According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population have marginal vitamin B12 status and 9 percent are deficient.1 Vitamin B12 insufficiency and deficiency increase your risk of serious health problems, many of which mimic more serious neurological diseases and can easily lead to misdiagnosis and improper treatment.

Neurological problems, in particular, are a possibility even at the “low normal” range at or just below 258 picomoles per liter (pmol/L). A level of 148 pmol/L or less is considered a deficiency state. As noted by the USDA:2

“Deficiency can cause a type of anemia marked by fewer but larger red blood cells. It can also cause walking and balance disturbances, a loss of vibration sensation, confusion and, in advanced cases, dementia. The body requires B12 to make the protective coating surrounding the nerves. So, inadequate B12 can expose nerves to damage.”

Indeed, vitamin B123 is vital for many functions throughout your body. B12 is required for:

Producing adrenal hormones

Metabolizing folate

Digestion and metabolizing fat and carbs

Formation of red blood cells

Iron absorption

Proper blood circulation

Reproductive health

Modulation of gut microbial ecology4

Nervous system function

Nerve growth and function

Synthesizing of DNA

Regulation and coordination of cell growth5

B12 Deficiency Mimics Many Serious Neurological Disorders and Diseases

As noted in the featured video, B12 deficiency can look exactly like multiple sclerosisAlzheimer’s disease and autism. The film is made by registered nurse Sally Pacholok, a leading advocate for B12 deficiency awareness.6 According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a deficiency can even affect a woman’s Pap test, which screens for cervical cancer.

Low B12 can affect the appearance of cervical cells, which can result in a false positive.7 Deficiency also raises your risk of heart disease. Vegans or strict vegetarians who abstain from animal products and do not supplement their diet with vitamin B12 will typically become anemic. Nervous and digestive system damage can also result.8

Claims that B12 is present in certain algae, tempeh and brewer’s yeast fail to take into account that the B12 analogues present in these foods are not bioavailable. The only reliable and absorbable sources of vitamin B12 are animal products. However, even animal foods have become a questionable source thanks to modern farming practices and, for this reason, many experts now believe most people really need to take a B12 supplement to ensure healthy B12 status.9

B12 Deficiency Widespread Even Among Meat Eaters

Interestingly, research shows no association between B12 blood levels and consumption of meat, poultry and fish — the primary sources of B12.10 According to the researchers, rampant B12 insufficiency is not due to lack of meat consumption. Rather, the vitamin simply isn’t being properly absorbed. B12 is tightly bound to proteins and high acidity is required to break this bond. In essence, a lot of people simply do not have sufficient stomach acid to separate the B12 from the protein.

The researchers speculate that the widespread use of antacids plays a significant role, especially among younger people. In a previous article,11 Dr. Jennifer Rooke, assistant professor in the department of community health and preventive medicine at Morehouse School of Medicine, also notes that factory farmed meat simply does not contain the B12 levels we’re used to.

The reason for this is because animals raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) aren’t fed their natural diet. Cows are fed corn and grains, most of which are genetically engineered (GE) and loaded with pesticides, rather than grass. The same goes for chickens, the natural diet of which are insects, worms, seeds and berries, not GE corn

“It is true that animal products contain B12, and strict vegetarians/vegans are at risk for B12 deficiency, but absorbing B12 from animal products is a very complex process and people who eat meat may be at equal or greater risk for B12 deficiency,” Rooke writes. The reason CAFO animals don’t produce as much B12 is because B12 is made by bacteria that live in both soil and the guts of animals. Cows and chickens raised on pasture obtain the vitamin from the dirt on their food.

Pesticides also kill off soil bacteria, which is why conventionally grown grains are not a good source of B12, and CAFO animals are routinely given antibiotics, which also kill of these beneficial microbes. “In order to maintain meat a source of B12 the meat industry now adds it to animal feed; 90 percent of B12 supplements produced in the world are fed to livestock.

Even if you only eat grass fed organic meat you may not be able to absorb the B12 attached to animal protein. It may be more efficient to just skip the animals and get B12 directly from supplements,” Rooke writes.