Vitamin B12 deficiency - what is it and do I have it?

Vitamin B12. It’s an amazing multi-tasking micronutrient. It helps regulate your mood, energy, sleep, appetite and even your motivation. But, some of us simply aren’t getting enough of it, and we might be experiencing some vitamin B12 deficiency symptoms.

Estimates say that 1 in 10 people have a vitamin B12 deficiency, with 16% being ‘near deficient.’ That figure rises to 40% in those who’re aged 60 and over. And because B12 is mainly found in animal products, vegetarians and vegans are also more at risk of falling short on B12.

Let’s find out how this wonder vitamin can help support your health, what vitamin B12 deficiency symptoms to spot and how to get enough in your diet.

Why do I need vitamin B12?

Vitamin B12 plays a crucial role in brain and nervous system function, as well as the formation of red blood cells. It helps produce something called myelin which is basically like the insulation that protects our nerves. On top of this, it allows them to conduct nerve impulses or messages that help your entire body work as it should.

As if it hadn’t already done enough, vitamin B12 is involved in the regulation of metabolism in your cells and in DNA synthesis. Pretty amazing.

Why is vitamin B12 deficiency so common?

The human body can’t create vitamin B12 by itself – dietary intake is the main source for people. However, some people have problems absorbing vitamin B12, so they become deficient. In general, the groups of people most at risk of vitamin B12 deficiency are:

  • People aged over 60
  • People regularly using PPIs and anti-suppressants (drugs to combat indigestion)
  • People on diabetes drugs like metformin
  • If you have Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, coeliac disease or IBS
  • Vegetarians and vegans

Vitamin B12 deficiency symptoms

If you’re missing out on vitamin B12, your body might react with various signs and symptoms. Do you often feel extremely tired for no obvious reason? Problems with concentrating? Mood swings? It might be a lack of B12 in your diet. You may experience a swollen tongue, hair loss, or tingling in your hands and feet.

These symptoms usually come on gradually, but they can get much worse if left untreated. You may develop a more serious case of folate deficiency anaemia. This is when you have fewer red blood cells than normal. Along with the other symptoms, you could suffer with heart palpitations, breathlessness, bloating, weight loss, yellowing of the skin or disturbed vision.

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms and suspect a vitamin B12 deficiency, you should book an appointment to see your GP. There might be many other causes of these symptoms, apart from B12 deficiency, so it is important to check in with your GP practice.

Is it in your genes?

Having a diet that’s too low in vitamin B12 might not always be down to your diet or your age – it may be down to your genes. Studies show that variations in genes impact your risk of being B12 deficient.

Mo Taylor wanted to test her genetics to “take control of [her] own health.” She’d been trying to get to the bottom of a health complaint called ‘burning tongue syndrome,’ and thought a vitamin deficiency could play a part. On BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show, she talked about how her genetic information may have shed light on this.

Mo’s Evergreen Life DNA results indicated a likelihood for deficiency in vitamins B6, B12 and E. Evergreen Life founder and CEO, Stephen Critchlow, commented that: “the outcome from DNA is a combination of your DNA results and the environment for you… So, if Mo was to take a supplement or eat more food with those vitamins in, she’d reduce her likelihood of being deficient in those vitamins.”

A DNA Diet Test can reveal your likelihood of deficiency in a wide range of micronutrients including B12 – so you can take steps to feel better and stay healthier based on your genetic makeup.

Ways to get more vitamin B12

If you’ve found out you’re more likely to have a vitamin B12 shortage, there’s a small number of ways you can manage your diet to become healthier. The recommended daily intake is 2.4 micrograms for adults.

What’s important to note is that vitamin B12 is only found naturally in animal products. This includes: liver, salmon, haddock, crab, beef, lamb, cheese, milk and eggs.

The table below shows the natural B12 content of several foods:

A table showing natural B12 content of a variety of animal products.

Vegan sources of vitamin B12

For vegans who don’t eat animal products, this can make it quite difficult to get a sufficient amount of B12! But don’t panic, there are plenty of vegan-friendly sources:

  • Fortified breakfast cereals (choose low-sugar options for all around good health)
  • Unsweetened soya drinks enriched with B12
  • Marmite or nutritional yeast (available at health food stores)
  • Supplements

If you want to know more about what nutrients your body needs, discover our DNA tests and get tailored recommendations on what foods to include in your diet.

Order a DNA Test