With all the pressures of modern life, keeping tabs on your diet can prove tricky. It’s certainly easy enough to lose track of whether you’re getting enough of the right vitamins to stay healthy. However, in some cases, your body will send you plenty of warning signs that you’re suffering from a deficiency. And that’s exactly what happens when you don’t get enough vitamin B12. If you’ve noticed any of these symptoms, then, you may want to up your B12 intake.
It’s no secret that a balanced diet is key to a healthy lifestyle. After all, eating the right food can affect your energy levels, weight and overall sense of wellbeing. According to the U.K.’s Food Standards Agency, a balanced diet means eating “a variety of foods, basing meals on starchy foods and eating at least five portions of fruit and veg a day.”
Even with that in mind, though, getting the right quantities of important vitamins and minerals into your diet isn’t as easy as it sounds. And while, for example, vitamin C is in lots of fruit and vegetables – including oranges, strawberries, potatoes and peppers – vitamin D is altogether trickier to consume. In fact, vitamin D is “difficult to get enough of from foods alone,” as dietitian Leah Kleinschrodt told food magazine Cooking Light in August 2018.
As a result, you may find yourself experiencing a vitamin deficiency. For instance, an extraordinary one in four people in the world reportedly suffer from a lack of iron, while a whopping 42 percent of people in the U.S. are thought to be vitamin D deficient. And not getting enough vitamin D may have severe repercussions: those affected are more at risk of getting cancer, for a start.
Of all the vitamins, though, B12 is of particular importance when it comes to diet. That’s because it’s crucial to every single cell that makes up our bodies, impacting things like our nervous system and brain. And yet we can’t make B12 naturally; instead, we have to ensure that we’re getting enough from external sources such as food.
With a couple of minor exceptions, vitamin B12 is only present in meat and other animal foods, such as fish, eggs, cheese and milk. Vegetarians and vegans, then, are at particularly high risk of having a B12 deficiency. In fact, it’s been estimated that as many as 80 to 90 percent of people who don’t consume meat may be lacking in the vitamin.
There are other risk factors too, such as old age, since the ability to absorb B12 reduces the older you get. And even for younger people, there are certain conditions that may hinder absorption rates – predominantly because vitamin B12 is already inherently tricky to take in to the body. If you’re lacking in intrinsic factor, a certain protein made in the stomach, for example, then you may have a hard time getting enough B12.
In the U.K., the country’s health authority, the NHS, recommends that adults – which it defines as people between the ages of 19 and 64 years old – get around 1.5 micrograms of B12 per day. And while you should hit that goal if you eat plenty of meat and dairy products, there’s still a chance you could fall short. Knowing how to spot a deficiency, then, can help you decide whether you need to supplement your B12 intake.
Fortunately, a vitamin B12 deficiency can throw up all sorts of symptoms, making it easy to identify. Many of these are linked to anemia, a condition that sees your blood having a decreased red blood cell count. Helpfully, though, anemia has a long list of symptoms. And these ailments in turn can help you figure out whether or not you’re a sufferer.
One such symptom is overwhelming fatigue. If you’re feeling more tired than usual – even after a decent night’s sleep – then you may want to start monitoring your B12 intake. Hand in hand with that is weakness of the muscles, where even simple activities can result in aches and pains.
Thanks to the lower levels of oxygen running through their blood, anemic people may also find themselves breathless all the time – not just after strenuous activity. And fewer red blood cells also means that their skin doesn’t look quite as rosy as other people’s.
It’s not just anemia that a lack of vitamin B12 can trigger, though. In fact, there are all sorts of separate warning signs that you would be wise not to ignore. For instance, while practically everyone gets “pins and needles” – that tingling you experience after having fallen asleep on your arm – now and again, more frequent occurrences of this feeling could indicate a B12 deficiency.
That’s because a B12 shortage can affect your nerve endings, which in turn triggers the pins-and-needles sensation. And another potentially more serious consequence of the damage to your nerve endings is impaired vision. That’s right: your sight can take a hit without sufficient levels of B12. In extreme cases, lack of B12 can even result in irreversible sight loss in the long run.
There are other physical signals of B12 deficiency too – including on your tongue. Traditionally, of course, the tongue is a shade between pink and red and with a somewhat puckered surface. If you don’t take in enough B12, however, the tongue can turn a more vibrant red, swell up and seem to be smoother – even the flavor of food can change. So, it’s worth keeping an eye out for such features.
Of course, looking at your tongue requires inspecting a part of your body that you probably don’t bother with often. But there are easier physical warning signs to spot, such as jaundice. This yellowing condition can affect adults as well as babies – especially if you have a B12 deficiency. That’s because lack of red blood cells in your system can lead to an accumulation of bilirubin, which causes jaundice.
However, not every symptom of a B12 deficiency is physical. Because the vitamin assists in maintaining serotonin levels in your body, a lack of it may affect your moods. In practice, this generally translates into disorders such as depression or anxiety, although these can also be caused by a multitude of other things.
One of the most severe consequences of a B12 deficiency is memory loss and palpable confusion. For instance, you may forget why you’ve gone somewhere, or even how you got there at all. And as older people are particularly susceptible to a lack of B12, this particular symptom could be mistaken for dementia. In fact, that actually happened to one New York-based woman in 2009 before doctors realized what the real problem was.
However, there are plenty of ways to top up your levels of B12 if you think you have a deficiency. For instance, you can increase intake of meat, fish and dairy products – particularly salmon, cod and eggs – in your diet. And if you’re vegan or vegetarian, there are supplements you can take in moderation.
However, if you’re unsure whether the symptoms you’re experiencing really are linked to a lack of B12, there are ways to tell – such as through blood tests. The important thing, though, is to get a clear diagnosis, since certain symptoms may be irreversible.
It’s worth taking any warning signs that do crop up seriously, then. Indeed, ignoring them could have serious consequences. And while some ailments may have other causes, there’s no harm in ruling out a vitamin B12 deficiency, particularly if you know you may be more vulnerable – whether through age or your diet.