Vitamin B12 is necessary for a healthy nervous system and healthy blood cells. The best way to get vitamin B12 is through your diet. This important vitamin is found in meat, fish, poultry, and dairy products. If you don’t eat enough of these foods, it could leave you with a deficiency.
Consuming enough vitamin B12 isn’t the only problem. Your body also needs to be able to absorb it efficiently. Some medications like Pepcid AC, Prevacid, Prilosec, and Zantac, as well as others used to treat acid reflux, peptic ulcer disease, and infection, may make it harder for your body to absorb B12.
Another medication that may interfere with B12 absorption is metformin, a common type 2 diabetes treatment.
Simply having diabetes may make you more prone to B12 deficiency. A 2009 study found that 22 percent of people with type 2 diabetes were low in B12.
Read on to learn the symptoms of B12 deficiency, what it could mean for your overall health, and what you can do about it.
Symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency may be mild at first, and not always obvious. If you’re slightly low on B12, you may not have any symptoms at all. Some of the more common early symptoms are:
- loss of appetite
- weight loss
It may be easy to dismiss these as minor complaints, but over time, insufficient B12 can lead to bigger problems.
Very low levels of B12 can result in serious complications. One of these is called pernicious anemia. Anemia means you don’t have enough healthy red blood cells. This deprives your cells of much-needed oxygen. According to a study in the Journal of Oral Pathology Medicine, less than 20 percent of those with a B12 deficiency experience pernicious anemia.
Symptoms of anemia include:
- pale skin
- chest pain
You may even lose your sense of taste and smell. More serious symptoms include fast or irregular heartbeat and shortness of breath.
B12 deficiency can also lead to paresthesia. That’s a burning or itchy sensation of the skin, usually on the arms, hands, legs, and feet. Some people experience numbness, tingling, or a prickly feeling.
Low B12 is sometimes associated with high levels of an amino acid called homocysteine. This can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.
A severe, long-term B12 deficiency can cause loss of mobility, difficulty walking, memory loss, delusions, and depression. It may even lead to dementia.
One of the potential side effects of diabetes is neuropathy, or nerve damage. It is caused by high blood glucose over a long period. The most common symptoms of diabetic neuropathy are numbness, weakness, and pain in the hands and feet. This is called peripheral neuropathy. It can also affect other body parts, including the gastrointestinal tract.
You don’t have to have diabetes to develop neuropathy. Prolonged B12 deficiency can also damage your nerves. Whether you have diabetes or not, symptoms of neuropathy are the same and should not be ignored.
If you have symptoms of B12 deficiency, see your doctor right away. Some of the symptoms, especially early on, can be vague. They can also be caused by a variety of other things.
A simple blood test can determine if the problem is low B12. If you have diabetes and a B12 deficiency, your doctor may want to perform a complete physical to find the reason. Your blood glucose levels will also be taken into account.
Maintaining healthy blood sugar levels can help you control B12 absorption. In addition to diet, regular exercise and adequate sleep can often help. Your doctor can recommend a treatment plan tailored to your needs.
You may be advised to increase B12 in your diet. Sources of B12 include red meat, fish, and poultry. B12 can also be found in eggs and dairy products. Clams and beef liver are particularly high in B12.
B12 doesn’t occur naturally in plants. Some foods, like nutritional yeast (cheesy-tasting vegetarian flakes), bread, cereal, and tofu, are fortified with B12. Many are not, so be sure to read nutrition labels carefully.
Your doctor may also advise you to take B12 supplements, especially if you have a vegetarian or vegan diet. If you’re severely deficient, your doctor can give you injections of B12.
Follow your doctor’s advice to avoid serious complications of B12 deficiency. And arrange for follow-up testing to make sure you’re on the right track.