Vitamin B12, also known as Cobalamin is an essential nutrient that helps to keep the body’s nerves and blood cells healthy while playing a vital role in synthesizing DNA. It is the largest and structurally the most complicated vitamin and is a water-soluble vitamin, which means that it dissolves in water in the bloodstream. Vitamin B12 occurs naturally- primarily in meat products, fish and milk products and maybe fortified in certain breakfast cereals. This is why vegetarians are particularly prone to develop vitamin B12 deficiency.
Risk factors for vitamin B12 deficiency
- Strict vegetarians or vegans
- Autoimmune conditions that can damage the cells in your stomach producing factors necessary for vitamin B12 absorption
- Conditions affecting the small intestine such as Crohn’s disease or infections because vitamin B12 gets absorbed in the small intestine
- Surgical resection of the small bowel
- Tapeworm infections
- Medications such as certain antibiotics and anti-seizure medications
Symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency
The chances of developing a vitamin B12 deficiency increase as you get older, as it can become harder to absorb this vitamin with increasing age. You may be at a higher risk of developing this deficiency if you’ve had weight loss surgery, are a heavy drinker, or follow a strict vegetarian or vegan diet.
Symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency include:
- Increased tiredness or weakness
- Loss of appetite
- Tingling or numbness in the hands and feet
Good sources of vitamin B12
Just like with most vitamins, your body doesn’t produce vitamin B12 naturally. Hence, it is essential to incorporate foods that are rich in the nutrients into your diet. Vitamin B12 is prevalent in a wide range of animal-based foods but does not occur in plant-based foods unless they are fortified. If you’re a strict vegan or vegetarian, it’s imperative to eat breads, cereals, or other grains that have been fortified with vitamin B12. Supplements are a good alternative to ensure you’re getting a healthy dose of vitamin B12 every day.
A few good sources of vitamin B12 include:
- Meats including fish, lamb, beef, and ham
- Dairy products such as milk, cheese, and yogurt
- Some types of soya milk, breakfast cereals, and nutritional yeasts
Treatment for vitamin B12 deficiency
In case of symptoms that indicate a vitamin B12 deficiency, a doctor may recommend certain tests depending on the severity and range of symptoms. Treatment for the deficiency of this vitamin can last for anywhere between 1-3 months and varies from oral supplements to intramuscular injections depending on the level of vitamin B12 and severity of the symptoms.
Common tests to identify a vitamin B12 deficiency:
Complete Blood Count: This test is performed to check the size and number of red blood cells. If your vitamin B12 level is low, your red blood cells will be considerably bigger and shaped differently.
Vitamin B12 level: This test measures the level of vitamin B12 in your blood.
Methylmalonic acid level: When vitamin B12 level is low, the level of methylmalonic acid (MMA) increases. This test helps measure the amount of MMA in your blood.
Keeping your vitamin B12 level healthy is important. Prolonged deficiency can damage the heart, brain, nerves, bones, and other organs in your body. With timely treatment, you should feel better and avoid any long-term complications.