|LE Magazine December 2000 |
Surprising New Findings
by: Terri Mitchell
Page 1 of 4
For years, vitamin B12 languished as the vitamin that cures anemia. Hardly any research was done into what this vitamin could do for non-anemic people. It turns out that it may do a lot. New studies show that the right amount of B12 can protect against dementia, boost immune function, maintain nerves, regenerate cells and more. B12 is in the news because it lowers homocysteine and protects against atherosclerosis. It’s also vital for maintaining methylation reactions that repair DNA and prevent cancer. One of the crucial areas for B12 is the brain.
It’s not surprising that people with B12 deficiency develop mental disorders. The vitamin is crucial for the synthesis or utilization of important neuro-factors including monoamines, melatonin and serotonin. In addition, B12 is absolutely critical for the function and maintenance of nerves themselves. B12 is needed for methylation reactions that maintain these cells, and enable them to function. For this reason, the methylated form of B12, methylcobalamin, may be superior to other forms of the vitamin. Methylcobalamin is considered “bioactive”, which means that it doesn’t have to undergo any chemical reactions in the body before it starts working.
B12 contributes to brain function by lowering homocysteine. Homocysteine is a toxic by-product of methionine metabolism that can damage neurons. Importantly, homocysteine interferes with the methylation reactions critical for brain function. Studies show that people with elevated homocysteine can’t think.
I can’t remember
B12-deficiency can cause a dementia that looks exactly like Alzheimer’s disease. And Alzheimer’s disease itself is characterized by brain deficiencies of both vitamin B12 and the methylating factor, S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe). A new study from Germany correlates B12 deficiency in Alzheimer’s patients with two personality changes—irritability and disturbed behavior.
The connection between B12 deficiency and mental illness has been documented repeatedly. According to the latest research, as much as 30% of hospitalized mental patients may be deficient in the vitamin. And what’s disturbing is that studies repeatedly show that the deficiency is frequently missed by standard blood tests. For example, a recent study from Germany shows that out of 67 hemodialysis patients who were B12-deficient by the measurement of methylmalonic acid (it goes up when B12 goes down), only two of them were deficient by a standard blood test. Looking at the data, one can’t help but wonder how many people with B12 deficiency get treated for mental illness when what they should get is a vitamin!
B12 and folate
Folate deficiency can also produce mental symptoms, although it is less common. Folate and vitamin B12 are both required for biochemical reactions that occur in the brain. One won’t work without the other: a deficiency in one produces a deficiency in the other.
Should a folate deficiency be suspected, both folate and vitamin B12 should be taken. This is because the deficiencies look so similar. If the deficiency is, in fact, B12 instead of folate, folate will appear to correct it in blood cells (where deficiencies are measured). But folate will not correct a B12 deficiency in the brain. Permanent brain damage can result if B12 deficiency is treated with folate. For years, this problem has caused the government to resist supplementing the food supply with significant amounts of folate. Be aware, also, that high amounts of folate in the absence of adequate B12 can provoke or worsen neurological conditions. It’s important to get adequate amounts of both of these vitamins simultaneously.
Many studies have been done on the issue of whether B12 deficiency relates to age-related cognitive decline in normal people. Results have been mixed. One of the problems is getting an accurate reading on B12 levels. Blood levels don’t necessarily reflect tissue levels. Another problem is that folate deficiency can complicate the picture. A study in people 65+ found that folate levels significantly correlate with cognitive function, but B12 did not. Another study published at the same time (but using a different kind of evaluation) found that supplemental B12 improves cognition, notably, a person’s ability to remember words.