pills are made with cyano, a cheaper form that's difficult for the body to absorb. "All of these people taking B12 think they’re taking good B12, but the B12 is not finding its way into our cells where it's able to do its job," Feil says. In short, check the label and opt for methyl.
Shots or IV drips, on the other hand, are always methyl and also bypass the digestive system, skipping the absorption hurdle. You just have to, well, get a shot.
Are you B12 deficient?
For the average person, Garcia suggests getting tested for a deficiency first. Then, he tends to recommend "sublingual" supplements that dissolve under the tongue as a first course. "If you’re deficient and you need B12, you're going to do very well with it pretty quickly," he says, meaning you'll most likely notice a marked difference in your energy.
If you're not deficient, the change will be harder to pinpoint, and it's important to keep in mind that vitamins don't work in a vacuum. "They all have synergies with other vitamins," Feil says. "You have to think of it as one cog in the wheel as opposed to the entire wheel."
Garcia agrees, and predicts B12's moment may soon fade. "B12 is in my opinion useful but very old school if you need energy now. There are so many other things that we know produce energy almost immediately." But that's another story altogether. —Lisa Elaine Held
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