If you’re tired, feeling a bit off, a bit depressed, maybe a bit breathless, struggling to focus, getting headaches and odd pins and needles - you might well just be getting older, feeling stressed, or be a bit under the weather. But you also might have a vitamin B12 deficiency…
Vitamin B12 deficiency is one of those sneaky things that can look like lots of other little, fairly common things – but can end up having a big impact on your life.
So what is vitamin B12, why do we need it, what happens if we’re not getting enough - and how on earth do we find out?
Why do we need vitamin B12?
B12 is a vitamin that helps your body perform several important functions – including keeping the nervous system healthy. It’s also needed to make red blood cells, which carry oxygen around your body.
What is a B12 deficiency?
A deficiency is when you don’t have enough of something – and in the case of vitamin B12 it can lead to something called vitamin B12 deficiency anaemia (a bit like iron deficiency anaemia, which you’re more likely to have heard of).
Vitamin B12 deficiency anaemia occurs when a lack of vitamin B12 causes the body to produce abnormally large red blood cells, often oval instead of round, which can’t function properly - and aren’t taking oxygen around your body as they ought to.
What are the symptoms of a B12 deficiency?
The symptoms are wide ranging and it can be tough to put them together. They include:
- Feeling tired all the time
- Low energy levels
- Looking pale
- Mood changes
- Brain fog, confusion, judgement or memory problems
- Sore, often smooth red tongue
- Mouth ulcers
- Muscle weakness
- Vision problems
- Pins and needles
- Fast heart rate.
What is the impact of vitamin B12 deficiency?
A severe or long term case of B12 deficiency anaemia can cause irreversible damage, and lead to heart conditions, problems with the nervous system, infertility, pregnancy complications and birth defects.
What causes a vitamin B12 deficiency?
There are several things that might cause a vitamin B12 Deficiency, but the most common in the UK is something called Pernicious Anaemia – where your immune system attacks healthy cells in your stomach, preventing your body absorbing vitamin B12 from the food you eat.
Other factors can include:
- Family history – if it’s something that runs in your family.
- Medications – if you’re taking something that interferes with your body’s ability to absorb vitamin B12, like anticonvulsants.
- Surgery – if you’ve had surgery that’s removed part of your stomach.
- Pre-existing conditions – things like Crohn’s disease or coeliac disease can stop you absorbing enough B12 and or folate (B9).
- Being older – B12 deficiency is more common in older people.
- A lack of vitamins in your diet - B12 can be found in lots of dairy and meat products, and those on a strict vegan diet might need to take a daily supplement to replace it.
How is a B12 deficiency diagnosed?
Through a range of blood tests checking B12 levels, folate levels, methylmalonic acid levels and homocysteine levels.
One of the difficulties with a sneaky B12 deficiency is that in some cases your B12 levels can come back to normal but you still experience symptoms - which might indicate that your body isn’t using or absorbing the vitamin B12 in the right way.
How can I find out more about vitamin B12 deficiency?
There’s lot of information and advice out there, including:
John Hopkins Medicine
How is vitamin B12 deficiency treated?
The most common treatments are tablets or injections of vitamin B12 over a period of time that will be decided by your medical team.
How can I get myself checked out?
If you’re feeling unwell - even if you’ve got wide ranging and rather vague symptoms - you should always talk to your GP. It can be tough to put all the symptoms together, so if you feel you need more time with someone or a second opinion, don’t forget you can also make an appointment with an Equipsme GP 24/7.
You can also take things into your own hands and order your own blood test through our partners Thriva. You get a £10 voucher towards a test of your choice (you’ll find the discount code on the welcome email from Thriva after you join or renew with Equipsme) - and they’ll send you a test pack out in the post. You do your own finger-prick blood sample from the comfort of your own home, and pop it back in the post to get to Thriva’s lab.
Find out more about Thriva home health-checks
Find out more about our GP service