Cobalamin is the scientific name for vitamin B12, one of the B complex vitamins that was synthesized in 1948. The crystals of this nutrient, also known as cyanocobalamin, are bright red in color, which is why it is sometimes referred to as the red vitamin. It is water soluble, so it cannot be stored in the body as long as fat soluble nutrients, making it necessary to receive it on a daily basis. Most of the cobalamin found in the body, however, is stored in the liver. Children cannot store this nutrient as long as adults can.
Unlike the other B complex vitamins, the natural form of cobalamin is not present in plants that are commonly consumed as foods. Alfalfa and the Chinese herb dong quai, however, do supply the vitamin in very small amounts. Strict vegetarians, also called vegans, are at risk for developing a deficiency of cobalamin because meat and dairy products are the only foods that supply it. People who choose to follow a strict vegetarian diet are advised to take a cobalamin supplement. Vitamin B12 generally is sold in the United States in pill form that is to be taken with a liquid, preferably at meal times, and in sublingual form, both of which are available in health foods stores and drug stores.
Sublingual tablets usually are very small and are held under the tongue until they are completely dissolved instead of being chewed or taken with a liquid like a traditional pill. Other people who could develop a deficiency in cobalamin even if they consume meat are those who are deficient in what is known as the intrinsic factor — a special protein present in gastric juice. Between 30 percent and 70 percent of cobalamin is absorbed from foods when the intrinsic factor is sufficient. When it is deficient, a condition known as pernicious anemia inevitably develops.
The proper functioning of the nervous system, including the brain; the production of red blood cells; and the metabolism of fat, protein, and carbohydrates all require sufficient cobalamin intake and absorption. Some types of nerve damage can be treated with this vitamin, and it might be prescribed for people who have had a portion of their gastrointestinal tract surgically removed, because such a procedure can greatly interfere with the absorption of any nutrient. This nutrient is widespread in animal products, particularly sardines, flounder, herring, snapper, milk and milk products such as cheese. Among the speculated health benefits of vitamin B12 that have not been proven are the treatment of mental and nervous disorders, stimulation of growth in stature and increased energy.