If you are looking pale and feeling tired all the time, if your skin (especially the knuckles) is darkening, if you have severe joint pains, pins-and-needles sensation or feel a numbness while walking, you could be suffering from vitamin B12 deficiency. There could be other symptoms too, such as mouth ulcer (glossitis), blurred vision, a tendency to fall, dizziness or short breath.
But most of the times, we tend to google a remedy or pop a vitamin pill, hoping that the symptoms will go away. Well, they won't, until you visit a doctor and get proper medication. Worse still, a severe deficiency can lead to deep depression, paranoia, delusion, memory loss, loss of taste and smell, and more, according to an article in Harvard Health Publishing. Why is this vitamin so vital for our health? Well, vitamin B12 is essential for the proper functioning and development of the nervous system, red blood cells and even our DNA. But just like most other vitamins, the human body cannot make it. You will find it in dairy products like milk and all sorts of animal proteins such as seafood, meat, poultry and eggs.
An average adult only requires 2.4 micrograms a day, but there lies the problem. Either our intake is not adequate or many of us cannot absorb it. According to medical practitioners, vitamin B12 deficiency cases are on the rise, mainly due to poor dietary habits and lack of awareness.
"However, more and more people are testing now for B12 deficiency (it is a blood test) as they become aware of this condition. A decade ago, there was hardly any testing," says Dr Manoj Chadha, Consultant Endocrinologist at P.D. Hinduja Hospital and Medical Research Centre in Mumbai. Even then, addressing the condition is not easy. For one, the symptoms may take years to show up, and when they do, they can be easily mistaken for folic acid (vitamin B9) deficiency or other related ailments.
"I have seen a doubling of these cases over the past decade and it is a problem that we cannot ignore," says Dr Jeevan H.R., Consultant Medical Gastroenterologist and Hepatologist at HCG Hospital in Bengaluru.
Eating the right food is essential, he says, and a vegetarian diet does not help here as most plants do not grow vitamin B12. You need not be a meat-eater, though, as milk and other dairy products contain this vitamin. Those who consume too many pills to fight gas and acidity are also open to risk. Prolonged intake of these drugs often reduces gastric acid secretion and hinders vitamin B12 absorption. Long-term and heavy use of alcohol is another big risk. Stomach conditions such as atrophic gastritis (inflammation of the gastric mucosa) and pancreas problems also lead to malabsorption of vitamin B12.
Can veggies absorb B12?: Based on several independent studies conducted in different states and regions (Northern India, for instance) and also drawing from their personal experience, doctors say that vitamin B-12 deficiency is quite rampant in the country and becoming a growing health risk. But it is difficult to arrive at a few direct linkages with clearly correlated cause and effect.
Globally, research is on to understand how vitamin B12 deficiency is linked to ailments other than red blood cells or nerve-related diseases. For instance, could it lead to heart conditions, osteoporosis, depression and some cancers? Does the prolonged use of certain drugs trigger lower vitamin B12 absorption? Besides, efforts are on to develop new solutions to help vegetarians and vegans. For example, could plant structures be tweaked to help them absorb vitamin B-12. Last year, scientists at the University of Kent reportedly discovered that certain plants have the potential to absorb this vitamin. This could go a long way in making plant-based foods which will be rich in vitamin B12.