I am a vegetarian/vegan, am I getting enough Vitamin B12 from my diet? Do I have vitamin B12 deficiency? What are the symptoms of Vitamin B12 deficiency?
How is it going to affect my health in the long run? How to improve B12 absorption in my body? When it comes to vitamin B12 which foods do I need to consume regularly?
If you have been wondering about these questions a lot, then worry not! Read on to get all your questions answered about Vitamin B12.
What is Vitamin B12?
Did you know that Vitamin B12 deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world affecting vegetarians and vegans?
Vitamin B12 is a water-soluble micronutrient which, believe it or not, affects nearly every cell in our bodies. This is because it plays a major role in metabolizing carbohydrate and protein molecules in our food into energy so that our body can carry out various important functions.
Thus the benefits of vitamin B12 are endless!
So, what makes it so hard to find? The answer to this is simple.
In nature, B12 is only synthesized by certain anaerobic (does not require oxygen for growth) micro-organisms which are commonly found in the gastrointestinal tracts of animals.
Which means that B12 can be derived only from animal-based sources and there are no plant-based sources for this vital micronutrient! Shocking isn’t it?!
Furthermore, according to a 2016 study, vegetarian and vegan diets include a lot of fibre thus making it even more difficult for the nutrients to get absorbed efficiently.
Although B12 can rarely occur in some mushrooms and other plant species through some kind of microbial interactions. But someone who is following a completely plant-based diet (without any dairy products) cannot get their complete dosage from their diet.
Meats and milk of herbivorous animals are good sources of B12 as these animals acquire B12 through a symbiotic relationship with microorganisms present in their guts.
According to WebMD, only 5% of the people who consume meat suffer from B12 deficiencies.
Why do our bodies need Vitamin B12?
By now we all must be familiar with the fact that Vitamin B12 plays a very important role in day to day functioning of our bodies and its absence can cause adverse effects. Let’s elaborate more on that:
- B12 helps in the formation of red blood cells in our bodies as it helps in the division of these cells. Hence the presence of B12 is crucial for the proper division of these cells and thus preventing macrocytic anaemia.
- B12 is also very important for the healthy functioning of the nervous system. In fact, clinical deficiency of B12 can cause irreversible nervous system damage in the forms of deafness, blindness, dementia, and ultimately lead to neurological damage. This is because B12 is known to increase the natural regeneration of our nerve cells and tissues.
- Vitamin B12 is also known to work along with other vitamins to regulate and synthesize DNA, which we all know forms the genetic building block of our bodies.
- Another important function of B12 is to maintain the level of an amino acid in our body called homocysteine. B12 along with folate and B6 regulates homocysteine levels as higher levels of this amino acid is directly linked to the early development of cardiovascular diseases, stroke and complications in pregnancy.
- Vitamin B12 plays a vital role in the health of infants and if found deficient, may even lead to permanent damage. Deficiency of B12 may lead to loss of appetite and energy and stunt the growth and development of infants. If not rectified may even lead to coma.
- B12 deficiency in pregnant and lactating women is known to have a direct impact on the health of infants. This is because infants get their whole B12 intake directly from the mother’s milk. Thus pregnant and lactating women are often advised to have B12 rich foods as it helps with the development of the brain of the foetus and with the growth of the infant respectively.
- Few active forms of vitamin B12 are known to act as analgesics i.e. painkillers. Certain forms of B12 are thus subscribed for back pain and pain arising from nervous disorders.
- High levels of vitamin B12 in our blood is also known to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, memory loss, dementia, sleep disorders and even depression.
Why do vegetarians/vegans suffer from Vitamin B12 deficiency?
By now we know that unfortunately for vegetarians and vegans, it is almost impossible to acquire vitamin B12 from fruits or vegetables or any plant-based diet.
There is good news for all of us who consume animal-based dairy products.
Animals contain some amount of B12 producing microorganisms in their intestines, hence we can get some amount of our daily B12 requirements from eggs and dairy products like milk, yoghurt, cheese, paneer, etc. However, this amount is often not enough to fulfil our daily recommended dosage of this vitamin.
Coming to vegans who follow a completely plant-based lifestyle find it next to impossible to get any amount of vitamin B12 into their system. They can get their daily B12 intake from fortified sources like B12 fortified dairy alternatives, breakfast cereals, etc or from supplements recommended by a physician.
But there is more. Even if you are taking the recommended daily intake of this vitamin, you may still be deficient.
This can be due to a lack of ability to absorb B12 by our bodies. This is usually due to insufficient secretion of a glycoprotein called the intrinsic factor by the stomach. Thus for vitamin B12 to be absorbed by our bodies, these factors too come into play.
Consuming B12 isn’t enough but the main part is its absorption and transportation to various parts of our bodies. Plus the inactive forms of this vitamin can interfere with the active form’s absorption. These defects can also be inherited from our family.
Elderly people are more likely to suffer from these defects hence B12 supplementation may become essential with growing age.
Another important point to note is that B12 is absorbed and stored in very small amounts in our body. Hence regular intake of B12 is essential instead of consuming it in large quantities at once.
Do I have Vitamin B12 Deficiency?
Like for any other deficiency, it very important to identify early vitamin B12 deficiency symptoms as well.
So if you have any of the following symptoms, please do not ignore them and get your B12 levels checked by your physician as soon as possible.
- Body weakness, fatigue, breathlessness or lack of energy
- Numbness in body parts and tingling sensations
- Sore tongue or mouth ulcers
- Blurry vision
- Poor balance in the body
- Loss of appetite and weight loss
- Depression, confusion, dementia and poor memory
Vitamin B12 deficiency is very common yet not very easy to identify. All the above symptoms may be indicators of other deficiencies as well.
Hence it is very important to note that Vitamin B12 deficiency certainly requires medical diagnosis and above-mentioned symptoms can just be used as a nudge for you to get yourself checked by a healthcare professional.
In case you are suffering from vitamin B12 deficiency, a healthcare professional or a doctor may prescribe vitamin B12 tablets or supplements or injections based on the severity of the deficiency.
Infants, older adults (over the age of 50), people who have gastrointestinal problems, pregnant and lactating women are more likely to suffer from Vitamin B12 deficiency and hence need to be more mindful about their daily intake.
How to overcome Vitamin B12 Deficiency?
If you are a vegetarian or vegan and experience any of the above symptoms, it is advisable to consult a physician or health care professional to get yourself tested for any deficiencies that you may have.
Like always, prevention is better than cure. Hence including a sufficient amount of animal-based dairy products if you are vegetarian and fortified dairy products and cereals if you are a vegan may be a starting point.
Top Vitamin B12 rich foods for Vegetarians
Vitamin B12 sources are completely from animal-based products like milk, yoghurt, cheese, buttermilk, meat, eggs and nutritional yeast.
B12 can also be obtained from fortified sources like soya milk, energy bars and breakfast cereals. These contain B12 in free form and hence make it easier to be absorbed by our bodies.
Vitamin B12 is a very crucial micronutrient that is needed by almost every cell of our body for metabolizing our food, forming blood cells, healthy functioning of our nervous system and many more.
If you are a vegetarian or a vegan, please consider that chances are that you may be deficient in B12 and hence taking conscious steps to prevent or overcome this deficiency in the early stages will be a life-changer.
By now we may all agree that lack of awareness about Vitamin B12 deficiency is one of the major areas that can be improved towards a healthier society.
So spread the word, and do let us know your views!