Vitamin B12, also called cobalamin, is a water-soluble vitamin. It is one of the eight vitamins that together constitute the vitamin B complex.
Even though you may not hear much about it, vitamin B12 deficiency is far more common than most healthcare practitioners and the general public realize.
According to a review published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vitamin B12 deficiency and depletion are common in wealthier countries, particularly among the elderly, and are also prevalent in younger populations in developing countries around the world.
In fact, the review article states that approximately 6 percent of people aged 60 or older in the United Kingdom and the United States are vitamin B12 deficient and 20 percent of this population is considered to have a marginal status of B12.
Why is Vitamin B12 Important?
Vitamin B12 is vital for the formation of red blood cells (RBCs) that carry oxygen around the body. It is also needed for the proper functioning and health of nerve tissue, as it is involved in producing the protective myelin sheath that covers the nerves and conducts nerve impulses.
It works together with folate in the metabolism of cells, DNA synthesis, and the metabolism of fatty and amino acids.
This particular B vitamin also helps our bodies absorb folic acid, which facilitates the release of energy.
Because your body doesn’t make vitamin B12 on its own, it is important to get it from food sources (especially animal-based foods) or supplements on a regular basis. In order to avoid any undue complication, it is always recommended to consult your doctor before starting any supplement regimen.
How Much Vitamin B12 Do I Need?
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the daily requirement of B12 varies across different age groups and often according to individual needs.
This vitamin along with folic acid is particularly important during pregnancy, as this nutritional duo is known to prevent birth defects related to the central nervous system (CNS) as well as preterm delivery.
Vitamin B12 is essential for normal cell division and differentiation; thus, it has a crucial role in the proper and timely development of the CNS in babies.
Pregnant women’s recommended daily intake (RDI) of vitamin B12 stands at 2.6 mcg, which is relatively higher than that of the general population to accommodate the additional need of B12 for the growing fetus.
The RDI for this vitamin is still higher for nursing women who must supply adequate B12 to their growing infants through breast milk. If the baby does not get adequate B12, it is likely to suffer from developmental delays, loss of appetite, and general irritability.
Every breastfeeding woman is advised to maintain a daily intake of 2.8 mcg of B12 to meet both her own and her baby’s nutritional needs.
What Causes Vitamin B12 Deficiency?
A deficiency of this important vitamin can occur due to a diet that contains very little vitamin B12. People who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet can lack this vitamin because it is commonly found in animal products. Therefore, vegetarians and vegans may need a B12 supplement or make eating foods fortified with B12 a priority.
Another common cause of vitamin B12 deficiency is pernicious anemia.
Pernicious anemia can be from an autoimmune disorder that occurs due to loss of stomach cells that make Intrinsic Factor (IF), a protein that helps the body absorb vitamin B12 in the intestine. This leads to a low vitamin B12 level in the body. Low IF levels can also result from certain medical conditions, medications, and aging.
Another cause of pernicious anemia can be malabsorption in the intestines or a diet deficient in B12.
Who is at a Higher Risk?
- People aged 50 or older
- People who eat a vegetarian or vegan diet
- Infants who are born to vegan mothers and exclusively breastfed
- People suffering from diseases that affect digestion, such as celiac and Crohn’s diseases
- People who have had gastrointestinal surgery
- People who are malnourished
- People who are chronic alcoholics
Vitamin B12 Deficiency Signs and Symptoms
Here are 10 signs that you must look out for in order to identify a vitamin B12 deficiency.
1. Fatigue and Low Energy
Because vitamin B12 plays a prominent role in energy metabolism, its deficiency tends to have a direct impact on your energy and endurance levels.
Vitamin B12 is needed to form healthy RBCs that carry oxygen to the whole body. Without proper oxygen levels, you feel tired and lethargic, which is what happens when your body doesn’t have sufficient vitamin B12 to produce enough RBCs to do the job. Without oxygen, your muscles have a hard time moving.
Plus, B12 is needed to turn the food you eat into energy to power your metabolism. Low metabolism prevents you from feeling your best and performing at your highest energy level.
2. Numbness and Tingling Sensations
Vitamin B12 plays a key role in keeping your nervous system healthy as it helps with nerve regeneration. Thus, its deficiency is often indicated by neurological symptoms such as numbness and a tingling sensation in the hands and feet.
This vital nutrient also helps with the production of RBCs and thereby facilitates adequate oxygen supply to different parts of the body. The numbness and tingling often associated with low levels of vitamin B12 can also be traced back to a lack of oxygen in the body.
When the body has insufficient vitamin B12, the RBCs formed are larger and irregularly shaped unlike the typical small and round healthy ones. This structural anomaly makes it difficult for the RBCs to move from the bone marrow where they are synthesized into the bloodstream.
As a result, the blood lacks enough RBCs to carry oxygen to vital organs. This kind of deficiency can also disrupt your body’s sense of balance.
3. Low Blood Pressure
Deficiencies of vitamin B12 and folic acid can cause anemia, or an insufficient RBC count. This could lead to low blood pressure, also known as hypotension.
Vitamin B12 helps your body produce RBCs so that adequate oxygen reaches each and every part of your body, including the heart.
A 2012 study published in the Texas Heart Institute Journal reports that vitamin B12 deficiency is well known among neurologists but is often overlooked by cardiologists when treating low blood pressure.
If you suffer from low blood pressure, opt for a B12 test. Even moderate forms of low blood pressure can cause shortness of breath, dizziness, weakness, fainting, and risk of injury from falls.
4. Skin Lesions
A low level of vitamin B12 can also cause skin lesions and hair changes.
A study published in the Canadian Family Physician reports that vitamin B12 deficiency is linked to skin lesions.
Unexplained and nonresolving skin lesions can signal vitamin B12 deficiency and necessitate the need for prompt medical attention.
Along with skin lesions, its deficiency can cause hyperpigmentation of the skin, which leads to uneven skin color and dark patches on the skin.
B12 helps lower the level of homocysteine, a by-product of protein metabolism.
A 2017 study found that both depression and anxiety were associated with elevated blood homocysteine levels in older boys
According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, it is important to consider the possibility of a B12 deficiency among the elderly who are suffering from depression.
A study published in the Open Neurology Journal shed light on the importance of vitamin B12 supplementation in the treatment of major depressive disorder.
The study found that people with depression experienced significant improvement in signs and symptoms when treated with vitamin B12 supplementation as well as antidepressants.
6. Cognitive Decline
Low vitamin B12 levels may be the reason behind poor memory and cognitive decline.
Vitamin B12 allows brain cells to form new connections, a process that allows memory formation.
Plus, it is a vital component of myelin, the coating that protects many brain cells. This is why its deficiency can lead to serious nerve damage and deterioration of brain functioning.
A study published in International Psychogeriatrics suggests that low serum vitamin B12 levels are associated with neurodegenerative disease and cognitive impairment. This type of dementia is different from Alzheimer’s disease; hence, it needs to be differentiated through a comprehensive neuropsychological evaluation.
Another 2011 study published in Neurology reports that people with low blood levels of vitamin B12 markers may be more likely to have lower brain volumes and experience problems with thinking skills.
Vitamin B12 deficiency is linked to an underactive thyroid gland, also known as hypothyroidism.
The thyroid gland needs a variety of nutrients to produce hormones that regulate many of the body’s functions. Vitamin B12 is one of these nutrients.
A study published in the Journal of the Pakistan Medical Association reports that vitamin B12 deficiency is common in primary hypothyroidism. Supplementation leads to an improvement in symptoms. The study emphasized screening for vitamin B12 levels in all hypothyroid patients, irrespective of their thyroid antibody status.
Vitamin B12 deficiency can affect both male and female fertility.
A study published in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine reports that vitamin B12 deficiency is linked to infertility and recurrent miscarriages.
The study explains that hypercoagulability due to raised homocysteine levels may lead to fetal loss during the initial stage of vitamin B12 deficiency.
More prolonged deficiency may cause changes in ovulation or development of the ovum or changes leading to defective implantation and ultimately infertility.
This vitamin deficiency not only makes it difficult to conceive but also makes it hard to carry the baby to full term.
If you are having issues with infertility, discuss with your doctor a B12 test to determine if this is a factor for you.
Tips to Fix Vitamin B12 Deficiency
If you think you have symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency, you can ask your doctor for a blood test. To correct a deficiency, you can do the following:
- Eat foods high in vitamin B12, such as fish, shellfish, meat (especially liver), eggs, milk, and milk products.
- Those who do not eat animal-based products can try foods fortified with B12, such as breakfast cereals, soy products, energy bars, and nutritional yeast. As the risk for a B12 deficiency is much higher if you eat a vegetarian or vegan diet, get a B12 test on a regular basis.
- Those who take medications for diabetes or acid reflux must also opt for a B12 test, as some of these medications can interfere with healthy B12 levels by lowering Intrinsic Factor (IF) in the gut.
- You can opt to take supplements in pill or injection forms. If B12 levels are low from IF problems, injections or sublingual B12 may be a better option. Be sure to consult your doctor, as supplements can interfere with certain medications and hamper their effectiveness.
When to See Your Doctor
If you experience any of the characteristic symptoms of a B12 deficiency, consult your healthcare provider for a proper diagnosis.
The doctor will take into account your signs and symptoms and order a blood test to conclusively determine if you are indeed running low on this vital nutrient. The same procedure is followed in the case of a folate deficiency.
Given that vitamin B12 or folate-deficiency anemia can end up causing some irreversible damage, it is important to address these conditions with a sense of urgency.
If the deficiency is caught early and followed by prompt and appropriate treatment, the signs and symptoms will improve gradually without any long-term or permanent complications. If you suspect any signs and symptoms you have may be from a B12 deficiency, speak with your doctor to get a blood test done.
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