Vitamin B12 Deficiency
(Vitamin B12 Dependency; Macrocytic Achylic Anemia)
Vitamin B12 helps in red blood cell formation, production of DNA, and function of the nervous system.
Vitamin B12 deficiency can occur when the body needs more vitamin B12 than it receives from the diet. Alternatively, the condition may occur when the body is unable to use the vitamin B12 from the diet. A shortage of vitamin B12 can lead to anemia. Anemia occurs when levels of red blood cells are abnormally low and there is insufficient delivery of oxygen by red blood cells from the lungs to the cells of the body.
Red Blood Cells
There are many causes of vitamin B12 deficiency, such as:
- Removal of part of the small intestine or stomach
- Increased age and inadequate absorption of B12
Long-term use of certain acid-reducing stomach medications:
- H2 blockers
- Proton pump inhibitors
- Atrophic gastritis (inflammation of the stomach) due to:
- Disorders affecting vitamin absorption:
Inadequate intake of vitamin B12
- Long-term veganism (nonconsumption of animal products) or vegetarianism
- Breastfed infants of vegan or vegetarian mothers
- Poor nutrition
- Inadequate nutrition for a pregnant woman
- Chronic alcohol abuse
- Chronic intestinal conditions that lead to malabsorption
- Inflammation of the intestine due to radiation treatment
Increased need of vitamin B12:
- Intestinal parasites
- Other types of anemia
- Methylmalonic aciduria
The following factors increase your chance of developing vitamin B12 deficiency:
Use of certain drugs:
- Biguanides for diabetes
- Acid-reducing medications
- Strict vegan or vegetarian diet
The symptoms of pernicious anemia can vary from person-to-person. Symptoms may change or worsen over time.
Symptoms can include:
- Sensation of pins and needles in feet or hands
- Stinging sensation on the tongue or smooth red tongue
- Substantial weight loss
- Altered sense of taste
- Impaired sense of balance, especially in the dark
- Inability to sense vibrations in feet or legs
- Lightheadedness when changing to standing position
- Rapid heart rate
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Tests may include the following:
- Complete blood count (CBC)—a count of the number of red and white blood cells in a blood sample
- Vitamin B12 level—a test that measures the amount of vitamin B12 in the blood
- Methylmalonic acid (MMA) level
- Homocysteine level
- Schilling test—a test in which a small amount of radiation is used to assess the absorption of vitamin B12 deficiency
- Folate level—a measurement of the amount of a B vitamin called folic acid
- Intrinsic factor antibodies—this test helps to determine pernicious anemia as the cause of symptoms
Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Treatment options include the following:
Vitamin B12 Injections
The doctor may advise injections of vitamin B12 into a muscle. Injections of vitamin B12 may be given frequently at first. When blood tests show improvement, the injections may be given on a monthly basis.
Treatment With Antibiotics
This type of medication may be needed in cases where bacterial overgrowth in the intestines exists. The bacteria compete with the body to absorb the vitamin B12 in the intestines.
To help reduce your chances of developing a deficiency of vitamin B12, take the following steps:
- Avoid long-term over-consumption of alcohol.
- As directed by your doctor, take a daily supplement containing vitamin B12.
- As directed by your doctor, give vitamin B12 to your breastfed baby if you are a vegan or vegetarian.
- Undergo testing if your doctor suspects you have a bacterial infection.
Have your doctor monitor your health closely if you are taking certain medications:
- Acid-reducing medications
Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements
College of Family Physicians of Canada
Pernicious anemia. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated August 9, 2013. Accessed December 22, 2014.
Vitamin B12. American Association of Clinical Chemistry website. Available at: http://www.labtestsonline.org/understanding/analytes/vitamin_b12/glance.html. Updated May 27, 2014. Accessed December 22, 2014.
Vitamin B12. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated July 5, 2013. Accessed December 22, 2014.
Vitamin B12 deficiency. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated September 23, 2014. Accessed December 22, 2014.
Last reviewed December 2014 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.