What You Need to Know About B12 Deficiency

(Photo: iStock)

No matter where we are and what we eat this summer, whether it be fair food or amusement park desserts, it's important we provide our body with vitamins and nutrients to help support our immune system at all times.

As a powerhouse vitamin found primarily in eggs, meat, shellfish and dairy, B12 is quintessential in helping maintain healthy brain and immune functions. Because our body needs B12 to make red blood cells and communicate other bodily responsibilities, without it our metabolism and health runs amok.

Harvard reports the average adult needs 2.4 micrograms a day but like most vitamins, our body does not produce B12. Instead, we look towards our diet and consumption for ways to up our intake. But as Tufts University suggests, a surprising number of young Americans today between the ages of 20 and 50 are flirting with a deficiency.

Touted the "energy vitamin" by many, nutritionist Mari-Chris Savage, MS, RD, LD and ACE-CPT of the Savage Standard stresses that B12 is critical for the production of our red blood cells. With the über important duty of carrying oxygen to cells all over the body, when our cells lack oxygen, Savage shares that the results vary.

Exhaustion and weakness
The Wall Street Journal reports one of the earliest signs of a B12 deficiency includes exhaustion, confusion and weakness due to our body not producing enough red blood cells. Unfortunately, these are such common and vague symptoms that it can be hard to recognize if you're experiencing a lack of B12 in your diet.

While a deficiency can be caused by various issues like drinking, immune system disorders or even a disease like Crohn's or celiac, Savage says a B12 deficiency appears in two forms depending on the root cause of the deficiency: one in the form of anemia, while the other from a poor intake. However, as studies present, anemia points to an overwhelming fatigue and weakness.

"It is important to know which type of anemia is presenting and thus understanding why the deficiency exists in order to properly treat the condition," she says.

In addition to anemia, Savage expresses concern for patients with pernicious anemia, which exhausts the whole body and produces a lightheadedness as the intestine cannot properly absorb the vitamin.

"This condition presents when there is actually enough B12 in the body, but not enough of the substance called 'intrinsic factor,' to be able to properly utilize the vitamin," she says. "It is thought to be an autoimmune condition and thus cannot be cured or treated with [an] improved diet."

Vision loss and dizziness
Though rare, the European Journal of Internal Medicine suggests in some cases that a B12 deficiency can lead to optic neuropathy where the optic nerve or blood vessels in the retina become clogged. As a result, you might experience blurry vision, sensitivity to light and even vision loss.

"Our vision can be affected when the oxygen rate is running low," Savage says. "Our brains cannot process incoming or outgoing positioning signals as it normally would, such as standing up right."

As Savage points out, this results in dizziness or even a light-headed feeling.

Cognitive difficulties and moody behavior
Because of the lack of B12 and its contribution to the red blood cell production, Savage says our brain cannot perform more in depth functions such as expression or memory. As researched by Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, a deficiency can actually lead to a greater risk of brain shrinkage and a loss of cognitive skills, which greatly impair our thinking. Savage notes that because of the lack of functions due to a B12 deficiency, we become temperamental and display a behavior less becoming of us.

"We are left with moody demeanors that cannot remember where we left the keys — and it is all due to a lack of oxygen or the vitamin that helps to get the oxygen where it is going," she says.

The American Journal of Psychiatry found a lack of B12 is "causally related to depression," which means it might be the cause more so than a mere connection. Researchers concluded the addition of B12 in a diet significantly repaired mood and response.

How to prevent a B12 deficiency
Savage expresses how the number one way to prevent a deficiency is to maintain a well-balanced diet. Found naturally in animal products like beef ("grass fed is preferred," she says), chicken and eggs, it is essential to look for proteins with the highest sources of the vitamin — like liver.

"This is one reason why liver used to be such a popular item," she smiles. "Our grandmothers knew a thing or two."

Additionally, Savage explains how seafood ranks high in B12 and calls it, "another excuse to eat fish two times a week." As it goes, a serving of one of these protein sources should protect you from a deficiency. But as the nutritionist shares, it is also important to be sure you're getting enough iron, vitamin C and folic acid as well.

"All of these nutrients support the absorption of vitamin B12," she says. "[But] again, a well-balanced diet will cover all the food groups and thus include all the nutrients — be sure you are eating your meat with tons of fresh veggies, whole grains and fats."


A note for vegans
"It is absolutely critical to educate yourself on the exact amount of B12 you are consuming," Savage says. "Most vegan diets do not contain vitamin B12, [so] supplementation is most often required."

If your symptoms do not improve once dietary measures are taken, Savage tells us it is crucial to see a health care provider as the condition could be pernicious anemia and require other forms of treatment.