DEAR DOCTOR K:
I’m a vegan. I just found out I have a vitamin B-12 deficiency. How is this treated?
Vitamin B-12 deficiency is common in vegans, and fortunately it’s easy to treat. Vitamin B-12 is needed by many tissues in the body, especially the brain and spinal cord, and the bone marrow where blood cells are made.
Our bodies get vitamin B-12 from food. But it is available only in animal foods (meat and dairy products) or yeast extracts (such as brewer’s yeast). As a vegan, a strict vegetarian who does not eat any animal products, such as meat, fish, egg or dairy, you’re at higher risk for the deficiency because you don’t eat the sources of vitamin B-12 for most people.
You didn’t mention any symptoms caused by the vitamin B-12 deficiency. It’s not uncommon for there to be no symptoms in the earliest stages. Sometimes, the deficiency is detected when a person becomes anemic (not enough red blood cells).
If you do have symptoms, I’ll bet they developed slowly, and you may not have recognized them right away. As your condition worsened, you may have experienced:
- Weakness and fatigue
- Light-headedness and dizziness
- Palpitations and rapid heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
- A sore tongue that has a red, beefy appearance
- Nausea or poor appetite
- Weight loss
- Yellowish tinge to your skin and eyes
If left untreated, vitamin B-12 deficiency can damage your spinal cord and nerves. If nerve damage does occur, it can cause:
- Numbness and tingling in your hands and feet
- Difficulty walking
- Muscle weakness
- Memory loss
It’s easy to treat a vitamin B-12 deficiency that is due to not enough of the vitamin in your food. You simply take a vitamin B-12 pill regularly. If the deficiency is severe, you might need several injections of the vitamin before starting on the pills.
If you choose to continue eating a vegan diet, incorporate yeast extracts into your diet. They are available in some grocery stores and many health food stores. Vitamin B-12 is also found in many fortified breakfast cereals.
Several weeks ago we talked about a disease called pernicious anemia. In that disease, a person gets plenty of vitamin B-12 in the diet but cannot absorb it. Vitamin B-12 pills often don’t fix the problem, and regular injections are needed.
But if your vitamin deficiency is simply because you’re a vegan, with proper treatment your symptoms and any anemia you have should improve.