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Jun 28, 2023

Everyday Health

How Vitamin B12 Deficiency Affects Your Health

Although serious B12 deficiency is considered uncommon due to your body's ability to retain B12 for years, between 10% and 15% of the population worldwide may be vitamin B12 deficient to some extent. It’s important to keep in mind that B12 deficiency might eventually result in complications such as anemia, damaged nerves, and fatigue.

What is vitamin B12?

Water-soluble vitamin B12, sometimes referred to as cobalamin, is crucial for many biological processes. It contributes to the synthesis of DNA, the development of red blood cells, nerve function, and energy.

Vitamin B12 is primarily derived from nutrients found in food, especially in animal-based products including beef, chicken, pork, fish, eggs, and dairy-based products. Plant- based sources of B12 are less reliable, and individuals who adhere to strict vegetarian or vegan diets may need to take supplements.

In your digestive system, B12 binds to a protein called intrinsic factor, which is secreted by your stomach. This complex is then absorbed in your small intestine and transported to your bloodstream for use in the body. Factors such as age, certain medical conditions affecting the digestive system, or the use of certain medications can impair the absorption of B12. In such cases, B12 supplements or injections may be prescribed by healthcare professionals.

What does vitamin B12 deficiency mean?

Vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to several health problems. One of the primary consequences is megaloblastic anemia, characterized by red blood cells that become larger and less efficient at carrying oxygen. This can result in symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, and pale skin.

B12 deficiency can cause nerve damage, leading to neurological symptoms like tingling or numbness in the hands and feet, balance problems, memory issues, confusion, and mood changes. Other possible symptoms include digestive issues, loss of appetite, weight loss, and a sore or swollen tongue.

If left untreated, vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to long-term complications, including irreversible nerve damage, neurological impairments, and severe anemia. It’s important to diagnose B12 deficiency through proper testing and consult with your doctor for appropriate treatment, which generally involves B12 supplementation.

What are the signs and symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency?

Vitamin B12 deficiency can manifest with a variety of signs and symptoms, which can vary in severity and presentation among individuals. Some common signs and symptoms include the following:

  • Fatigue and weakness: Feeling tired and lacking energy is a common symptom of B12 deficiency. It can be caused by your body's inability to produce enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout your body.
  • Anemia: Symptoms may include pale skin, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, and general weakness.
  • Neurological symptoms: B12 deficiency can cause various neurological symptoms, including tingling or numbness in your hands and feet, difficulty with balance and coordination, muscle weakness, memory problems, confusion, and even mood changes.
  • Digestive issues: Symptoms include loss of appetite, weight loss, constipation, or diarrhea.
  • Mouth and tongue changes: Many of those with B12 deficiency may experience a sore or swollen tongue, along with mouth ulcers or a burning sensation in their mouth.
  • Cognitive and mood changes: B12 deficiency can affect cognitive functions, resulting in memory loss, difficulty concentrating, and/or overall cognitive impairment. It can also contribute to mood changes, including depression, irritability, and anxiety.

Since these symptoms might potentially be linked to other medical issues, an accurate diagnosis through blood testing and consultation with a medical expert is crucial. It's advised to seek medical assistance if you think you may have a B12 deficiency or experience these symptoms in order to be evaluated and given the proper care.

What causes vitamin B12 deficiency?

  • Inadequate dietary intake: Vitamin B12 is primarily found in animal-based products, such as meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products. Strict vegetarians and vegans who avoid animal products may be at a higher risk of B12 deficiency if they don’t consume adequate plant-based sources or take B12 supplements.
  • Impaired absorption: The absorption of vitamin B12 from food requires proper functioning of your stomach, pancreas, and small intestine. Certain conditions that affect these organs, such as gastrointestinal disorders, including Crohn’s disease or celiac disease, or surgeries that involve the removal of parts of your stomach or small intestine, can interfere with B12 absorption.
  • Lack of intrinsic factor: Intrinsic factor is a protein produced by your stomach that binds to vitamin B12 and facilitates its absorption in your small intestine. Conditions that reduce or impair intrinsic factor production, such as pernicious anemia, can hinder B12 absorption.
  • Medications and medical treatments: Certain medications such as proton pump inhibitors (for acid reflux) and and metformin (for diabetes) can interfere with B12 absorption. Additionally, those undergoing treatments like long-term antibiotic use, chemotherapy, or weight loss surgeries may be at a higher risk of B12 deficiency.
  • Age-related factors: Your ability to absorb vitamin B12 decreases with age. Older adults may have reduced production of stomach acid or decreased intrinsic factors, making them more susceptible to B12 deficiency.
  • Alcohol: Excessive alcohol consumption can affect the absorption and storage of B12 in your body, leading to a higher risk of deficiency.

Certain individuals may need more B12 because of illnesses or genetic predispositions that impact B12 metabolism. Therefore, it’s necessary to get medical advice in order to properly assess, diagnose, and treat B12 deficiency.

How to prevent vitamin B12 deficiency

  • Adequate dietary intake: Animal-based foods such as meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products are the primary sources of B12. Incorporating these foods into your daily diet can help ensure sufficient B12 intake.
  • B12 supplementation: If you follow a strict vegetarian or vegan diet or have conditions that increase your risk of B12 deficiency, consider taking B12 supplements. Consult with a healthcare professional to determine the appropriate dosage and form of B12 supplementation for your specific needs.

    Cyanocobalamin, synthetic vitamin B12, is available over the counter (OTC) in the following forms: B12 supplements, vitamin B complex supplements, and multivitamins

    In order to raise vitamin levels among individuals who have been diagnosed with low levels, one of the methods may be recommended: B12 nasal spray, vitamin B12 weekly intramuscular (IM) injections, and higher doses of oral B12
  • Regular monitoring: If you have risk factors for B12 deficiency, such as gastrointestinal disorders or pernicious anemia, it's important to regularly monitor your B12 levels through blood tests. This can help detect any deficiencies early on and allow for timely intervention and supplementation.
  • Address underlying medical conditions: If you have conditions that affect B12 absorption seek appropriate medical treatment and management to minimize the impact on B12 absorption. This may involve working closely with healthcare professionals and following recommended treatment plans.
  • Limit alcohol consumption: Excessive alcohol consumption can interfere with B12 absorption and increase your risk of deficiency. Limiting alcohol intake or seeking help for alcohol abuse can help prevent B12 deficiency.
  • Health education and awareness: Increasing awareness about the importance of vitamin B12 and its dietary sources can help you make informed decisions and take preventive measures to avoid deficiency.

Everybody's needs and circumstances can differ, subsequently speaking with a medical expert or qualified dietician is advised to find the best preventive measures for your particular case.

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