Vitamin B12 Facts and Figures
Vitamin B12 is a water-soluble vitamin that is naturally present in some foods, added to others, and available as a dietary supplement and a prescription medication. Vitamin B12 exists in several forms and contains the mineral cobalt 1-4, so compounds with vitamin B12 activity are collectively called “cobalamins”. Methylcobalamin and 5-deoxyadenosylcobalamin are the forms of vitamin B12 that are active in human metabolism 5.
Vitamin B12 is required for proper red blood cell formation, neurological function, and DNA synthesis 1-5. Vitamin B12 functions as a cofactor for methionine synthase and L-methylmalonyl-CoA mutase. Methionine synthase catalyzes the conversion of homocysteine to methionine 5,6. Methionine is required for the formation of S-adenosylmethionine, a universal methyl donor for almost 100 different substrates, including DNA, RNA, hormones, proteins, and lipids. L-methylmalonyl-CoA mutase converts L-methylmalonyl-CoA to succinyl-CoA in the degradation of propionate 3,5,6, an essential biochemical reaction in fat and protein metabolism. Succinyl-CoA is also required for hemoglobin synthesis.
Vitamin B12, bound to protein in food, is released by the activity of hydrochloric acid and gastric protease in the stomach 5. When synthetic vitamin B12 is added to fortified foods and dietary supplements, it is already in free form and, thus, does not require this separation step. Free vitamin B12 then combines with intrinsic factor, a glycoprotein secreted by the stomach’s parietal cells, and the resulting complex undergoes absorption within the distal ileum by receptor-mediated endocytosis 5,7. Approximately 56% of a 1 mcg oral dose of vitamin B12 is absorbed, but absorption decreases drastically when the capacity of intrinsic factor is exceeded (at 1-2 mcg of vitamin B12) 8.
Pernicious anemia is an autoimmune disease that affects the gastric mucosa and results in gastric atrophy. This leads to the destruction of parietal cells, achlorhydria, and failure to produce intrinsic factor, resulting in vitamin B12 malabsorption 3,5,9-11. If pernicious anemia is left untreated, it causes vitamin B12 deficiency, leading to megaloblastic anemia and neurological disorders, even in the presence of adequate dietary intake of vitamin B12.
Vitamin B12 status is typically assessed via serum or plasma vitamin B12 levels. Values below approximately 170–250 pg/mL (120–180 picomol/L) for adults 5 indicate a vitamin B12 deficiency. However, evidence suggests that serum vitamin B12 concentrations might not accurately reflect intracellular concentrations 6. An elevated serum homocysteine level (values >13 micromol/L) 12 might also suggest a vitamin B12 deficiency. However, this indicator has poor specificity because it is influenced by other factors, such as low vitamin B6 or folate levels 5. Elevated methylmalonic acid levels (values >0.4 micromol/L) might be a more reliable indicator of vitamin B12 status because they indicate a metabolic change that is highly specific to vitamin B12 deficiency 5-7,12.