Why is vitamin B12 so important?

Vitamin B12 is otherwise known as cobalamin because it’s the only vitamin that contains the essential mineral, cobalt. It was first isolated from liver extract in the late 1940s and was found to be the answer to a very serious condition called pernicious anaemia. Thankfully this fairly rare condition can now be identified much earlier. However, deficiency of vitamin B12 is still remarkably common.

Clinical nutritionist, Suzie Sawyer, shares her thoughts on vitamin B12.

SMALLER--4 Suzie Blog pic

WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT?

Vitamin B12 is key to the healthy production of red blood cells and the myelin sheath around nerve cells, hence it’s important for nerve function. B12 also works with folic acid (vitamin B9) in many body processes. Indeed, a deficiency of either nutrient can often be masked by the other, hence if a blood test is taken, it should involve both vitamins.

Side profile of a person higlighting their brain functioning

Importantly, vitamin B12 is known as a methyl donor, which carries and donates methyl groups (carbon and hydrogen molecules) to cell membranes and brain neurotransmitters. It’s a positive chemical reaction, one of its main roles being the metabolism of homocysteine. This is an amino acid produced in the body, high levels of which can potentially cause an array of health issues. Vitamin B12 is also involved with energy metabolism and immune function, so as you can see it’s pretty important!

WHERE CAN I GET IT FROM?

Unlike other water-soluble nutrients (such as other B-vitamins), B12 is stored in the liver, kidneys and other body tissues, but obviously only if there’s some available in the diet. Absorption is also dependent on having sufficient hydrochloric acid in the stomach which reduces as we get older. It is also thought that the beneficial bacteria naturally living in the gut, may produce some vitamin B12; research is very unclear though as to how much can actually be utilised. Plus, it’s likely that the good gut flora needs to be in tip-top condition for this process to take place, and many people have an imbalance in this area.

A range of foods containing Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is only found in animal produce, including offal (liver and kidneys), eggs, fish, cheese and meat. There may be some found in fermented sources such as sea vegetables and tempeh. But although vegans are often told that fermented foods, including miso and tofu, are good sources, there’s a big question mark about whether it’s in the form the body can utilise. Therefore fermented foods are certainly not a reliable source of vitamin B12.

In short, animal products are the only assured source which means that vegans are highly likely to be deficient unless they’re taking a supplement.

TEN FOODS HIGH IN B12

Foods containing Vitamin B12

Many people shy away from liver because the taste is too strong. However, the flavour of chicken livers is much more subtle and they’re great served warm with a salad, as a quick and delicious midweek meal. For a good contrast of flavours, mix salad leaves with some chopped hazelnuts and goat’s cheese. The chicken livers can be quickly fried (a couple of minutes per side) sprinkled with herbs and a little paprika and served immediately.

Cooked chicken livers

 HOW DO I KNOW IF I HAVE A DEFICIENCY?

We know the body can store some vitamin B12, so a deficiency can sometimes take a while to come to light and then symptoms may be slightly vague and non-specific.

Deficiency may cause extreme tiredness, plus nerve function can be off-balance triggering ‘pins and needles’, numbness or a burning feeling anywhere in the body. Low mood, lack of concentration and depression are also commonplace. More dramatic symptoms leading up to pernicious anaemia are likely to be persistent diarrhoea and a very red, inflamed tongue, but this is uncommon.

WHAT SHOULD I DO?

Deficiency of vitamin B12 is often down to poor absorption and low dietary intake. The likelihood of deficiency also increases with age as digestive issues become enhanced. Plus, anyone with poor digestion is much more likely to have a deficiency. The good news is that by either increasing the amount you eat in the diet or taking a supplement containing vitamin B12, you can be sure you’re getting enough of this essential vitamin.

 FOR MORE GREAT DIET AND LIFESTYLE ADVICE:

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Boost your energy from within with these top nutrients

The mind may be willing but the body’s saying NO! A common feeling! You want to get off the sofa or jump out of bed but every bone and muscle in your body is disagreeing with your mind. Sounds familiar? Unfortunately, many of us suffer with low energy levels much of the time (whatever age) and some of us feel tired all the time, also known as TATT. So what changes can you make to your nutrient intake to give your energy a boost?

Clinical Nutritionist Suzie Sawyer shares the top nutrients we need to get that ‘leap out of bed’ feeling!

SMALLER--4 Suzie Blog pic

IRON

The trace mineral iron is critical to human life. It plays a pivotal role in the production of red blood cells, transporting oxygen from the lungs around the body, but is also key in energy production. Unfortunately, it’s often depleted, particularly in teenage girls and women of child-bearing age, partly due to monthly menstruation but also down to the typical Western diet. Deficiency symptoms can lead to anaemia and tiredness.

The most well absorbed form of iron, known as heme iron, is found in animal foods particularly red meat, which many people don’t eat. However, non heme iron is found in plant foods such as nuts, Jersusalem artichokes and green leafy vegetables. Interestingly, even a small iron deficiency can cause fatigue and reduced physical performance, and this will be really noticeable if you’re a keen exerciser. It’s therefore worth getting a blood test from your doctor if you think you could be low in iron.

The good news is that even though plant-based foods do not contain heme iron, absorption can be considerably improved if they’re eaten with other foods containing vitamin C. Green leafy vegetables naturally contain a lot of vitamin C but drinking a small glass of orange juice at the same time can really make a difference.

MAGNESIUM

One of our most abundant minerals in the body, magnesium is essential for energy production as well as muscle function. Indeed, it’s key in producing our main energy producing molecule, ATP – Adenosine triphosphate – an energy-carrying molecule found in the cells of all living things. However, as with many other nutrients, magnesium is often deficient due to low intake from the diet, plus magnesium and the B vitamins are also depleted by stress, our modern-day epidemic.

Magnesium is found in whole foods such as whole wheat cereals and bread, beans and pulses, as well as green leafy vegetables, avocados, bananas and sweet potato. It’s also good news for seafood lovers as a portion of halibut supplies around a third of the body’s daily needs.

Magnesium can be a confusing mineral. Whilst it’s essential for energy production because of its role in enzyme production, it can also help people to sleep: this is because it aids muscle relaxation and as such is known as ‘nature’s natural tranquiliser’. So the best advice is to ensure you’re eating plenty of magnesium-rich foods throughout the day but if you need help sleeping then it’s best to take a supplement of magnesium around an hour before bedtime. Plus, the more sleep you have, the more energised you’ll feel!

B VITAMINS

These are a family of 8 nutrients that all work together in perfect harmony. Vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B12, Folic acid and biotin all play key roles in energy production. They’re sometimes found in combination together in foods but they certainly all club together and work in unison in the body.

So where can you find them? If you’re having a varied and colourful diet, you’ll certainly be getting some B vitamins. However, vitamin B12 is only found in animal produce such as liver, fish, red meat and cheese. Therefore, if you’re vegetarian or vegan, you’re more than likely to need a supportive supplement. A lack of vitamin B12 will definitely cause energy levels to be low.

Biotin is often referred to as the beauty vitamin as it supports your hair and skin, but its presence is also essential for energy production. Another reason to be stocking up on nuts, rice, whole wheat cereals, liver and soya beans. And if none of these foods float your boat, then taking a supplement is a really good idea.

So fuel up with these top nutrients and energise yourself for a life with more get-up-and-go!

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Amazing asparagus: in-season, nutritious and tasty!

Close up of woman holding a bunch of asparagus

May is National Asparagus Month because it’s the time when this wonderful vegetable comes into season and tastes at its absolute best. However, it’s not just the taste that’s so amazing.

Clinical Nutritionist, Suzie Sawyer, shares her thoughts on why asparagus is such a nutritional winner!

SMALLER--4 Suzie Blog pic

VARIETIES

Asparagus can be found in green, white or purple varieties, although green tends to be the most popular in the UK. White asparagus has been grown in the dark, underground, and therefore doesn’t contain as many antioxidants as the other coloured varieties. It also doesn’t have any chlorophyll as it’s not been exposed to sunlight, hence it tastes slightly different.

A woman holding a bunch of green asparagus and a bunch of white asparagus

THE BENEFITS

Asparagus is a really good source of vitamins A and C so is great for the immune system. It is also very high in energy-giving folate plus it’s got a wealth of trace minerals such as potassium, copper, manganese and selenium. Asparagus is also a good source of chromium so helps with blood sugar balance.

Interestingly, asparagus isn’t on the top of everyone’s list when choosing vegetables. This may partly be because the sulphur-producing elements in asparagus gives most people’s urine a rather distinctive smell! In fact, this is quite normal and asparagus is a natural diuretic, so is actually very cleansing for the kidneys. For some people it can also work as a laxative as it’s high in fibre, so is great for people suffering from constipation.

Roasted asparagus topped with a poached egg

As with most fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, they tend to have traditional folklore use; in the case of asparagus, it was used as a tonic and to treat inflammatory-type conditions such as rheumatism.

IT’S GREAT FOR PREGNANCY

Since asparagus contains high levels of folate (folic acid), it’s great for women to eat either before or during pregnancy (or indeed both). Folic acid is needed to prevent neural tube defects in babies and Public Health England also recommends a supplement of 400 micrograms daily, pre-conceptually and for the first trimester.

We know from the UK National Diet and Nutrition Surveys (NDNS)[1] that women of child-bearing age are deficient in this essential vitamin. This is despite it being widely available in foods, particularly fruits and vegetables. Interestingly, since folic acid works alongside vitamin B12, which is often poorly absorbed, the two vitamins can often both be deficient. So, ladies, now is the time to grab some delicious asparagus!

WHAT TO DO WITH IT

Asparagus is a real regular on restaurant menus at this time of year, either as an appetiser or as a side dish.   Often it’s simply roasted with a little olive oil and lemon or just lightly grilled. It’s also wonderful roasted and sprinkled with parmesan cheese. And it’s superb barbecued!

Another popular recipe is asparagus wrapped in Serrano ham, either as a starter or side. The asparagus is simply wrapped in the ham, sprinkled with pepper and roasted for about 15 minutes.

Roased asparagus wrapped in parma ham and sprinkled with parmesan cheese

If, however, you want to go for the slightly milder, sweeter taste of white asparagus, you can certainly try something different. White asparagus needs to be prepared slightly differently from the green variety; white should be peeled from the bottom as the skin tends to be tough. It is generally better boiled until soft and is traditionally served with hollandaise sauce. If you do opt for green, then it should be so fresh that you can snap it in half; no toughness or stringiness in sight!

The official asparagus season lasts around 8 weeks in the UK so enjoy it as much as possible!

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/ndns-results-from-years-7-and-8-combined

FOR MORE GREAT DIET AND LIFESTYLE ADVICE

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Visit us at www.feelaliveuk.com for the latest offers and exclusive Alive! content.

Follow and Chat with Suzie on Twitter @nutritionsuzie

For everything you need to know about vitamins, minerals and herbs visit Herbfacts