B-12 Deficiency – A Nasty Problem

August 9, 2016 in Health, Nutrition, Uncategorized by Joyce Bunderson

As you know, if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, I’m not a proponent for relying on supplements to make an unhealthy diet healthful. First, it’s just not possible to get all the nutrients to maintain vigorous health in a handful of supplements. Science knows enough to keep a person alive without real food; but not especially healthy. Among the big omissions are the plant nutrients or phytonutrients. There are thousands of phytonutrients in plant foods; and plant foods have certainly been linked to ample health. Our bodies need these thousands of micronutrients and pills can’t provide all of them.

One exceptional nutrient that pills can provide, and sometimes need to be used is vitamin B-12. The reason that it is concerning is that there are two large groups of people at risk of developing a vitamin B-12 deficiency. One group is strict vegans – no animal products, neither eggs nor milk. And the other group is those over 50 years old.

Those who are consuming a strict vegetarian; or especially, a vegan diet may become deficient in B-12 because they avoid its natural sources in animal foods like fish, meat, poultry, and dairy products. That’s pretty easy to fix; those consuming a vegan diet can consume fortified foods or supplements and remove that potential problem.

Older adults have a slightly different problem. They can be consuming animal products, but 10 to 30 percent of adults older than 50 years produce too little stomach acid to free the B-12 in food. So the B-12 stays attached to the food and is not available for absorption into the blood. Just to be safe you may want to take a synthetic B-12 supplement, if you’re over 50 years old. The synthetic B-12 supplements don’t need high stomach acid to be absorbed. It’s already available for the body to use. If older adults are consuming fortified foods, they will get the B-12 from those foods and don’t need the supplements. At our home we take a B-12 three times a week, just to be safe.

Should I have mentioned that B-12 deficiency is a nasty problem? Pernicious anemia is the resulting deficiency complication. Before the 1920s it was often fatal. The symptoms are fatigue, tingling and numbness in the hands and feet, muscle weakness, and loss of reflexes. If it goes on for a long time, it can cause confusion, depression, memory loss, and dementia. Even if someone has the deficiency for a short time they can be treated – usually with injected B-12. But prolonged vitamin B-12 deficiency can cause lasting nerve damage and dementia – Ouch! Can’t be reversed.

Some supplements are truly beneficial. Among the first vitamins to be identified and provided as supplements, vitamin C and vitamin D were wonderful benefits to those in danger of scurvy and rickets. The idea became prevalent that there were many more nutrients out there that could be identified and sold as a supplement tablets. This idea has long been a staple in processed food advertising and in nutraceuticals. Alas for the buyer who thinks that many or even most of these supplement tablets are necessary, apart for good food, or even useful and not harmful, you may be sadly surprised. You can’t get the benefits of whole, real food from a pill, as we have so often explained in this blog. But B-12 is another one that has the evidence behind it. So for those who fall into one or both of these two classes, this supplement is important for avoiding serious consequences.