Here's why a vitamin B12 deficiency is so dangerous for your health

·4 min read

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What are the signs and symptoms of a vitamin B12 deficiency?
What are the signs and symptoms of a vitamin B12 deficiency? (Image via Getty Images)

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

When it comes to nutritional deficiencies you may think of vitamin D or iron, but it’s also important to note the importance of vitamin B12 in our overall health.

Vitamin B12 is an essential vitamin your body needs to function properly. It plays a major role in producing red blood cells, nerve and brain function and for helping our bodies produce energy.

Someone with a mild B12 deficiency may not have symptoms or may not notice them, but for others with a more severe case it could lead to serious problems.

Symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency

In extreme cases a vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to anemia, which means your body is not producing enough red blood cells to carry oxygen to your body's tissues. This can lead to feelings of weakness and fatigue.

A lack of B12 can also affect the nervous system, because it's needed for the maintenance of myelin, the protective coating around nerve cells. 

"If the coating wears away you could experience tingling sensations and numbness in your limbs, along with memory problems and mood disorders, Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, said in an interview with Yahoo Canada

While these symptoms can be alarming, Schwarcz cautioned people to be careful not to assume any feelings of fatigue or changes in mood or memory are indicative of a vitamin B12 deficiency.

The signs and symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency
Memory loss could be a sign of vitamin B12 deficiency — or something much more serious. (Image via Getty Images)

“There’s nothing wrong with someone taking vitamin B12, but it may lead them down the wrong path and prevent diagnosis of something that really should be treated,” Schwarcz explained. “This is one of the big problems with B12 is that there are so many symptoms that can be produced by B12 deficiency, which parallels symptoms that can be produced by a host of other conditions.”

What causes B12 deficiency?

Even if you have enough vitamin B12 in your diet, there are other factors that can lead to a deficiency. Schwarcz says the vitamin needs to be absorbed properly through the stomach, which is done with the help of a special protein called the intrinsic factor. Without that protein, someone may develop a deficiency.

“People who have low acidity in the stomach because they're taking antacids can also develop a deficiency," Schwarcz said." Stomach acidity is important in separating the B12 from other components in the food so that can be acted upon by the intrinsic factor so that it can be absorbed into the bloodstream.

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According to Schwarcz, vitamin B12 is considered “a complex business” and says the best way to find out if you have a deficiency is through a blood test.

How to treat a vitamin B12 deficiency

In Canada, vitamin B12 deficiency isn't a rampant issue. Government data shows that 96 per cent of Canadians have adequate B12 levels according to recommendations made by Health Canada. 

Most people get a sufficient supply of vitamin B12 in their diet through meat, fish and dairy products.

Tufts University lists older adults, people with digestive tract disorders as well as those who have had surgery affecting their stomach or intestinal tract as a high-risk group of a vitamin B12 deficiency. Vegans and vegetarians are also on that list, too. 

People with a history of gastrointestinal issues are considered high-risk for vitamin B12 deficiency. (Image via Getty Images)
People with a history of gastrointestinal issues are considered high-risk for vitamin B12 deficiency. (Image via Getty Images)

Schwarcz suggests people who don’t have any meat or dairy in their diet take a B12 supplement.

“That’s one of the things about B12— the risk of taking the supplement is very small, it’s a water soluble vitamin and any large excess would be excreted,” Schwarcz noted.

A deficiency in vitamin B12 can be treated with supplements and B12 shots, which are prescribed by a doctor.The daily-recommended amount of vitamin B12 depends on your age and the best way to determine if you need treatment is to consult your doctor.

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