Vitamin B12 plays a key role in DNA formation, keeping the nerve and blood cells healthy and maintaining normal brain function. The vitamin is naturally found in a number of foods so not getting enough of certain foods can lead to a B12 deficiency. Due to the nutrient’s essential role in the body, a prolonged deficiency can give rise to a number of potentially serious complications.
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According to the NHS, a long-term deficiency can cause neurological changes, such as vision problems.
Research investigating the link between vision problems and a B12 deficiency has found an association to optic neuropathy.
Optic neuropathy is damage to the optic nerve which, if left untreated, can lead to blindness.
According to the journal Optometric Education, optic neuropathy is a rare complication of a B12 deficiency that results in progressive, bilateral, painless vision loss that is often associated with reduced colour vision.
In addition to vision problems, other long-term complications include:
- Memory loss
- Pins and needles (paraesthesia)
- Loss of physical co-ordination (ataxia), which can affect your whole body and cause difficulty speaking or walking
- Damage to parts of the nervous system (peripheral neuropathy), particularly in the legs
According to the NHS, if neurological problems do develop, they may be irreversible so it is imperative that you treat a B12 deficiency sooner rather than later.
How to diagnose a B12 deficiency
A diagnosis of vitamin B12 can often be made by a GP based on your symptoms and the results of blood tests.
As the NHS explains, different types of blood tests can be carried out to help identify people with a possible vitamin B12 or folate deficiency.
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These tests check:
- Whether you have a lower level of haemoglobin (a substance that transports oxygen) than normal
- Whether your red blood cells are larger than normal
- The level of vitamin B12 in your blood
- The level of folate in your blood
- How to treat a vitamin B12 deficiency
The treatment for vitamin B12 deficiency depends on what’s causing the condition.
If the deficiency is caused by pernicious anaemia, an autoimmune disease that prevents the body from absorbing B12, injections of B12 are usually recommended.
There are two types of vitamin B12 injections:
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As the NHS explains, if your vitamin B12 deficiency is caused by a lack of the vitamin in your diet, you may be prescribed vitamin B12 tablets to take every day between meals.
People who find it difficult to get enough vitamin B12 in their diets, such as those following a vegan diet, may need vitamin B12 tablets for life.
“Although it’s less common, people with vitamin B12 deficiency caused by a prolonged poor diet may be advised to stop taking the tablets once their vitamin B12 levels have returned to normal and their diet has improved,” explains the NHS.
What foods contain B12?
Good sources of vitamin B12 include:
- Salmon and cod
- Milk and other dairy products
If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, or are looking for alternatives to meat and dairy products, there are other foods that contain vitamin B12, however.
B12 alternatives include yeast extract (including Marmite), as well as some fortified breakfast cereals and soy products.
“Check the nutrition labels while food shopping to see how much vitamin B12 different foods contain,” advises the NHS.
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