Vitamin B12 deficiency: Four signs low B12 levels have become ‘permanently’ debilitating

Dr Dawn Harper on signs of vitamin B12 and vitamin D deficiency

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Vitamin B12 is fuel for the body. The nutrient helps keep your body’s blood and nerve cells healthy and helps make DNA. Little wonder, then, that low B12 levels land a hammer blow to the body. While most of the effects can be reversed if B12 is replenished, some can be permanent if left untreated.

University of Chicago’s Center for Peripheral Neuropathy explained: “A lack of B12 damages the myelin sheath that surrounds and protects nerves.

“Without this protection, nerves cease to function properly and conditions such as peripheral neuropathy occur.”

Peripheral neuropathy refers to the many conditions that involve damage to the peripheral nervous system.

“The nerve damage caused by a lack of B12 may become permanently debilitating, if the underlying condition is not treated,” warns the Center for Peripheral Neuropathy.

The main symptoms of peripheral neuropathy can include:

  • Numbness and tingling in the feet or hands
  • Burning, stabbing or shooting pain in affected areas
  • Loss of balance and coordination
  • Muscle weakness, especially in the feet.

The prospect of permanent damage makes treating B12 deficiency as early as possible critical.

You should see a GP if you’re experiencing symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency, advises the NHS.

“These conditions can often be diagnosed based on your symptoms and the results of a blood test,” explains the health body.

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What causes B12 deficiency

There are several causes of B12 deficiency but the leading cause of B12 deficiency in the UK is pernicious anaemia.

Pernicious anaemia is an autoimmune condition whereby your immune system mistakenly attacks the cells in your stomach that produce intrinsic factor – a protein which means your body is unable to absorb vitamin B12.

Some people can also develop a vitamin B12 deficiency as a result of not getting enough vitamin B12 from their diet.

A diet that includes meat, fish and dairy products usually provides enough vitamin B12, but people who do not regularly eat these foods can become deficient.

The richest sources of B12 are animal-based, including:

  • Meat and liver
  • Fish
  • Clams
  • Milk and dairy products
  • Eggs.

According to Holland and Barrett, plant-based sources of vitamin B12 include yeast extract, fortified plant milks and soya foods fortified with B12.

“If you’re following a plant-based diet, taking a vitamin B12 supplement can help prevent a deficiency,” notes the health body.

How to treat B12 deficiency

“Most people can be easily treated with injections or tablets to replace the missing vitamins,” notes the NHS.

There are two types of vitamin B12 injections:

  • Hydroxocobalamin
  • Cyanocobalamin.

According to the NHS, if your vitamin B12 deficiency is caused by a lack of the vitamin in your diet, you may be prescribed vitamin B12 tablets to take every day between meals.

“People who find it difficult to get enough vitamin B12 in their diets, such as those following a vegan diet, may need vitamin B12 tablets for life.”

What’s more, if your vitamin B12 deficiency is not caused by a lack of vitamin B12 in your diet, you’ll usually need to have an injection of hydroxocobalamin every two to three months for the rest of your life, it notes.

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