Vitamin B12 deficiency has drawn the attention of researchers over the years because it produces wide-ranging and sometimes irreversible effects. Its assault on the body reflects the essential role B12 plays in supporting key functions. Among the most important is keeping the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy and helping make DNA, the genetic material in all cells.
There are several causes of B12 deficiency but the two most common are insufficient dietary intake and an autoimmune disease known as pernicious anaemia.
Take diet first. B12 is mainly found in animal-based foods such as red meat, dairy products, fish, poultry and eggs.
A strict vegetarian or vegan diet therefore puts you at risk of developing B12 deficiency.
Pernicious anaemia describes an inability of stomach acids to aid B12 absorption – this is the leading cause in the UK, according to the NHS.
Irrespective of the cause, the effects of B12 deficiency are invariably unsettling.
Peripheral neuropathy, a condition whereby nerves in the body’s extremities, such as the hands, feet and arms, are damaged, is a common complication.
According to the Center for Peripheral Neuropathy (CFPN), a research arm in the University of Chicago’s Division of Biological Sciences, this may result in pain, numbness, and tingling in hands or feet.
Other symptoms associated with B12 deficiency-induced peripheral neuropathy include:
- Sensory loss
- Lack of coordination
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How does low levels of B12 cause peripheral neuropathy?
According to CFPN, a lack of B12 damages the myelin sheath that surrounds and protects nerves.
“Without this protection, nerves cease to function properly and conditions such as peripheral neuropathy occur,” explains the research body.
Even B12 deficiency that is relatively mild may affect the nervous system and the proper functioning of the brain, it notes.
According to the NHS, although many of the symptoms improve with treatment, problems caused by the condition can be irreversible if left untreated.
“The longer the condition goes untreated, the higher the chance of permanent damage,” the health body warns.
You should therefore see a GP as soon as possible if you’re experiencing symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency.
How is it treated?
The treatment for vitamin B12 or folate deficiency anaemia depends on what’s causing the condition.
Vitamin B12 deficiency anaemia is usually treated with injections of vitamin B12.
There are two types of vitamin B12 injections:
“If your vitamin B12 deficiency is caused by a lack of the vitamin in your diet, you may be prescribed vitamin B12 tablets to take every day between meals,” explains the NHS.
According to the health body, people who find it difficult to get enough vitamin B12 in their diets, such as those following a vegan diet, may need vitamin B12 tablets for life.
If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, or are looking for alternatives to meat and dairy products, there are other foods that contain vitamin B12, such as yeast extract (including Marmite), as well as some fortified breakfast cereals and soy products, it says.
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