Vitamin B12 is the form of vitamin B that usually doesn’t find its way into “complete B” vitamin supplements. If you need supplemental vitamin B12, it’s necessary to take a separate nutritional supplement, or, in some cases, to get a vitamin B12 injection. Vitamin B12 deficiency can aggravate acne by making pimples extraordinarily red and noticeable, especially around the mouth. But aggravating acne is among the least of the problems vitamin B12 deficiency can cause.
What Is Vitamin B12 and What Does It Do?
Vitamin B12 is a water-soluble vitamin known as cobalamin. As its name suggests, vitamin B12 incorporates the rare earth metal known as cobalt into its structure. Cobalamin is actually a group of chemicals known as “vitamers” that the body can use to make enzymes that require vitamin B12.
Every cell in the human body uses vitamin B12. It regulates energy production, and it is essential for the synthesis of DNA and essential fatty acids.
Vitamin B12 also helps the body regenerate vitamin B9, the vitamin that is also known as folate or folic acid. Since symptoms of folic acid deficiency show up a lot sooner than symptoms of vitamin B12, getting too much folic acid can mask symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency until it becomes hard to treat. And there are two types of cellular processes that absolutely require vitamin B12.
One unique task of vitamin B12 is to regulate a series of chemical reactions known as the methylmalonyl-coenzyme A mutase reactions, all of which involve the MUT gene. These reactions are usually called the MUT reactions after the gene which controls them.
MUT is responsible for maintaining the myelin that acts as insulation around neurons in the brain and nerves all over the body, including the skin. If you don’t get vitamin B12, you will eventually have problems with “short circuits” in your nervous system.
Another vital function of vitamin B12 is recycling a chemical called homocysteine. This chemical builds up as the body uses the sulfur-bearing amino acids cysteine and methionine. It is an irritant that dissolves collagen in the linings of blood vessels and also in joints.
What does this have to do with acne?
The skin, it turns, out has its own system of making stress hormones. A nerve signal jumps from nerves in the skin to cells containing histamine. They break open tiny capsules of histamine that make the skin red and irritated and that begin to break down the skin to destroy foreign bodies and germs—which may or may not even be there. Not getting enough vitamin B12 can cause “leakage” of the electrical signals the skin sends out to deal with stress, making it even redder and itchier.
Homocysteine can have devastating effects in the rest of the body, but it can also increase the redness of the skin. If microscopic blood vessels just beneath the skin break down, pimples get redder and rosacea gets rosier. If you also see changes in the color of your tongue, in addition to treating acne, you should go to the doctor to get your homocysteine levels checked.
Why Wouldn’t You Be Getting Enough Vitamin B12?
There’s lots of vitamin B12 in most protein foods. Except for vegans (more about vegans in a moment), most people get plenty of vitamin B12 in their diets.
If the acid in the stomach does not break down animal proteins, however, the small intestine does not receive the vitamin B12 from digested food. If the lining of the stomach is so inflamed that it cannot create a transport protein known as intrinsic factor that “locks” on the lining of the small intestine, even if the vitamin B12 is released from food, the small intestine cannot receive it. And if the small intestine is overgrown with bacteria, the slimy biofilm of bacteria on the lining of the small intestine prevents the absorption of vitamin B12 from digested food.
Many kinds of digestive problems interfere with getting enough vitamin B12. Peptic ulcers, duodenal ulcers, Helicobacter infections of the stomach, ischemic colitis, and both overproduction and underproduction of stomach acid deprive the body of vitamin B12. When the body doesn’t get B12, the kinds of problems with the nervous system and blood vessels described above can occur all over the body, although they may only be noticed in the skin of the face.
If you are a teenager, chances are this will not be a problem for you. If you suddenly develop acne after the age of 60, however, it’s important to make sure you are getting enough vitamin B12.
Vegans and Vitamin B12
A vegan diet just does not supply enough vitamin B12. Our bodies usually have about a 1000-day supply of vitamin B12, so people who adopt vegan lifestyles in adulthood almost never show signs of vitamin B12 deficiency right away. Taking a B12 supplement on a regular basis, however, can prevent B12 deficiency.
What did vegans do for vitamin B12 before there were vitamin supplements? It turns out that over the centuries vegan diets were not really as animal-free as they appeared. Aphids on leafy foods and insects in cereal grains provide the vitamin B12 that prevented deficiency in traditional vegan diets. Only in the modern era of food safety and cleanliness has B12 deficiency been a problem for vegans.
How to Get Enough Vitamin B12
Most people need just 1 to 3 micrograms (millionths of a gram) of vitamin B12 per day. Because vitamin B12 has to presented to the lining of the small intestine on the carrier protein known as intrinsic factor, our bodies can only absorb 2 to 5 micrograms of B12 per day. It’s not hard to get far more B12 in the diet than our bodies can absorb.
A 100-gram or 3-1/2 ounce serving of mussels or clams has about 100 micrograms of vitamin B12, due to the algae-rich diet of the shellfish. The liver concentrates vitamin B12, and pork or chicken livers are especially rich in B12, a single serving containing up to 10 times more vitamin B12 than the body can absorb. There is about 20 micrograms per serving in cold-water fish such as salmon or herring, and about a day’s supply of vitamin B12 in almost any kind of meat.
If you don’t eat meat, however, you need to take a vitamin B12 supplement. If you are not already deficient, it’s enough to take as little as 10 micrograms per day. If you have vitamin B12 deficiency symptoms, a single dose of 1000 micrograms (1 mg) will start your body’s storage process again. And if you know you have high homocysteine levels, see a physician about getting vitamin B12 by injection.