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How Do I Know If I Have A B12 Deficiency?

Vitamin B12 | Causes | SymptomsRecovery

If you’re experiencing symptoms of a B12 deficiency or have recently been given a diagnosis, then you might be wondering how to get vitamin B12 naturally to help recovery.

B12 deficiency can be diet or non-diet related and your treatment plan and length of time to recover will differ depending on the cause.

To learn more about what food has B12 in it, whether alcohol can cause B12 deficiency, and how long to recover from vitamin B12 deficiency, read below.

What is vitamin B12?

Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) is an essential vitamin found naturally in animal products like meat and dairy. The B12 in our bodies binds with the protein in foods we digest, before being absorbed in the small intestine.

As an essential vitamin, B12 is pivotal to both the performance and development of brain and nerve cells. It is also used in our bodies to form red blood cells and DNA, which can influence our mood and energy levels.   

We do not naturally produce vitamin B12 in the body, so you need to regularly consume food and drink products that contain the vitamin.

What causes B12 deficiency?

The cause of B12 deficiency is typically down to a pre-existing condition or a result of low B12 levels in your diet. However, the most common cause of B12 deficiency is an autoimmune condition called pernicious anaemia.

In order for your body to get vitamin B12 naturally, it needs to be absorbed in the intestine. Your body uses a special protein called intrinsic factor, released by cells in your stomach, to do this. When you have pernicious anaemia, your body does not naturally produce intrinsic factor. This means the intestine cannot absorb the vitamin properly, which then causes B12 deficiency.

B12 deficiency is common, especially in the elderly or those who follow vegan or vegetarian diets. Some people develop a B12 deficiency through not eating enough food with B12 or products fortified with B12.

When you’re not feeling your best, it can be difficult to maintain a healthy diet with fresh and nutrition-packed meals. To start making steps towards a healthy diet, try planning out your meals and be realistic about what you can manage.

How does alcohol cause vitamin B12 deficiency?

While it is unlikely you will develop a vitamin B12 deficiency from drinking alcohol alone, there are some studies that suggest alcohol can cause vitamin B12 deficiency.

Alcohol is a product empty of any proteins, minerals, or vitamins, so consuming it has very little nutritional value. And, if you are experiencing symptoms of B12 deficiency, or have already been given a diagnosis, it’s best to follow a high nutritional value diet.

If you have pernicious anaemia, then it is unlikely alcohol is the cause of your vitamin B12 deficiency as your body is already unable to absorb B12 properly. However, if you are experiencing symptoms of B12 deficiency, it is still best to limit your alcohol intake as it can cause further gut issues.

What are the symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency?

The symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency are the same regardless of the cause. However, if the cause of your B12 deficiency is pernicious anaemia, then you may experience further symptoms caused by the anaemia that are not directly related to the deficiency.

As B12 vitamin is essential to the formation of red blood cells, nerve function, and metabolism, can cause a range of physical, psychological, and neurological symptoms, including:

Physical symptoms of B12 deficiency

The physical symptoms of B12 deficiency are likely to be amongst those you notice first, and these include:

  • Extreme fatigue.
  • Feeling weak.
  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Diarrhoea.
  • Difficulty walking.
  • Difficulty speaking.
  • Indigestion.
  • Change in appetite (usually a loss of).
  • Mouth ulcers.
  • Yellow tint to your skin.

As a symptom of B12 deficiency is a loss of appetite, you may notice weight loss alongside these symptoms. It’s important for your health that you eat enough, so if you do experience a loss of appetite, try eating plain or liquid meals like toast or soup.

Psychological symptoms of B12 deficiency

Since B12 deficiency affects your nerve function, it’s common to notice some issues with vision and cognitive function amongst the following:

  • Mild depression. 

  • Anxiety.

  • Confusion. 

  • Feeling easily irritable. 

It’s important to see a GP as soon as possible if you are experiencing symptoms of B12 deficiency as, if left untreated, some psychological symptoms are harder to treat.

Neurological symptoms of B12 deficiency 

In some circumstances, you may notice some neurological symptoms of B12 deficiency including:

Some neurological symptoms of B12 deficiency can be worsened by certain habits. For I example, alcohol is a depressant, which can also cause low mood and feelings of depression when consumed in high quantities over long periods of time.

  • A numb feeling in your hands and feet.

  • A tingling or pins in needles feeling in your hands and feet.

Can vitamin B12 be a sign of cancer?

Vitamin B12 deficiency doesn’t typically cause cancer on its own. However, some studies have shown a link between low levels of the vitamin and cancer.

As pernicious anaemia causes your immune system to attack your stomach’s healthy cells, the risk of developing stomach cancer in particular is higher than those with regular levels of vitamin B12.

There is also a link between low B12 levels and HPV (Human Papillomavirus) infections, which is the cause of around 99.8% of cervical cancer cases. Studies looking at patients with HPV and their levels of B12 found a significantly higher risk of HPV with a lack of vitamin B12 in their system.

So, while cervical cancer has one of the highest survival rates, it is always best to see your GP if you are worried about symptoms of vitamin B12 being a sign of cancer.

How long to recover from B12 deficiency?

The amount of time it takes to recover from B12 deficiency depends on the cause of your low vitamin levels.

For example, vitamin B12 deficiency caused by pernicious anaemia is a lifelong condition - though some symptoms can be managed with proper care and a balanced diet.

If you do have pernicious anaemia, your GP might arrange for you to be administered injections of manufactured B12 (hydroxocobalamin) to help manage the symptoms. These are likely to be done every 2 to 3 months for the rest of your life.

However, if your low levels are caused by a lack of the vitamin in your diet, you can start to recover from a B12 deficiency with lifestyle and dietary changes.

How to recover from a B12 deficiency with dietary changes?

If the cause of your vitamin B12 deficiency is down to a lack of B12 in your diet, then you can gradually remedy this by eating more food with B12 in it. Through this method, it can take up 6 months to a year to fully recover from a B12 deficiency.

The best food groups for B12 levels are meat, fish, and dairy. If possible, look to add more of these to your diet:

  • Beef liver.
  • Lamb.
  • Beef.
  • Salmon.
  • Eggs.
  • Cheese.
  • Milk.

However, as many of the foods with B12 are meat and dairy products, they are not suitable for vegan and vegetarian diets.

If you are looking to get B12 on a vegetarian diet, try focusing your meals on dairy products or fish if you are pescatarian. To get B12 on a vegan diet, you can buy certain foods that have been fortified with additional B12, such as yeast flakes, fortified dairy alternative milks, and tempeh.

Do I need B12 injections? 

In addition to dietary changes, some people get B12 injections to help recover from a B12 deficiency, with any aesthetic and beauty salons now offering from a wellness stance.

However, B12 injections will only benefit those who are deficient. That’s because, if you have sufficient B12 levels within your body, any additional B12 will leave your body when you urinate.

As such, it’s always best to seek a clinical assessment with a GP or prescriber before getting B12 injections. Additionally, always make sure your beautician uses a licensed product and that they can manage any adverse effects that may occur from the injection.  

Looking for ways to get more B12 into your system? Try cooking our easy Cajun honey salmon or an egg based breakfast for a B12 boost. Check out our Be Healthy blog for more nutritious recipes and health advice.

Medically reviewed by Cheryl Lythgoe in January 2024.