Though vitamin B12 is an essential vitamin, it is not produced in the body – we must get it from foods to keep our brain and nervous system in good shape because vitamin B12 is essential for blood cells formation and proper functioning of nervous system and brain. The only way to get this vitamin is to consume animal products, or else get it through foods fortified with vitamin B12. There are several other factors that determine the nutritional status of an individual apart from diet, health status, age, sex and lifestyle.

Strict vegetarians are at an increased risk of vitamin B12 deficiency and developing anaemia, whereas non-vegetarians are less likely to develop vitamin B12 deficiency unless they are unable to absorb it properly because vitamin B12 requires intrinsic factor for its absorption in the body.  The symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency may take time to manifest; therefore, proper measures should be taken during the early stage itself to prevent complications in the long-run.

Causes of vitamin B12 deficiency

The causes of vitamin B12 deficiency may include inadequate dietary intake, infections by parasites, bacterial diseases, long-term usage of antacids, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, pernicious anaemia, excess alcohol consumption, being vegetarian, less absorption due to the deficiency of intrinsic factor, being elderly and impact of other medicines and medical conditions.

Symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency

The symptoms due to vitamin B12 deficiency may manifest rather gradually over a period of time and include general weakness, light-headedness, fatigue, palpitations, shortness of breath, muscular weakness. And, when the deficiency becomes severe, the deficiency may lead to anaemia.

Neurological symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency: Nerves issues are common in individuals with severe deficiency. In addition, headache, weakness in the muscles, numbness or tingling in the hands, feet or legs, memory loss, changes in behaviour, irritability, cognitive issues are neurological symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency; and, if the deficiency is severe – it may lead to depression.

How is the deficiency of vitamin B12 diagnosed?

Low levels of vitamin B12 may cause anaemia, damage to the nerves and brain. Therefore, vitamin B12 testing is important to prevent complications in the long run.

Vitamin B12 test may be ordered by physicians to check the deficiency of the vitamin and ascertain the cause of anaemia; megaloblastic anaemia and also to know the cause of peripheral neuropathy (numbness in hands and legs) and other nervous system related symptoms. A physician may also recommend the test if he or she suspects certain risk factors like atrophic gastritis, a family history of anaemia, intestinal surgery to be the cause of vitamin B12 deficiency in a patient.

 How to prevent the deficiency of vitamin B12?

Sources of vitamin B12 include meat, liver, eggs, fish, cheese, milk, etc.

There are lots of options available to prevent the deficiency of vitamin B12 even if you are a vegetarian. For someone whose health is not permitting the absorption of vitamin B12, then it would be better to consult a doctor and follow the treatment and the diet he or she suggests. Vegetarians and vegans should make changes in their eating habits and must start incorporating vitamin B12 fortified foods to ensure adequate intake, or else they might suffer from deficiency. There are some health conditions, such as Celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, parasitic infections, pernicious anemia and other severe infections that make a person deficient in vitamin B12. It is therefore better to approach a doctor and get the treatment done for such conditions.