You may have noticed that throughout my Animal/Plant Nutrients series, I don't really go into massive detail about all of the ways these nutrients behave in the human body. I tend to pick an interesting topic specific to each nutrient and weigh in on it. This time I'll be writing about vitamin B12 (B12), and I'll be weighing in on pernicious anemia (PA) specifically.
PA is a relatively common disease, and many of us likely know someone who has been afflicted with it. Both my father and my significant other have PA. My father is currently in his sixties, which is around the age PA tends to set in. My significant other is currently in her late twenties, having developed a rare form of the disease in childhood.
The disease is characterized by a weakened capacity to secrete intrinsic factor (IF) in the stomach . IF binds vitamin B12 and facilitates uptake in the small intestine. As you can imagine, B12 absorption is heavily limited by IF secretion. In those who secrete no IF, only around 1-2% of B12 is absorbed . This means that nutritional doses of B12 have virtually no impact on B12 status in those with the worst IF secretion. Without an appropriate intervention, deficiency is inevitable and the afflicted person will die.
Typically when someone is diagnosed with PA later in life it is assumed they retain at least some IF function and can make use of oral B12 supplements. As such, a simple 1000mcg B12 supplement may be prescribed. If the supplement isn't effective, or becomes less effective with age, the patient may be moved to intramuscular injection therapy (IIT). IIT involves regular appointments with a physician for a single injection of B12 directly into the patient's muscle tissue. This was the therapy that my significant other was placed on from the start when she was first diagnosed with PA as a teenager. For more than a decade she met with a physician once per month for IIT. Eventually it became less and less effective, which necessitated her self-injecting at home.
Over time she told me more about her history with the disease and how it was currently affecting her. Naturally I started researching it like crazy. I found many papers detailing the effectiveness of IIT, and I was left with the distinct impression that this was the only viable treatment method. Toward the end of my digging I used Twitter to ask Chris Masterjohn about the plausibility of using creatine to spare B12 in the methylation cycle. My idea was that she could perhaps extend the effectiveness of each injection. While he acknowledged that the mechanism was plausible, he also explained that it was probably pointless. He further explained that high dose oral supplementation was likely just as effective as IIT.
I fired up PubMed and immediately started looking for anything I could find relating to sublingual (SL) B12 supplementation as an alternative treatment for PA. Indeed, I found a number of papers detailing the effectiveness of SL B12 . I remember immediately becoming irate. I can understand the unfortunate reality of regular self-injecting for type I diabetics, because there is no viable alternative for them. But I could not understand this. Why was the standard of care for PA so draconian when there were other demonstrably viable alternatives? It didn't make sense to me.
Shortly after my discovery, I suggested to my significant other that she start on 5000mcg of SL B12 per day. I advised her to continue with IIT if the SL B12 proved ineffective. Sure enough, however, from the moment she started SL B12 almost a year ago, she has not needed a single injection and presents with no symptoms of B12 deficiency. She reports that the SL B12 works better than IIT acutely, and is overall more effective on a month-to-month basis as well. Only time will tell whether or not the effect will wane, but I suspect it won't.
So, why does SL B12 work so well? The short answer is that B12 molecules are small enough to passively diffuse through tissues and into your circulation. So, when you hold 5000mcg of B12 under your tongue, it has to go somewhere. As previously mentioned, even without IF 1-2% of oral B12 is absorbed through passive diffusion in the gut. Which means that nutritional doses of B12 do virtually nothing for PA, but it also means that mega-doses can probably do a lot. For this reason, I highly suspect that if one finds IIT more effective than SL B12, it is merely because the SL dose was not high enough. I find it difficult to believe that dosing 20mg or more of SL B12 wouldn't overcome the issue.
Just last summer, approximately four months after my partner began SL B12, a trial was run wherein IIT was compared head-to-head against SL B12 . Guess what. The effectiveness of SL B12 was equal, if not superior, to IIT. It overcomes the literal pain-in-the-ass of IIT, and probably has some other unique advantages as well. My only hope is that the standard of care adjusts in order to accommodate this effective, less invasive method of treating patients with PA. It seems as though I'm not alone with my hopes, either .
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