How vitamin B12 helps protect your brain
As we grow older, it’s normal to start experiencing symptoms of mild cognitive impairment, such as occasional memory loss. Certain brain changes are a normal part of the aging process, and symptoms like mild forgetfulness don’t necessarily signal a larger problem such as dementia.
There are steps you can take, however, to protect against cognitive decline. Eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and even periodically fasting can help protect the brain as you age. It’s also important to ensure you get adequate levels of essential nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, and vitamin B12.
What causes age-related memory loss?
The hippocampus — part of the brain is responsible for the formation and retrieval of memories — often deteriorates with age, and decreased blood flow to the brain can also contribute to impaired cognitive performance. As you age, hormones and proteins responsible for protecting and repairing brain cells and stimulating neural growth also begin to decline.
Adequate levels of B12, also known as cobalamin, may help protect against some of these changes. A 2016 study found that adults over the age of 60 with higher levels of B12 experienced a decreased rate of brain volume loss over an eight-year period.
B12 is an important vitamin that helps maintain healthy nerve cells and aids in the production of DNA. It also helps support the immune system and mood. Cobalamin deficiencies in older adults are common. As you age, your ability to absorb vitamin B12 from food diminishes. Low levels are also common among vegetarians and vegans, as B12 is primarily found in animal products such as meat, eggs, and cheese.
How B12 helps protect the brain
There are two ways that vitamin B12 may help protect against cognitive decline: methylation and homocysteine detoxification.
- Methylation refers to a chemical reaction that occurs in every cell and tissue throughout the body, in which methyl groups are added to a molecule. This helps regulate a variety of processes related to DNA, immune response, amino acid metabolism, and more. Vitamin B12 aids in the production of a compound called S-Adenosyl methionine, often referred to as SAM-e, which aids in the process of methylation.
SAM-e is also required for cellular growth and repair, and is involved in the production of several hormones and neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters control communication throughout the brain and the rest of the body and help regulate processes related to cognition, memory, mood, and concentration. Neurotransmitter imbalances can cause a wide range of symptoms including brain fog, poor decision making, fatigue, insomnia, headaches, mood swings, irritability, anxiety, insulin resistance, hormonal imbalances, and more.
- Homocysteine is an amino acid that appears in the blood after eating meat. Elevated levels of homocysteine are associated with heart disease as well as cognitive impairment. Studies have shown that B vitamins, including B12, B9, and B6, help lower homocysteine levels and may help protect against cognitive decline.
How to get more B12
Most people who eat meat, fish, and dairy should be able to get the recommended daily allowance of B12. However, low levels of B12 are usually caused by poor absorption rather than nutritional deficiencies. Absorption of B12 requires the presence of intrinsic factor, a protein produced by cells in the stomach. People with certain genetic variants in the FUT2 gene may have lower levels of intrinsic factor and therefore experience more difficulty absorbing B12 from their diet. Older adults may also have a decreased ability to absorb vitamin B12 from food.
If you think you may be at risk of impaired B12 absorption, try taking a B12 sublingual spray rather than an oral supplement.
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