Vitamin B12 is an important vitamin that keeps you healthy in a number of ways. Most importantly, it is one of the nutrients that your body needs to convert food into energy. Vitamin B12 is also involved in the synthesis of DNA, proteins and red blood cells; and it keeps your brain and nervous system well-functioning. Since it is responsible for so many important functions, it is no wonder that a lack of vitamin B12 can significantly affect your health.
A mild vitamin B12 deficiency often causes very subtle symptoms. In fact, early signs such as inexplicable fatigue, weakness and mental confusion are frequently mistaken for other health issues.
But if you let the deficiency persists for a long time, it often tosses clearer and even visible signs at you – including numbness and tingling sensation, feeling down and depressed without any reason, unsteady gait, brain fog, red, beefy tongue and pale skin. It is also common to experience bleeding and bruising problems.
It is important that you understand these signs and arrest the declining levels before it becomes too late. A long-term vitamin B12 deficiency can cause serious, irreversible damage to your health, especially to the nervous system.
Causes for vitamin B12 deficiency
- Vegetarian diet that is completely devoid of animal bases products such as meat, cheese, milk and eggs.
- Pernicious anaemia - a decrease in red blood cells in the body. It happens when your stomach can’t make enough GIF (Gastric Intrinsic Factor) which helps intestines absorb B12.
- Atrophic gastritis - a thinning of stomach lining.
- Gastrointestinal issues such as Crohn's disease, celiac disease, leaky gut and inflammatory bowel disease. These conditions make it difficult for the body to absorb B12.
- Autoimmune disorders such as Graves' disease (hyperthyroidism) or lupus
- Use of drugs such as Metformin, often prescribed to diabetics or those suffering from polycystic ovary syndrome.
- Excessive alcohol intake
- Weight loss surgery
- Long-term use of antacids
Symptoms of Vitamin B12 Deficiency
Extreme fatigue: Vitamin B12 is an integral part of your body’s energy production process. In addition, it helps you to make healthy red blood cells and their job is to carry oxygen to tissues and organs. Significant lack of vitamin B12 causes anaemia, a condition where your body produces red blood cells that are not healthy and fully-matured. Feeling tired, light-headed and shortness of breath are the classic symptoms of being anaemic.
Not having enough oxygen in the blood also makes your heart beat faster than usual, causing heart palpitations. (Don’t dismiss heart palpitations as the result of vitamin B12 deficiency as it can be something more serious. A blood test can give you a better idea if this indeed is the case.)
Pins and needles sensation: Vitamin B12 is vital for the health and upkeep of your nervous system. Long term vitamin B12 deficiency can cause damage to nerves resulting in tingling or pins and needles sensation in your limbs. You may also feel a change in the way you walk accompanied with shaky, unsteady movements.
Behavioural changes (depression and poor cognitive abilities): Low B12 can impact cognitive health; possibly causing a range of symptoms such as memory loss, lack of orientation, poor concentration and difficulty thinking and understanding. As you can see, these symptoms are often mistaken for having dementia and Alzheimer’s; and are associated with old age.
Severe deficiency also wreaks havoc on your mood and how you generally feel. It can cause anxiety and depression. This is because B12 is involved in the pathways that produce serotonin and dopamine, brain chemicals responsible for regulating memory, mood and pleasure.
Smooth and red tongue: Shortage of this vitamin causes depapillation – loss of papillae on the tongue. Papillae are tiny bumps scattered on your tongue, mostly on the tip and sides and contain taste buds. Loss of these protrusions give your tongue a red, beefy appearance. B12 deficiency can also cause a change in taste, pain, soreness and a burning sensation in the tongue and mouth. A 2009 study showed that vitamin B12 is an effective and low risk therapy to prevent canker sores. 
Pale skin: When you have low levels of vitamin B12, your body makes unhealthy red blood cells that are easily broken. Degrading red blood cells release bilirubin, a pigment that build ups in your tissues and gives your skin a yellow tinge.
- Vison problems: In rare cases, low B12 can also damage the optic nerve, that carries electrical impulses from the retina (at the back of the eye) to the brain. This damage may cause reduced or blurry vision, shadows in the eye, double vision and even vision loss.
Do these signs and symptoms sound familiar? Consult your doctor and get a blood test to determine your levels. It matters even more if you are over 50. And why wait for a boatload of alarming signs? Catch your deficiency well in time with a simple blood test. Fortunately, it is easy to restore depleted levels with injections or high-quality vitamin B12 supplements.
- Volkov et al. Effectiveness of Vitamin B12 in Treating Recurrent Aphthous Stomatitis: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial. The Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, 2009