Vitamin B12, also called cobalamin, is one of 8 B vitamins. 

What is their role?

  • Helps the body convert food (carbohydrates) into fuel (glucose) for energy production
  • Also helps the body use fats and protein. 
  • They are needed for healthy skin, hair, eyes, and liver. 
  • Plays a vital role in the normal functioning of the brain and the nervous system.
  • It is needed in the metabolism of every cell in the body. 

The human body produces millions of red blood cells every minute, but without vitamin B12, cells cannot multiply properly. The production of red blood cells goes down if a person's vitamin B12 levels are too low. As the red blood cell count drops, anemia results.

How do we know we are deficient? 

The symptoms are often not very specific, so vitamin B12 deficiency can go unnoticed for a long period of time. It is also easily mistaken for other conditions, and therefore remains misdiagnosed. That is where the danger lies. By the time the condition gets detected, there might be some irreversible damage done already. A careful interview and a blood test is required. You are considered to be B12 deficient if your concentration of vitamin is less than 150 pmol/L. 

Here are seven alarming signs associated with vitamin B-12 deficiency.

1. Dizziness                                           

Frequent bouts of dizziness and vertigo can indicate B12 deficiency. You may experience a feeling of wobbles when you get up too fast from a sitting position. You may also feel dizzy when you walk up or downstairs, it could also be dangerous. Chronic vertigo symptoms should be brought to your doctor’s attention, so you can be given the required treatment for the deficiency. 

2. Forgetfulness 

Chronic and uncharacteristic forgetfulness may indicate a B12 deficiency. Many patients assume that they are suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s, especially in their senior years while all they lack is B12. A simple blood test can diagnose B12 deficiency, and a supplemental regimen can help improve your memory. 

3. Muscle Weakness 

Lack of vitamin B12 and insufficient oxygenation to muscles can result in sluggishness and uncharacteristic muscle weakness. Suddenly an individual who carries big loads will not be able to manage a heavy purse or a gym bag. 

4. Pale Complexion  

Those suffering from B12 deficiency are pale in complexion due to the lack of red blood cells. The body releases excess bilirubin, which zaps those rosy cheeks and leaves behind a pale, yellow visage. 

5. Pins and Needles 

Experiencing pins and needles throughout your body when you haven’t compressed your body could be signs of B12 deficiency. Numbness or the feeling of electric shock waves could be a result of nerve damage in B12 deficient patients. Nerve issues in the body can be traced back to low oxygen levels, due to poor red blood cell production, which the B12 vitamin largely affects.

6. Unexplained Fatigue 

Fatigue felt for days even though you regularly get a good night’s sleep may be the result of a B12 deficiency. This is due to lack of red blood cell production, which is one of B12s responsibilities. Lack of red blood cells means oxygen transport to your organs is lacking, which is what is causing extreme fatigue. 

7. Vision Issues 

 Low B12 stores over the long term can lead to vision changes and damage your vision. Retinal damage can be results of the blood vessels in the eye are blocked. As a result, you may experience light sensitivity, blurred or double vision, tracers or shadows, which all result from damage to the optic nerve. However, supplements can restore full vision.  

Some other common symptoms include: 

  • shortness of breath 
  • headache
  • stomach upset and weight loss
  • mood swings
  • dry mouth 
  • ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
  • difficulty sleeping
  • B12 affects the production of melatonin which is known as the ‘sleep hormone’ 
  • white nails may also be a sign of anemia  

How long does it take to develop a vitamin B12 deficiency?  

Since the liver does store extra vitamin B12, and the body has a recycling process for B12, it may take an adult 3-10 years to develop a deficiency once intake of the nutrient has ceased. If one’s past vitamin B12 intake has been very low, a deficiency may manifest itself in much less than 3 years after cessation of intake. 

So where should we get it from? 

Vitamin B12 can be found naturally in animal products, such as fish, meat, eggs, and dairy products. It does not typically occur in plant foods. 

Foods that are good sources of vitamin B12 include:

  • Beef, pork, poultry, and lamb Fish, especially haddock, and tuna Milk, cheese, and yogurt 
  • Organ meats, particularly liver and kidney
  • Some nutritional yeast products 
  • Shellfish
  • Eggs.

What about vegans and vegetarians?

Vegans consume no animal products, but they can definitely take vitamin B12 dietary supplements preferable with water, after eating, to avoid deficiency. This is particularly important for women during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.   Elderly people may need larger amounts of vitamin B12 than younger people because the body's ability to absorb vitamin B12 from the diet declines with age. Milk, yogurt and cheese, along with eggs, are the only vegetarian food items that naturally contain significant levels of vitamin B12.     

Plant foods may be fortified with B12. If you are considering taking a B12 supplement, ask your health care provider to help you determine the right dose for you. Some types of soya milk and breakfast cereals are fortified with vitamin B12. Some nutritional yeast products may contain vitamin B12. It is important to read the labels for these foods as not all products and brands have B12 fortification, and the amount of fortification can change with time.

Can’t we make our own B12?  

Yes. The bacteria in our colon make vitamin B12. However, the absorption of B12 takes place higher up in the gastrointestinal tract, near the end of the small intestine. Therefore, it is unavailable for use in the body. 

Summary 

Vitamin B12 deficiency is not uncommon. Vegans must be especially careful to get adequate amounts on a regular basis, preferably daily. A daily B12 supplement is necessary when B12-fortified plant foods are not regularly consumed. Nutrition labels on processed foods must be carefully studied to determine how much B12 is supplied by one serving of the food.