Do you get enough vitamin B12? You’ll want to make sure that you do, in order to stay healthy.
Vitamin B12 does a lot of things for your body. It helps make your DNA and your red blood cells. It’s also required for cells to divide and grow appropriately. In addition, B12 is essential for the health of the nervous system, being essential for the formation of myelin – the protective coating around our nerve cells. B12 is also necessary for carbohydrate metabolism – using sugar for food in both the nervous system and to create abundant energy in our bodies.
Since your body doesn't make vitamin B12, you have to get it from animal-based foods or from supplements. And you should do that on a regular basis, because your body doesn’t store vitamin B12 for a long time.
Food Sources of Vitamin B12
You can get vitamin B12 in animal foods, which have it naturally, or from items that have been fortified with it.
Animal sources include dairy products, eggs, fish, meat, and poultry. If you’re looking for a food fortified with B12, check the product’s Nutrition Facts label.
Vitamin B12 Deficiency
If you’re not sure that you get enough, you can ask your medical doctor or naturopathic doctor for a blood test to check your vitamin B12 level.
With age, it can become harder to absorb this vitamin. It can also happen if you have had weight loss surgery or another operation that removed part of your stomach, if you drink heavily, or if you’ve taken acid-reducing medications for a long time.
You may also be more likely to develop vitamin B12 deficiency if you have:
- Atrophic gastritis, in which your stomach lining has thinned
- Pernicious anemia, which makes it hard for your body to absorb vitamin B12
- Conditions that affect your small intestine, such as Crohn's disease, celiac disease, bacterial growth, or a parasite
- Immune system disorders, such as Graves' disease or lupus
You can also get vitamin B12 deficiency if you follow a vegan diet (meaning you don't eat any animal products, including meat, milk, cheese, and eggs) or you are a vegetarian who doesn't eat enough eggs or dairy products to meet your vitamin B12 needs. In both of those cases, you can add fortified foods to your diet or take supplements to meet this need.
Pregnant or New Mom?
Are you a pregnant woman on a vegan or vegetarian diet, and plan to only breastfeed your baby? You should talk to your doctor before you have your baby, so that you have a plan in place for how you’ll get enough vitamin B12 to keep your baby healthy.
Without enough vitamin B12, your baby could have developmental delays and not thrive and grow like he should.
Symptoms of Vitamin B12 Deficiency
If you have vitamin B12 deficiency, you could become anemic. A mild deficiency may cause no symptoms. But if untreated, it may lead to symptoms such as:
- Weakness, tiredness, or lightheadedness
- Heart palpitations and shortness of breath
- Pale skin
- A smooth tongue
- Constipation, diarrhea, loss of appetite, or gas
- Nerve problems like numbness or tingling, muscle weakness, and problems walking
- Vision loss
- Mental problems like depression, memory loss, or behavioral changes
If you have pernicious anemia or have trouble absorbing vitamin B12, you'll need shots of this vitamin at first. You may need to keep getting these shots, take high doses of a supplement, or get it nasally after that.
If you don’t eat animal products, you have options. You can change your diet to include vitamin B12-fortified grains, a supplement or B12 injections, or a high-dose oral vitamin B12 if you are deficient.
Older adults who have a vitamin B12 deficiency should take a daily B12 supplement or a multivitamin that contains B12.
For most people, treatment resolves the problem. But, any nerve damage that happened due to the deficiency could be permanent.
Most people can prevent vitamin B12 deficiency by eating enough meat, poultry, seafood, dairy products, and eggs.
If you don't eat animal products, or you have a medical condition that limits how well your body absorbs nutrients, you can take vitamin B12 in a multivitamin or other supplement and foods fortified with vitamin B12.
If you choose to take vitamin B12 supplements, let your doctor know, so he or she can make sure they won't affect any medicines you're taking.
B12 Deficiency Quiz
If you are concerned your B12 levels may be low, take the quiz below. If you answer YES to more than SIX questions, get your tired self to your Naturopath for a blood test. And if you know your B12 levels are low, do something about it! It may be as simple as a daily supplement, or it may require B12 injections. Talk to your ND to determine the best course of action for you.
The advice provided in this article is for informational purposes only. It is meant to augment and not replace consultation with a licensed health care provider. Consultation with a Naturopathic Doctor or other primary care provider is recommended for anyone suffering from a health problem.
British Columbia Medical Association. B12 Deficiency – Investigation and Management of Vitamin B12 and Folate Deficiency. Victoria, Canada: Guidelines and Protocols Advisory Committee; 2007.
First Consult: Megaloblastic Anemia www.mdconsult.com
Rakel: Textbook of Family Medicine, 7th Ed. 2007. Common Laboratory Testing.
Dr. Sylvia Santos is a Naturopathic Doctor practicing in Vaughan, Ontario, Canada. She is a passionate about health promotion and encourages her patients and readers to embrace their full health potential. You can follow Dr. Santos on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.