Vitamin B12 performs a number of vital functions, such as keeping the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy, and helping to make DNA, the genetic material in all cells.
Becoming deficient in the vitamin can therefore impair different parts of the body, triggering a wide range of symptoms.
One area where symptoms can be particularly pronounced is in the nervous system.
If left untreated, a vitamin B12 deficiency can damage the nervous symptom, leading to a number of neurological problems.
A common neurological problem is a loss of physical coordination (ataxia), which can affect your whole body and cause difficulty speaking or walking.
The loss of balance and coordination can make you more prone to falling.
This symptom is often seen in undiagnosed B12 deficiency in the elderly, as people over the age of 60 are more prone to a B12 deficiency.
However, evidence suggests preventing or treating deficiencies in this group may improve mobility.
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This theory suggests that high levels of homocysteine – a common amino acid in your blood – caused by low levels of B12 could cause damage to the brain tissue and interfere with signals to and from your brain, leading to mood changes.
Strengthening the association, some studies suggest that in certain people who are deficient in B12, supplementing with the vitamin can reverse symptoms.
The NHS recommends you consult a GP if you’re experiencing symptoms of vitamin B12 because these conditions can often be diagnosed based on your symptoms and the results of a blood test.
It is also important to act on any symptoms as soon as you spot them because the longer you leave it, the greater the change of permanent damage.
How to treat a B12 deficiency
A vitamin B12 deficiency is usually treated with injections of vitamin B12.
There are two types of vitamin B12 injections:
Vitamin B12 can also be found in a number of foods, such as meat, salmon and eggs, although you cannot treat a B12 deficiency through diet alone.
“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,” explains the NHS.
People adhering to a vegan diet, for example, may need vitamin B12 tablets for life.
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.
According to the NHS, alternative sources of B12 include yeast extract and some fortified breakfast cereals and soy products.
Nutrition labels on the front of food packets will usually indicate how much vitamin B12 is in a product, it adds.