What is Vitamin B12?
Vitamin B12, also referred to as Cobalamin, is one of the B vitamins. It is a water-soluble vitamin and travels through the bloodstream. Our body does not produce or store Vitamin B12 and excess amount of this vitamin is excreted through urine. Vitamin B12 structurally is the largest and the most complicated vitamin. It is important to get sufficient vitamin B12 otherwise deficiency of this vitamin can cause lot of health issues.
As our body does not make vitamin B12, we have to get it from supplements and through consumption of animal-based foods. The amount of vitamin B12 required and the source of it depends on an individual's age, diet, medical conditions and medications taken by him/her.
What Does Vitamin B12 Do For You?
Vitamin B12 does multiple things for our body. It ensures proper function and health of brain, nerve tissue and production of red blood cells. Vitamin B12 also helps in regulation and synthesis of DNA along with helping with the metabolism of the body. It helps in energy production by helping with folic acid absorption and also helps in synthesis of fatty acids. Millions of red blood cells are produced by the human body every minute, however, without sufficient vitamin B12, the RBCs cannot multiply properly. Low levels of vitamin B12 decreases the production of red blood cells and results in anemia.
What are the Causes of Low Vitamin B12 or Vitamin B12 Deficiency?
Deficiency of Vitamin B12 occurs in certain conditions which include:
- Pernicious anemia in which the body is unable to absorb vitamin B12 leading to its low levels.
- Atrophic gastritis where there is thinning of the stomach lining.
- Conditions that affect the small intestine, such as celiac disease, Crohn's disease, parasite or a bacterial growth.
- Surgery where a part of the small intestine or stomach has been removed, such as weight loss surgery.
- Immune system disorders, such as lupus or Graves' disease.
- Heavy alcohol consumption.
- Prolonged use of acid-reducing drugs, as stomach acids help in breaking down of the animal proteins which have vitamin B12.
- Vegans or vegetarians can also get vitamin B12 deficiency as they do not consume animal products such as meat, cheese, milk and eggs.
- Pregnant mothers who are vegetarians need to take vitamin B12 supplements or consume vitamin B12-fortified grains to ensure that their babies will be getting sufficient vitamin B12.
- As a person ages, the risk of vitamin B12 deficiency also increases.
How is the Diagnosis of Vitamin B12 Made?
A simple blood test will reveal whether a person has vitamin B12 deficiency or not.
What Happens if Vitamin B12 is Low?
Low levels of vitamin B12 or vitamin B12 deficiency can cause anemia. Low vitamin B12, if ignored and not treated, can potentially cause serious and irreparable damage to the nerves and brain. If there is a mild vitamin B12 deficiency, then a person may not experience any symptoms; and if the vitamin B12 deficiency is ignored and if it progresses then it can produce symptoms such as:
- Tiredness, weakness and lightheadedness.
- Shortness of breath.
- Pallor of the skin.
- Loss of appetite.
- A smooth tongue.
- Nerve problems such as tingling and numbness.
- Muscle weakness.
- Vision problems.
- Problems with walking.
- Mental problems such as memory loss, depression and changes in behavior.
- Babies who do not get sufficient vitamin B12 if the mothers are vegan or vegetarian and if they are exclusively breastfed are at an increased risk for having anemia, weakness, developmental delays and failure to thrive.
How to Treat Deficiency of Vitamin B12?
- Treating the cause of low level of vitamin B12 will resolve the problem. If the patient has pernicious anemia which is causing problems with absorption of vitamin B12, then vitamin B12 injections are given after which the injections can be continued or increased doses of oral replacement or nasal therapy should be taken for life.
- If cause of vitamin B12 deficiency is not eating animal products, then the patient should change his/her diet to include grains which are fortified with vitamin B12 and also take vitamin B12 supplement or injections.
- Elderly individuals should take a vitamin B12 supplement daily.
- Majority of the times, treatment will resolve any problems caused by vitamin B12 deficiency. However, if the patient has suffered any nerve damage due to vitamin B12 deficiency, then it could be irreversible.
How Can Deficiency of Vitamin B12 be Prevented?
Prevention of vitamin B12 deficiency can be easily achieved by eating sufficient poultry, meat, seafood, eggs and dairy products. If a person is vegetarian or has a medical disorder which hinders absorption of vitamin B12, then it is recommended that a multivitamin which contains vitamin B12 be taken daily and also breakfast cereal that is fortified with vitamin B12 should be consumed. It is important to inform the doctor regarding any vitamin B12 supplements which are being taken so that the doctor makes sure that it will not affect other medicines which the patient is taking.