December 4, 2011

Something Missing? Vitamin B12 Deficiency & Diet.


There are many vitamins and minerals that we hear about in the media, from medical professionals, and from our parents/family growing up.

We mostly understand that we require some calcium, vitamin D, vitamin C, and iron.  We understand that we need protein (though there are very interesting debates about how much).

It’s sometimes hard to know what vitamins and minerals should be supplemented and which ones don’t need to be.  For those who are vegetarian or vegan, the constant “how do you get your iron?” and “how do you get your protein?” (repeat for calcium) questions are enough to make us pay attention to those issues, determine the levels we believe research supports, and develop strategies for how to meet them.

However, many people have no clue about the B vitamins, because we just don’t hear about them as much.  Vitamin B12 can be a challenge for those on a vegan diet who do not consume fortified food/drink (like soymilk).  Raw vegans may be even more inclined to a B12 deficiency.  Other dietary choices or restrictions can also be associated with lower levels of B12 consumption.

Why is this important? B12 is a vitamin that the body requires (like folic acid) to make red blood cells.  I’m sure that I don’t need to explain that red blood cells are pretty important to our oxygenation and thus our overall health and wellness.  At the moment, I’m a little anemic, due to some medication that I’ve been taking, and I can testify that it’s not a happy thing to be short on red blood cells.  B12 also contributes to our neurological functions, which I would say that most of us appreciate.

In a typical Westernized diet, people generally absorb sufficient quantities of B12 by eating meat, eggs, and dairy products. Those who consume a raw vegan diet – or vegan with no supplemented items, or those who eat a very limited variety of foods (which can be more common in older adults), may find it very difficult to consume adequate B12.  Additionally, some medical conditions (including Crohn’s disease) and medications (including popular stomach acid reducers) may make it hard for the body to absorb enough B12 through diet.

Often, we are unaware that we have a B12 deficiency unless/until it becomes severe.  Symptoms can include fatigue, bleeding gums, weight loss, dizziness.  Persistent B12 deficiency can even lead to nerve damage and the associated physical and mental symptoms.

If you suspect that you have a B12 problem, your physician can test for anemia and B12 levels.  However, even if you don’t think testing is needed, it’s probably a good idea to think about how much B12 you are consuming and whether you need to supplement your dietary levels.  For those on a vegan, but not raw, diet, some soy milks and nutritional yeasts, and other processed vegan foods may be fortified with B12. For individuals on a raw diet, B12 (or full spectrum B) vitamins are readily available in most pharmacies, GNC stores, or online.

If you would like more information about the role of B12 in the body and supplementation, check out:

American Family Physician article on B12 deficiency

The Vegetarian Society B12 information sheet

Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet from the National Institute of Health

A recent NY Times article about B12 deficiency and neurological symptoms of aging

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Lorin Arnold  |  Contribution: 4,520