If you’re like most people, you haven’t heard very much about the health benefits of cobalt. And that’s not surprising—we generally get enough of this trace mineral in the foods we eat, so there’s no reason for anyone to buy any TV, print or Internet ads to promote it. Despite its low profile, though, cobalt does play an important role in our health and well-being.
So what exactly does it do? Cobalt supports the formation of red blood cells because it forms the base of all coenzyme cobalamins, which are better known as vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is an essential building block of red blood cells. Without sufficient cobalt (and thus B12), there is a high risk of anemia.
Cobalt salts are not naturally bioavailable, so they must first be converted into a form our body can use. Ruminant animals such as cows and sheep have bacteria in their gut that converts the cobalt salts they get from feeding on grasses that grow in cobalt-rich soil into a form that the animal can absorb. We get that bioavailable form of cobalt for our own use when we consume food products from these animals. Some yeast and algae can also synthesize cobalt. Vegetarians and vegans must depend on these sources to ensure an adequate intake of cobalt.
Since cobalt is only found nutritionally within vitamin B12, there is no recommended daily intake for the mineral itself. The idea is to ensure that you’re getting enough B12 in your diet. For most people, this is not a difficult thing to do. However, individuals who have a problem with malabsorption—usually the elderly and those with celiac disease, as well as people with low levels of stomach acid—may have more challenges meeting their nutritional requirements.
In addition to existing at the heart of every red blood cell, cobalt is also important for some other body functions. It has been shown to help maintain and repair the myelin sheath, the protective covering that surrounds our nerve axons, which is responsible for the proper conduction of nerve signals throughout the body. Multiple sclerosis is the disease that causes the breakdown of this protective sheath, and cobalt is one of the treatments used to help alleviate this condition.
Cobalt is also good for heart health, as it decreases levels of homocysteine, a substance that damages the arterial walls, leading to arteriosclerosis. However, too much cobalt can also be dangerous. Excessive amounts of cobalt can cause asthma, anxiety, and a condition known as “beer drinker’s cardiomyopathy” (an enlarged heart). This condition was discovered in 1966, when a Canadian beer manufacturer used cobalt salts to stabilize beer foam, resulting in a surge in cardiomyopathy cases.
The dietary sources of cobalt are essentially the same as those of B12: meat, milk, liver, seafood such as clams and oysters, sea vegetables and green leafy vegetables.