Vitamin B has a lot of hype behind it as the feel-good vitamin. And rightfully so, since most of us know of its energizing effects from downing Emergen-C — sort of the grown-up Kool-Aid that has seven types of B (along with immune-boosting C, of course) — after a late night or just, well, a hectic 9 to 5 (plus some). And there’s a legit physiological explanation for this: “Vitamin B12 is important for optimal functioning of your brain and nervous system, the formation of red-blood cells, and is also connected to energy production and mood regulation,” says Frank Lipman, M.D., an integrative and functional medicine physician and founder of Eleven Eleven Wellness Center in New York City.
But because us humans don’t make B12 on our own, there are reasons why your levels might be less than stellar — the most notable medical explanation being a type of anemia, which can cause fatigue, depression, low-blood pressure, and poor memory. “In food, [vitamin B12] is mostly found in those foods related to animal products — eggs, beef, crab, lobster, fish, cheese — so vegetarians and vegans are at risk for low levels, as well as people over 50 because they tend to have decreasing levels of the stomach acid needed to absorb B12,” says Lipman.
But there are other ways your B12 can plummet: “A number of medications and high-alcohol consumption can also reduce the body's ability to effectively absorb this essential vitamin,” says Lipman. As well as when you’re simply run down, which is part of the popularity of B12 shots — an easy pepper-upper, without all the harmful side effects of caffeine or drugs. “Sometimes people come in regularly, and sometimes we just use it when their energy is very low,” says. Dr. Lipman, who typically starts patients off with a 1000 mg shot monthly or bi-monthly. “The initial boost of energy will last about 24 to 48 hours, the ongoing effects are more subtle, but are definitely continuing to have an effect internally — there's no huge surge, just a nice feeling of more energy and there's no crash.”
Photographed by Jacqueline Harriet
So, where can you get this naturally energizing shot? From your doc of course, but Lipman says to not expect all of them to be ready to pull out the needle. “Many doctors unfortunately think it's nonsense and won't give them,” he says. “It's true that there isn't a lot of clinical research, but I use it a lot, and people love it — they feel an immediate surge of energy.”
The truth is that the scientific backup behind supplementing your B12 for non-legit medical reasons (i.e. the aforementioned anemia) are, well, really low. “Vitamin B12 is obviously beneficial since it is necessary for normal physiology (without it we develop anemia and neurological problems),” says Jeffrey I. Mechanick, M.D., clinical professor of medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. “There are always interesting studies but nothing has translated into a major clinical breakthrough lately — there is no scientifically demonstrable evidence supporting the use of B12 outside of managing true deficiency with possible exceptions of wound healing.”
As for popping some B12 every a.m. in hopes of a mental boost? “Any oral preparation of B12 will fall prey to disadvantages of very poor absorption with any impairment of the GI tract involved in B12 binding,” says Dr. Mechanick. Translation: It’s probably not going to work like it should or get to where it’s supposed to go, so don’t bother. And Lipman agrees: “The main benefit of a shot over a pill form is that it is immediately available to the body — when someone is very depleted the quick boost is very useful, and the shot bypasses the absorption process.”
Illustration by Naomi Abel