Vitamin B12 is an essential vitamin that works together with the other B vitamins to maintain healthy nerve cells and form red blood cells as well as maintain other health functions. Some people are at a higher risk of developing vitamin B12 deficiency than others. If left untreated, vitamin B12 deficiency can cause serious damage to the nervous system. Knowing the symptoms and who is at risk of vitamin B12 deficiency can help people to seek necessary treatment.
Importance of Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is important to the nervous system by maintaining healthy nerve cells. It also aids in the production of DNA and RNA. Vitamin B12 and B9 (folic acid) work together for the formation of red blood cells, to assist the function of iron in the body and to produce S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe) which affects the immune system and mood. Vitamins B12, B9 and B6 also work together to prevent high levels of the amino acid homocysteine in the blood to prevent heart disease. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, some studies show that vitamin B12 may reduce the risk of breast cancer, aid in the treatment of asthma and may reduce the risk of cognitive impairment.
Symptoms of Vitamin B12 Deficiency
Symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency vary depending upon the cause and severity of the deficiency. Some symptoms are due to the decreased production of red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout the body. These symptoms include:
- shortness of breath
- heart palpitations
- chest pains
- cold hands and feet
Other symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency may affect the gastrointestinal tract causing:
- loss of appetite
- weight loss
- enlarged liver
Vitamin B12 deficiency can also affect the nervous system. This can become dangerous if left untreated and cause permanent nerve damage. These symptoms include:
- walking difficulties
- numbness and tingling in the hands and feet
- memory loss
Taking high doses of folic acid, vitamin B9, can mask the symptoms of nerve damage. It is important to never take high quantities of folic acid unless under the treatment of a doctor.
Who is at Risk of Vitamin B12 Deficiency?
According to the Office of Dietary Supplements, the main causes of vitamin B12 deficiency are dietary deficiency, inability to absorb B12 from food, pernicious anemia and postsurgical malabsorption. Many older adults may be unable to absorb enough vitamin B12 due to loss of acid in the stomach. Also, people who take medications that reduce bile or acid in the stomach are more likely to be at risk of vitamin B12 deficiency. Other people at risk of vitamin B12 deficiency include:
- people with eating disorders
- vegetarians (those who do not eat eggs or dairy products)
- people infected with Helicobater pylori (H. pylori)
- people who have tapeworm infection
- people with pancreatic disease
- people with HIV
Adding Vitamin B12 to the Diet
The best way to add vitamin B12 to the diet is through food sources. Foods rich in vitamin B12 are meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products. For people who are vegetarians, vitamin B12 can be accessed through fortified breakfast cereals.
Vitamin B12 supplements are also available either alone or combined in a B-complex supplement or in a multi-vitamin. All the B vitamins are water-soluble and are not stored in the body so they do not become toxic. However, no one should take more than the recommended daily allowance of vitamin B12 without first consulting a doctor.
Injections are also available for severe vitamin B12 deficiency. These are only given under the recommendation of a doctor.
Vitamin B12 deficiency, if treated in a timely fashion, can be easily reversed if a person is aware of the symptoms and discuses them with a doctor. By eating a healthy, balanced diet or by taking a daily B-complex supplement, most people can prevent vitamin B12 deficiency.