Vitamin B12 deficiency: Signs, treatment, and sources of vitamin B12

What you need to know:

  • Vitamin B12 is found in meat, fish, cheese and other animal products.
  • Low levels of this vitamin in the body can lead to migraines, memory loss and depression.
  • If you are vegan or vegetarian it is important to consume foods fortified with this vitamin, or to supplement.

Vitamin B12, also known as cobalamin, is a water-soluble vitamin that has often been touted as the most important vitamin in the body.

It is a vital component in DNA synthesis, metabolism, and the production of red blood cells, among other biological processes.

Vitamin B12 is an essential vitamin that your body cannot produce naturally. You can only get it from your diet. Failure to incorporate foods rich in vitamin B12 in your diet can therefore lead to deficiency of the vitamin.

Sources of vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is found in animal foods. Liver and kidneys (especially from lambs), beef, and meat from other animals are the most available sources of the vitamin.

Fish is also a great source of vitamin B12. Sardines, salmon, tuna, trout and shellfish such as clams are rich in the vitamin.

As such, vegan and vegetarian diets are generally lacking in this vitamin. There are, however, a variety of foods fortified with vitamin B12. These include soy products, plant milk, and cereal.

If you are on a vegan diet, make it a routine to frequently eat small amounts of foods fortified with the vitamin, or to take supplements. The longer you go with low levels of cobalamin in your body, the more you will need to take to recover fully.

Signs of vitamin B12 deficiency

Vitamin B12 is essential for the proper functioning of your nervous system. A deficiency in the vitamin can therefore cause neurological problems such as memory loss, a tingling sensation in the extremities, and depression.

In extreme cases, you may experience motor problems and may even have trouble walking. Loss of sight is also a possibility.

You may also experience frequent and severe headaches, which could develop into migraines. Although some theories link the headaches to inadequate production of red blood cells, it has not been conclusively decided. If left untreated, the migraines and headaches may lead to memory loss and irritability.

A lack of vitamin B12 can cause a type of anaemia known as pernicious anaemia. This is because this vitamin aids in the production of red blood cells.

Vitamin B12 is also vital for metabolism; without it, you may gain weight and feel fatigued.

Inadequate B12 in your body can also lead to yellowing of the skin and eyes, or jaundice. This is a sign that your body is not producing enough healthy red blood cells. Pale or yellow skin could therefore be a sign that you have B12 anaemia.

Other symptoms you may experience include a smooth tongue, loss of appetite, constipation and bloating.

People at risk of vitamin B12 deficiency

You are at a higher risk of developing vitamin B12 deficiency if you are over the age of 60 because as you age, your body becomes less efficient in absorbing cobalamin from food.

Vegans and vegetarians face a heightened risk of developing vitamin B12 deficiency because they do not eat animal foods, which are the best sources of the vitamin.

Pregnant women and nursing mothers are also more likely to develop vitamin B12 deficiency because they need more of the nutrient than usual.

Smokers are also at an increased risk of developing vitamin B12 deficiency because smoking interferes with the absorption of cobalamin in the body.

How to treat vitamin B12 deficiency

If you suspect that you have vitamin B12 deficiency, it is important to see a doctor for diagnosis and treatment. The first step in the diagnosis is usually a physical examination and blood tests to check your blood cell count.

The most common treatment for vitamin B12 deficiency is supplementation. This involves taking vitamin B12 tablets or injections to raise your levels of cobalamin.

In some cases, your doctor may also recommend that you make changes to your diet. For example, if you are a vegan or vegetarian, you may be advised to eat more foods that are fortified with vitamin B12 or take supplements.

If you have pernicious anaemia, you will need to have regular injections of vitamin B12. In severe cases, you may also need to be hospitalised for treatment.

Do not ignore the signs

Vitamin B12 deficiency can cause serious health problems if left untreated. The impact on the nervous system and the supply of red blood cells can be quite severe.

For pregnant and nursing women, inadequate vitamin B12 for the foetus or baby can impede normal developmentwith long-term effects. Any signs of vitamin B12 deficiency should be taken seriously, and help sought from a doctor or nutritionist.