It’s no exaggeration to say that Vitamin B12 is crucial to life.
B12 helps make red blood cells, which carry oxygen throughout your body. It also creates and regulates DNA.
B12 is essential for proper nerve function. (As someone who suffers from trigeminal neuralgia, an extremely painful nerve pain disorder, I depend on my B12 supplements to keep it under control).
Since our bodies do not manufacture Vitamin B12, we must supply it in adequate amounts to maintain the formation of red blood cells.
Most healthy adults need about 2.4 micrograms per day. If you are over 50, you are automatically more prone to being deficient in B12, and a daily dosage of 2.6 micrograms, from food and/or supplements, is ideal.
What happens if I don’t get enough B12?
Symptoms of a vitamin B12 deficiency include:
- Pale skin
- Loss of muscle strength
- Forgetfulness or “brain fog”
- A feeling of “pins and needles” or tingling, usually in hands or feet
- A swollen, smooth tongue (a classic symptom)
Anxiety or depression unaccounted for by life circumstances, or that does not pass, could be an early sign of a B12 deficiency since this vitamin helps regulate brain function.
If a B12 deficiency progresses untreated, a person could experience vision disturbances or even vision loss.
Factors that contribute to B12 deficiency
The older we get, the harder of a time our body has absorbing vitamin B12. So, age is considered a risk factor for a B12 deficiency.
If you’ve had weight loss surgery or other surgery where part of your stomach was removed, or if you drink heavily, you are also at risk of being B12 deficient.
Other risk factors include:
- Crohn’s disease, celiac disease or other conditions that affect the small intestine
- Immune system disorders, such as Grave’s disease or lupus
- Medications that interfere with B12 absorption. These include some heartburn medications and the diabetes medication metformin
And, if you are following a strictly vegan diet, you need to take extra care that you are getting enough B12.
Vegans need B12 from other sources
Eggs, fish, meat, and poultry are the best food sources of vitamin B12. Since people sticking to a vegan diet eat none of these, they are more susceptible to a B12 deficiency than people who do eat them. But there are ways around this.
If you are a vegan, be sure and get enough daily B12 from fortified breads and cereals. Taking a high-quality B12 supplement daily is also a good idea. B12 injections are also an option. Talk to your doctor about whether this is advisable in your case.
Pernicious anemia – when your body can’t absorb B12
Pernicious anemia is an autoimmune disorder that prevents your body from absorbing the vitamin B12 you consume.
To absorb B12, your body needs a type of protein known as intrinsic factor (IF). IF is produced by cells in your stomach.
IF binds with the B12 you consume, and both are absorbed by your small intestine. In cases of pernicious anemia, the body’s immune system attacks and destroys the cells that produce intrinsic factor, making it impossible for your body to absorb the B12 you consume.
When this happens, you may feel some of the symptoms mentioned above, as well as chest pain, trouble with balance, shortness of breath and cold hands and feet.
If any of these symptoms do show up and stick around, see your doctor. He or she can do blood tests that can reveal if pernicious anemia is to blame. A low hemoglobin level or a low red blood cell count are tipoffs that anemia is present.
Most people can avoid vitamin B12 deficiency simply by eating enough meat, poultry, seafood, dairy products, and eggs.
If you don’t eat animal products, or if you know you have a condition that limits your absorption of nutrients, talk with your doctor about supplements. He or she can advise you on how much you need, and make sure it won’t affect any medicines you’re taking.