Vitamin B12 is a workhorse. It’s a big player in keeping your brain, immune system, metabolism, and nerve and blood cells clicking on all cylinders.
Low levels of this important nutrient can set you up for a host of problems, ranging from minor to serious.
The tricky thing about vitamin B12 is that our bodies can’t make it and it’s not always easy to get enough from food alone. Although it’s found in most animal-based foods, such as meat, poultry, shellfish, eggs and dairy products, many people need to take supplements to reach optimum levels.
Who’s at Risk?
Vitamin B12 deficiency is fairly common, especially among seniors and vegetarians. Other factors that may put you at risk are:
- Conditions that make it hard for your body to digest food, such as Crohn’s disease, celiac disease or parasites.
- Heavy alcohol consumption.
- Long-term use of antacids or heartburn medicines.
- Immune system disorders, such as lupus.
What if You Don’t Get Enough B12?
As I mentioned before, vitamin B12 is crucial to many body processes. Long-term low levels can cause:
- Permanent nerve damage, including tingling or numbness of hands and feet.
- Loss of balance.
- Mental symptoms such as dementia, psychoses, mood changes and depression.
- Muscle weakness or stiffness.
- Low blood pressure.
- Vision problems.
What to Do about It?
Step one is to eat a balanced, healthy diet. Try to work in low-fat options including chicken or turkey, shrimp, low-fat cheese and milk, lean beef and eggs. Your doctor also may recommend a multivitamin with B12 and eating foods fortified with vitamin B12.
If you have Crohn’s or celiac disease, your vitamin B12 levels may return to normal once the condition is treated properly.
You may need additional vitamin B12, especially if you:
- Don’t eat animal-based foods.
- Have a condition that prevents your body from absorbing vitamin B12.
- Are over 60.
If you need supplementation, it may be given by mouth, injection or nasal inhalation.
Talk to Your Doctor
If you’ve been diagnosed with vitamin B12 deficiency, work closely with your doctor. Be sure to have regular checkups and report any changes in symptoms or new medications.
Have any tips to share on how to work vitamin B12 into the diet?
Dr. Puja Sehgal is a board-certified Family Medicine physician at Kelsey-Seybold's Downtown at The Shops at 4 Houston Center. She works with patients to give them knowledge regarding prevention and management of illness. She develops relationships with her patients by customizing their treatment based on their beliefs and cultural practices.