Recognizing a B12 deficiency
Vitamin B12 deficiency can be slow to develop, causing symptoms to appear gradually and intensify over time. It can also come on relatively quickly. Given the array of symptoms it can cause, the condition can be overlooked or confused with something else. Symptoms may include:
numbness, or tingling in the hands, legs, or feet
difficulty walking (staggering, balance problems)
anemia a swollen, inflamed tongue yellowed skin (jaundice)
difficulty thinking and reasoning (cognitive difficulties)
memory loss paranoia or hallucinations
While an experienced physician may be able to detect a vitamin B12 deficiency with a good interview and physical exam, a blood test is needed to confirm the condition.
Early detection and treatment is important. “If left untreated, the deficiency can cause severe neurologic problems and blood diseases,” says Dr. Bruce Bistrian, chief of clinical nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
It’s a good idea to ask your doctor about having your B12 level checked if you: are over 50 years old take a proton-pump inhibitor (such as Nexium or Prevacid) or H2 blocker (such as Pepcid or Zantac) take metformin (a diabetes drug) are a strict vegetarian have had weight-loss surgery or have a condition that interferes with the absorption of food. A serious vitamin B12 deficiency can be corrected two ways: weekly shots of vitamin B12 or daily high-dose B12 pills. A mild B12 deficiency can be corrected with a standard multivitamin.
In many people, a vitamin B12 deficiency can be prevented. If you are a strict vegetarian or vegan, it’s important to eat breads, cereals, or other grains that have been fortified with vitamin B12, or take a daily supplement. A standard multivitamin delivers 6 micrograms, more than enough to cover the average body’s daily need.
If you are over age 50, the Institute of Medicine recommends that you get extra B12 from a supplement, since you may not be able to absorb enough of the vitamin through foods. A standard multivitamin should do the trick.
Vitamin B12 deficiency can be sneaky, harmful.
Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health
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