Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 Deficiency: Are You at Risk?

Although many dietary supplements are hyped, there’s no doubt that having a deficiency of one vitamin in particular – B12 – can be harmful.

According to an article in the Harvard Health Blog, a severe B12 deficiency can lead to deep depression, paranoia and delusions, memory loss, incontinence, loss of taste and smell, and more.” And the condition is not infrequent: the articles cites the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which found that 3.2 percent of adults over 50 have a “seriously low” B12 level, and up to 20 percent may be hovering near the deficiency line.

B12 is vital, the article explains, because the body needs it to make red blood cells, nerves, DNA, and carry out other functions. The daily dosage should be 2.4 micrograms (mcg) and a sufficient amount it must be obtained from food or supplements (the body can’t make B12).

A vegetarian diet may be to blame for B12 deficiency, since meat, eggs and dairy are primary sources other than supplements. Additionally, weight-loss surgery also interferes with the extraction of B12 from food. Other possible causes of deficiency cited in the article: celiac or Crohn’s disease; heartburn drugs that lower acid production in the stomach. (Acid is necessary for the absorption of B12).

Symptoms vary widely; the article says that some include: numbness or tingling in the legs; balance problems; anemia; a swollen tongue; yellowed skin; cognitive difficulties or memory loss; paranoia; weakness; and fatigue.

A blood test can diagnose the condition.

The article says you may want to ask your doctor about a B12 level test It’s a good idea to ask your doctor about having your B12 level checked if you are over 50; take antacids, including Nexium, Prevacid, Pepcid or Zantac; take metformin; are a vegetarian; or have had weight-loss surgery. Another reason to get the test is if you have a condition that blocks the absorption of food.

To treat the deficiency, the article say, you can have weekly shots or daily high-dose pills. A mild case, the article says, can be treated with a standard multivitamin. The Institute of Medicine recommends a supplement if you are over 50.

But beware extravagant claims, found on the Internet, that laud B12 as a preventive for serious illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and heart disease. A sufficient amount of B12 is necessary, the article says, but it is not a cure.

For more information on dietary supplements, click here to order Making Sense of Vitamins and Minerals, a Harvard Medical School Special Report.