Opinion » Antidote

Play Hide the Vitamin


My daughter has been a vegetarian for 15 years and puts a B12 pill under her tongue every day as a supplement. She now tells me I should take one, too. Is she right or is she just crazy?


Hiding something under your tongue is a skill mastered in elementary school. Instinctively, kids know the best place for concealing chewing gum from the accusing eyes of a teacher, and a similar talent with a thermometer is fundamental to the pitiful, sickly look that's essential to fooling the school nurse--that plus a quick dip into her coffee cup. Using the same skill, holding a vitamin B12 tab sublingually allows it to dissolve slowly while you reminisce about tormenting substitute teachers.

Vitamin B12, present only in animal products, is an essential nutrient in the creation of red blood cells. It is also used to make the insulating sheath around nerves, similar to the plastic covering on a lamp cord. If your supply of B12 becomes depleted, one common consequence is pernicious anemia. Early symptoms of weakness and fatigue are similar to the more common iron deficiency anemia, however taking iron supplements will have no effect.

Surprisingly, up to 40 percent of adults may be deficient in vitamin B12. It's no longer just vegans at risk; recent studies indicate that up to a third of those over 50 lack the required stomach acid to absorb the vitamin. More and more studies are demonstrating the absolute necessity of adequate B12. A few months ago, Tufts University released findings that low blood levels of this vitamin were directly associated with bone-weakening osteoporosis. Further, it has been known for years that B12, combined with vitamins B6 and folate, can reduce blood levels of an amino acid called homocysteine. High levels of homocysteine appear to damage the inner lining of arteries and encourage layering of the thick, goopy plaques associated with heart disease. Contrary to the anti-psychiatric screed on daytime television by a hyperactive movie star and his couch-jumping passion shtick, all mental illness is not caused by vitamin deficiency (Exhibit A: Tom Cruise himself). Having said that, there is now evidence that replenishing levels of B12 rapidly lifts depression in some patients, and a Finnish study has shown that the nutrient increases the effectiveness of psychiatric drug therapy (perhaps Mr. Cruise could emigrate to Finland).

If your diet's not perfect, a good strategy is to start with a high-potency multivitamin along with a bottle of sublingual B12. When the B12 bottle is empty, don't buy more. The daily multi will maintain your new high level. Your daughter is steering you right. Yes, it is strange as an adult to hold something under your tongue, but, if you synchronize it to her daily lecture on the evils of meat, she'll think you're a good listener.