What is Vitamin B12?
Vitamin B12, also known as cobalamin, can be found naturally in foods such as meat, fish, and eggs. It is found in particularly high levels in liver and kidney, and can also be added to some fortified foods such as fortified plant-based drinks and cereals and nutritional yeast.
What does Vitamin B12 do in the body?
Vitamin B12 supports many functions within the body, such as;
- synthesis of bacteria in the small intestine
- red blood cell production
- formation of both DNA and RNA
- aiding the release of energy from food
- keeping the nervous system healthy
What are the signs of Vitamin B12 deficiency?
If you eat a varied healthy diet, including meat, eggs and dairy then you should be able to obtain adequate intakes of vitamin B12. However, if these food groups do not feature frequently in your diet, for example, if you are vegan or vegetarian then individuals may struggle to meet the recommended amounts.
A deficiency in vitamin B12 can cause a wide range of problems, however can often be hard to detect if left undiagnosed for long periods of time. However, there are several symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency you can look out for:
- Fatigue: A constant feeling of tiredness and exhaustion can often be a sign of deficiency. B12 aids in the release of energy and consequently tiredness is a symptom of not getting enough.
- Pale/yellow skin: A change in skin colour (e.g. yellow or discoloured) can also be a sign you are not getting enough B12.
- Pins and needles: this is also called paraesthesia. A regular occurrence of getting pins and needles is a warning sign of a deficiency.
- Mouth ulcers: the development of mouth ulcers is not only uncomfortable but can also be a sign of a deficiency.
- Impaired mental function: due to the vitamins’ role in supporting the nervous system, deficiency can often affect mental or neurological function.
The reason that a deficiency can go unnoticed for so long is because all the symptoms that are warning signs, can all be symptoms of something else, so they are not unique to a vitamin B12 deficiency to be able to spot it straight away.
In severe cases, a serious deficiency will result in anaemia. This is caused because a particular protein, called intrinsic factor, is not able to absorb vitamin B12 as it should be. This form of anaemia is an autoimmune disorder, it can cause the bodies own immune system to attack the stomach, this is where the intrinsic factor is produced. Without this necessary intrinsic factor, it means that B12 is not able to be absorbed as it should. This is how the deficiency occurs.
What to do if you think you may be vitamin B12 deficient?
If you are concerned you are deficient in vitamin B12, it is important to visit your GP. The condition can usually be diagnosed based on your symptoms and the results of a blood test. It is important to not delay visiting your GP, as the earlier the deficiency is diagnosed the easier it can be to treat. If left untreated, problems caused by the condition can be irreversible.
Vitamin B12 supplementation
Whilst recommended to get as much of your daily amount through your diet, if this is not possible vitamin B12 supplementation is recommended. For adults aged 19-64 years the NHS recommends taking 1.5mcg daily. Always consult a healthcare professional before starting supplementation, as too much vitamin B12 could be harmful.
Vitamin B12 and PCOS
There is a link between B12 and PCOS in particular for people with PCOS taking metformin so it is advisable to be aware of this.
Written by Michala Rooney. Reviewed and edited by Annabel Sparrow (Associate Registered Nutritionist).