If you felt fatigued, had an increased heart rate, experienced shortness of breath, felt numbness or tingling in your extremities, had trouble walking, and/or noticed your skin was pale, you might think a trip to the ER was in order. And while some of these symptoms can be indicators of a health emergency, they can also be indications that you, along with about 40 percent of the US population, have a vitamin B12 deficiency.
Traditionally, vitamin B12 deficiencies were associated with vegan and vegetarian diets because B12 is derived from meats, dairy, and eggs, but the human body can’t produce it on its own. Yet it’s an essential nutrient that is critical for the proper formation of red blood cells, for making DNA, and for nerve function, and without it, some pretty serious conditions can arise. These can include:
- neurological disorders
- cognitive difficulties
- loss of taste/smell
- vision loss
Besides diets lacking or containing insufficient amounts of meats, dairy, and eggs, long-term use of certain medications can also cause vitamin B12 deficiencies. It’s a dangerously sneaky side effect because you can’t feel it happening until it’s too late. Unlike other drug side effects, like dizziness, nausea, drowsiness, etc., by the time it’s discovered, you’re already deficient…and sometimes that deficiency is irreversible. Among the medications that have been shown to deplete B12 are the diabetes drug metformin, PPIs (proton-pump inhibitors) which can interfere with the body’s ability to absorb B12, and the Parkinson’s drugs carbidopa and levodopa.
Older people can be at risk of developing a B12 deficiency because their bodies produce less stomach acid, which is necessary for B12 absorption. Anyone who has had weight-loss surgery is more likely to have lower B12 levels because the surgery hampers the body’s ability to pull B12 from consumed foods. Finally, some health conditions can also make you more prone to a B12 deficiency, including:
- pernicious anemia
- Crohn’s disease
- celiac disease
- Graves’ disease
- atrophic gastritis
Pregnant women need to be especially careful to get enough B12 in their diets – a B12 deficiency can lead to developmental delays in babies.
Besides taking a good B12 supplement, you can make sure your diet contains foods that deliver the necessary amounts of B12 to your body. These include fish (particularly trout, wild-caught salmon, sardines and clams), poultry, meat (especially liver and kidneys, but avoid processed meats), dairy (a highly absorbable source), and eggs. Nondairy milks like soy, almond, and rice that are fortified can contain decent amounts of B12 as well. While a few plants like seaweed, some mushrooms, and algae contain B12, the body doesn’t absorb it as well from these sources and they won’t increase your B12 level, so you can still remain deficient.
If you fit into any of the higher-risk categories for being prone to a vitamin B12 deficiency, talk to your doctor about getting regular blood tests to monitor your levels. If they’re low, ask for a recommendation for a high-quality supplement to get them back up to a safe level, and consider altering your diet to include B12-rich foods.