Are you struggling with frequent attacks of joint pain? Does it sometimes feel like someone’s pinching your hands and feet with a ton of pins and needles? Do you often find yourself exhausted and out of breath even after minimal exertion? If all these symptoms describe what you are feeling for the past few months, you could be running low on vitamin B12.
Vitamin B12 is one of the most popular members of the vitamin B complex. Also known as cobalamin, it plays an important role in regulating brain health, optimizing DNA synthesis, and supporting red blood cell production. Given its role in some of the most critical processes occurring inside the human body, you must maintain its levels adequately and address the deficiencies if any.
This article will help you understand more about vitamin B12 and the roles it plays inside the body. It will further shed light on some of the most common vitamin B12 deficiency symptoms and how to address them conveniently.
What is Vitamin B12- An Overview
Vitamin B12 is one of the most crucial and the largest vitamins that the body needs to function properly. Despite having a complex structure, it readily dissolves in water just like all other B vitamins. It is majorly sourced from animal-derived products such as eggs and meat but can also be taken through fermented products and synthetic supplements.
Inside the body, vitamin B12 controls a lot of extremely important processes which include the following:
- Cognitive abilities
- Normal nervous functions
- Protection of eyes from age-related diseases
- DNA synthesis
- Red blood cell production
- Energy production
- Prevention of congenital abnormalities in growing babies
Despite the role it plays in regulating health, many people are unable to consume enough vitamin B12, leading to an underlying deficiency.
Vitamin B12 Deficiency Symptoms
Vitamin B12 does not usually happen all of a sudden. In most cases, the process is slow and the symptoms appear gradually and worsen with time. Given the variety of symptoms it causes, the problem can be easily overlooked and mistaken with something else. Some of the most common symptoms that you can develop due to an underlying vitamin B12 deficiency include:
- Excessive fatigue
- Shortness of breath
- A swollen tongue
- Problems with cognition
- Numbness in hands and feet
- Ulcers around mouth
Sometimes, an experienced doctor may successfully catch an underlying vitamin B12 deficiency with a detailed history followed by a physical exam. However, a blood test is usually needed to confirm the diagnosis.
If you are at risk of developing a vitamin B12 deficiency, it is a good idea to consult with a doctor about encountering this problem beforehand. Some conditions that increase your risk of encountering this issue include:
- A recent weight loss surgery
- A vegan lifestyle
- Certain diseases like IBD, Crohn’s disease, and celiac disease
- Individuals belonging to older age groups
What Causes Vitamin B12 Deficiency?
Multiple factors can be responsible for developing this disease. Some of them are mentioned below in detail:
Absence of intrinsic factor
Intrinsic factor is a type of protein that is naturally secreted by the lining of your stomach. It attaches itself to the incoming vitamin B12 as a part of the food you eat and supports its absorption into the bloodstream. In the absence of this protein, vitamin B12 fails to absorb into the body, leading to a deficiency. Such a condition is quite complex as the underlying deficiency cannot be sorted through dietary changes or oral supplements since the body is unable to absorb it through the gut.
The most common cause behind an absent intrinsic factor in adults is a condition called atrophic gastritis. In this condition, the cells lining the stomach walls thin down which ultimately stops the production of the intrinsic factor. Sometimes, the problem is inherited by children from their parents. It is also commonly seen in people with certain coexisting diseases like thyroiditis, Grave’s disease, hypothyroidism, and Addison’s disease.
Certain people develop vitamin B12 deficiency due to certain conditions that slow down or hinder the movement of food through the intestines. These conditions include diverticula, strictures, scleroderma, and diabetes. As the food slows down and remains in the gut for longer periods of time, it promotes the production of bacteria which then leads to an overgrowth. These bacterial colonies start stealing the vitamin B12 you obtain through diet for their own means, depriving the rest of the body. For a healthier gut flora, check out Dr. Danielle Probiotics.
Destruction of a part of the stomach or its surgical removal can also sometimes render people incapable of secreting the intrinsic factor, leading to a deficiency of vitamin B12.
People practicing certain lifestyles, such as vegans and vegetarians, often suffer from vitamin B12 deficiency. This is because they do not eat many of the food sources of this vitamin, which include eggs, dairy, fish, meat, etc. People with certain eating disorders like bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa may rarely develop this deficiency due to not eating enough.
How to Manage Vitamin B12 Deficiency
Vitamin B12 deficiency can be uncomfortable to live with; however, with timely diagnosis, the problem can be well-managed. The choice of treatment can be decided by working closely with your doctor who will take into account the following to formulate a strategy:
- Your current age
- Your current health status
- Your past and present medical history
- Severity of symptoms
- How well you can tolerate certain treatments, therapies, and medicines
- Your personal choices and preferences
- The risk of worsening of symptoms in the future
Depending on the factors mentioned above, you may be suggested one or more of the following treatment modalities:
Vitamin B12 Supplements
Some people who have difficulty fulfilling their vitamin B12 requirement through diet alone may be recommended to take supplements. These supplements can be of the following two types:
Oral supplements are often recommended to people who do not eat meat, dairy, and other dietary sources of vitamin B12 due to their lifestyle choices. These people predominantly include vegans and vegetarians and they are often advised to take oral supplements, sometimes for life. A great way to improve your vitamin B levels is to enjoy Dr. Danielle’s delicious strawberry Vitamin B-12 gummies.
Before you include an oral supplement in your routine, it is always a good idea to consult a doctor regarding its safety and accurate dosage to consume.
In people who are unable to absorb vitamin B12 through the gut into the blood, oral supplements do not work. In such circumstances, the doctor may switch to using injectables. This is particularly true for people who do not have an intrinsic factor or those with severe deficiencies.
Vitamin B12 injections are normally administered on alternate days for the first two weeks until the symptoms improve. The following course of treatment depends on how well you respond to these injections by carrying out blood tests. If you develop a neurological problem or if your deficiency is found to be secondary to your dietary lifestyle, the injections may continue for life.
These injections consist of vitamin B12 in cyanocobalamin or hydroxocobalamin forms.
In addition to prescribing oral and injectable supplements, a doctor may also advise you to modify your dietary habits. You can also be referred to a nutritionist or a dietician for better guidance regarding how to improve the vitamin B12 levels through diet.
There are many natural foods that you can rely on to improve your vitamin B12 levels.
If you are an avid meat lover and love dairy products, including the following items to your daily life can significantly boost your vitamin B12 levels:
- Canned tuna
- Chicken breast
- Low-fat milk
- Low-fat yogurt
It is always important to maintain a healthy balance between various food items, even when you are trying to fill up a deficiency.
As mentioned before, vitamin B12 can only be sourced through animal-based foods including fish, meat, and dairy items. Therefore, people with certain lifestyle choices, such as those following veganism and vegetarianism, may find it difficult to cover up for this deficiency through diet. For such people, it is commonly advised to look for vegan products fortified with vitamin B12 externally. Some common examples of these items include:
- Nutritional yeast
- Certain fruit juices
- Dairy-free yogurt
- Breakfast cereals
- Plant-based milk, like coconut milk, cashew milk, oat milk, and soy milk
Before purchasing a certain item, always make sure to go through the ingredients label and ensure that it has adequate levels of vitamin B12 in it.
Touted as one of the most important B vitamins, vitamin B12 is essentially needed by your body to function smoothly. This tiny little compound that often goes unnoticed holds the reins to an optimally functioning nervous system and adequately oxygenated blood cells. Despite playing a role in multiple processes critical to a healthy life, a considerable chunk of the population continue to suffer from a lack of vitamin B12. Raising awareness and educating yourself about catching these deficiencies and managing them in time is the need of the hour.
The preferred mode of treatment depends on the cause of your vitamin B12 deficiency. Some cases can be corrected with dietary interventions and temporary supplementations while others require life-long injections and pills. If your cause of vitamin B12 deficiency is diet-based, working closely with a nutritionist can also be opted for to manage symptoms in a better way.