Vitamin B12, clinically known as cobalamin or, sometimes, cyanocobalamin, is a water-soluble micronutrient that, among other things, is important to the normal function of the nervous system. Because of this role, it’s been hypothesized that in some cases a deficiency of vitamin B12 may be linked to multiple sclerosis (MS), although this theory is controversial.
Regardless of whether or not researchers ultimately find a definitive link between B12 deficiency and multiple sclerosis, the symptoms and health issues that are known to be associated with low levels of this vitamin are good reason to understand how it supports the brain and spinal cord and, more practically, how to make sure you’re getting enough B12 in your diet.
Vitamin B12 Deficiency and the Nervous System
Vitamin B12 plays a key role in helping to maintain myelin—the sheath, or layer, of protein and fatty material that surrounds nerves, including those in the brain and spinal cord. It’s the myelin sheath around individual nerve cells that insulates them and makes it possible for electrical signals to be transmitted quickly and efficiently.
It’s easy to see, then, why a deficiency of B12 can cause MS-like symptoms such as:
- Muscle weakness
- Difficulty walking
- Cognitive dysfunction
- Sensory disturbances like Lhermitte’ sign
Despite this similarity, though, vitamin B12 deficiency and multiple sclerosis differ in significant ways.
Affects central and peripheral nervous systems
Early symptoms (numbness, tingling) that may progress to muscle weakness and gait unsteadiness
More likely affects legs rather than arms
Affects both sides of the body equally
More common in middle-age or elderly individuals
Can be diagnosed with simple blood test
On an MRI, the brain or spinal cord appear normal
May cause other problems, such as anemia and glossitis (in which the tongue becomes swollen and painful)
Affects only the central nervous system
Early symptoms manifest and progress in a variety of ways that are unpredictable
Doesn’t impair one body part more than another
May be more predominant on the left or the right side of the body
More common in people in their 20s or 30s
Difficult to diagnose; requires multiple exams and tests
In most cases, an MRI will show lesions on brain or spinal cord
Not associated with any co-existing conditions
Even though vitamin B12 deficiency and multiple sclerosis are different conditions, they can co-exist. In fact, there has been research to suggest that people with MS are more likely to have a deficiency of B12 than are those who are otherwise healthy.
Myelin Sheath and the Role It Plays in MS
Can B12 Help Manage MS?
This doesn’t mean, however, that there’s a link between B12 deficiency and multiple sclerosis. In fact, at least one study searching for such a connection did not find one.
However, some research has found evidence that supplementation of vitamin B12, often along with another B vitamin, folate (B9), may help to alleviate some symptoms of the disease.
In a 2019 study, for example, researchers looked at how B12 and folate supplements might affect quality of life for a group of participants with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS), a form of the disease in which periods of normal health are punctuated by relapses of symptoms.
The scientists first tested the blood of each subject to find out if any had significant deficiencies (no one did). The participants were then divided into two groups: One group received a 5-milligram (mg) tablet of folic acid and three 1,000-micrograms (mcg) doses of B12 by injection each day. The other subjects got a daily placebo tablet and shot.
After two months, blood samples were taken from all participants; each person also completed a questionnaire designed to measure quality of life in people living with MS.
The members of the supplementation group were found to have lower levels of an amino acid called homocysteine that normally is broken down by vitamins B12, B6, and folic acid. (When levels of homocysteine are high, it may be a sign of a vitamin deficiency.)
More importantly, the supplement group had an improvement in both physical and mental quality of life. (The placebo group also had significant improvement in mental quality of life.)
By no means does this study (and a few others with similar findings) prove taking B12 will help with the management of MS. However, it clearly is an indication that more research is needed.
Causes of Vitamin B12 Deficiency
Vitamin B12 is found in dairy products, eggs, meat, chicken, shellfish, and fortified foods. People who are vegan or who follow a very strict vegetarian diet can be at risk of developing a B12 deficiency simply because they don’t consume enough natural food sources of the vitamin.
Other reasons for vitamin B12 deficiency include:
- Taking certain medications known to affect vitamin B12 levels. Common examples include the diabetes medication metformin and medications used to treat heartburn known as proton pump inhibitors.
- Conditions that interfere with the absorption of nutrients, such as celiac disease and Crohn’s disease
- Bariatric surgery (such as gastric sleeve surgery) for weight loss, which has been found to affect how nutrients are absorbed
- Pernicious anemia, a condition in which a person cannot properly absorb vitamin B12 from foods because they lack intrinsic factor, a protein produced in the stomach
Diagnosis of B12 Deficiency
If you have symptoms that suggest you may have a deficiency of B12, your healthcare provider can confirm this suspicion simply by checking the levels of the vitamin in a sample of your blood.
If your vitamin B12 levels are on the low side of normal, your healthcare provider may order two more blood tests: homocysteine and methylmalonic acid. These metabolic substances are both elevated in vitamin B12 deficiency.
Although this is the most typical way to diagnose B12 deficiency, other tests may be used, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the spinal cord (to look for a bright signal in the posterior part of the cord), or somatosensory or visual evoked potentials.
Treating B12 Deficiency
Since B12 is readily available in common foods, dietary changes may be enough to bring blood levels up to normal. A simple approach to turning around a deficiency would be to eat more B12-rich foods, such as clams, beef liver, certain varieties of fish, and fortified nutritional yeast or cereals.
The recommended dietary allowance of vitamin B12 for teens and adults 14 and up is 2.4 mcg. Women who are pregnant are advised to get 2.6 mcg of B12 each day, and those who are breastfeeding are advised to get even more—2.8 mcg.
Someone who is found to be deficient in B12 may need to take oral supplements of the vitamin or receive it via intramuscular injections. It can take some time, and in many cases, lifelong supplementation, to bring blood levels of vitamin B12 to normal and keep them there.
A Word From Get Meds Info
The jury is still out about the association between vitamin B12 deficiency and multiple sclerosis, as well as whether B12 supplements can help alleviate MS symptoms. What cannot be disputed, however, is that eating a well-balanced diet that includes ample vitamin B12 is a smart move for anyone who’s dealing with any chronic health problem or who’s healthy overall and wants to do everything possible to stay that way. And whichever category you fall into, if you develop symptoms that suggest either MS or a B12 deficiency, see your healthcare provider. Having your levels checked is easy.