The global group understanding vitamin B12’s role in our health

13th January 2023

An international group of clinicians and scientists are working together to understand and raise awareness of the health impacts associated with vitamin B12 deficiency.

The CluB-12 group was co-founded by the Quadram Institute’s Professor Martin Warren who studies the chemistry and biology of vitamin B12. Here we find out more about the group and why vitamin B12 is important for our health.

How CluB-12 started

“CluB-12 came about from a discussion between myself, a GP from Oxford and Julian Owen, an orthopaedic surgeon from Addenbrookes”, explains Martin.

“We realised that there was a disconnect between basic science research and medical practice with B12 treatment, especially in the UK.

We wanted to bring together those interested in B12 to integrate the science and medical spheres and particularly develop more interest from the medical side in B12 treatment.”

The club started in March 2020 with members from the UK, EU and India and now spans the globe. They meet every two weeks virtually and are hoping to hold an annual in person meeting in the future. Members include patients, patient group representatives, scientists, GPs and medics.

Vitamin B12 deficiency symptoms

Vitamin B12 is an essential micronutrient. It is important in producing our red blood cells and involved with energy, metabolism and nerve function in our bodies.

Lack of vitamin B12 can cause a range of symptoms. Signs may include cognitive changes like depression, memory impairment, confusion, psychosis, tiredness and shortness of breath and neurological complications. These can lead to issues like muscle weakness or loss of mental and physical drive.

“The main issue is that B12 has symptoms reflecting aspects of nutrition, gastroenterology, neurology and hematology and so it falls between many disciplines. Hence there is a lack of clinical expertise on B12 in the UK”, highlights Martin.

“In CluB-12 we’re working together on the clinical determination of B12 levels, the availability and treatment of those requiring additional B12 (including frequency of injections) and oral versus injection delivery of B12.

“We’re also interested in the bioavailability of B12 in foods and the role that analogue forms of B12 may play in health. There is a focus too, on why some patients appear to need more B12 than others and that leads onto questions about B12 delivery and distribution of the nutrient.”

Concerns for vitamin B12 in vegan and vegetarian diets

A new paper published by cluB-12 in the European Journal of Nutrition highlights that vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient that is absent from unfortified plant-based foods.

The group encourages people moving to a vegan diet to take a certified supplement of the vitamin at mealtimes and seek professional help if they have any symptoms relating to possible B12 deficiency.

The usual dietary sources of vitamin B12 are animal foods including meat, milk, egg, fish, and shellfish. It can also be found in some algal source such as seaweed and Chlorella.

Martin points out, “Veganuary is an increasingly popular way of trying out a plant-based diet. A plant-based diet can have many health benefits, but there are some risks of not getting enough essential micronutrients, which can impact mental and physical health.

Martin continues, “There is a quiet epidemic of vitamin B12 deficiency and insufficiency among vegan populations. We are concerned, for example, that current UK vitamin B12 intake recommendations do not consider pregnancy. The recommendations need to be updated urgently.

An appropriately planned vegan diet has the potential to uphold a healthy and sustainable life, but consideration of a complete diet is essential.”

Key recommendations for people choosing a vegan or vegetarian diet

The CluB-12 group offer the following recommendations if you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet:

  • Take a daily supplement containing 4-7 micrograms of vitamin B12 with food
  • Monitor your vitamin B12 status especially if you have not been taking supplements
  • Get expert advice to support planning of a plant-based diet, particularly if becoming vegan
  • Get expert advice if you’re on a vegetarian diet and you are planning to become vegan, to become pregnant or are breastfeeding or older than 60

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