Friday, May 20, 2011

The B12 Deficiency Epidemic

Vitamin B12 deficiency has been in the back of my mind ever since my husband and I decided to switch to a vegetarian diet several years ago. I was continually worried about getting enough B12 in my diet, for myself as a nursing mother, but also for my son who relied on my milk to provide him with his sole source of the vitamin. Recently in the news, an infant died of B12 deficiency from a lack the vitamin in her vegan mother's breast milk. That kind of story hits home as a reminder of how important vitamin B12 is in our diet.

Our body cannot manufacture vitamin B12; therefore, we must rely on animal products for its source. This is just one of many reasons that my husband and I discontinued our vegetarian diet and returned meat and eggs to the menu. If our body cannot manufacture B12 and our only usable source is from animal products, being vegetarian or vegan does not seem to be natural or in line with how the body was designed. There is some confusing literature circulating, which suggests that vegetarians can meet their B12 requirements from seaweed, spirulina, brewer's yeast and fermented soy, but this is not the case. These sources contain B12 analogues, a form of B12 that the human body cannot utilize.

Beef Liver. Photo by Footos Van Robin
B12 is one of 13 important vitamins that our body cannot do without. I had no idea just how important vitamin B12 was until I read Sally Pacholok's book, Could it be B12? An Epidemic of Misdiagnoses. Since B12 is vital for so many functions in the body - especially neurological - deficiencies can masquerade as a variety of symptoms while the true cause goes undiagnosed. The following is a only a partial list of symptoms for B12 deficiency:
  • Irritability, apathy
  • Sleepiness
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Suspicion, paranoia
  • Depression, including postpartum
  • Memory loss, dementia, intellectual deterioration
  • Abnormal sensations: tingling, numbness, diminished sense of touch
  • Weakness, clumsiness, tremors
  • Spacticity of muscles
  • Vision changes
  • Shortness of breath
  • Ringing in the ears

The Great Mimic

B12 deficiency can imitate symptoms of multiple sclerosis and other neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. Corrected deficiencies of vitamin B12 have reversed symptoms of mental illnesses, depression, bi-polar disorder and chronic fatigue syndrome. B12 deficiency has been linked to high homocysteine levels, which are now recognized as being a leading indicator and cause of cardiovascular disease and stroke. B12 deficiency increases the risk of stomach, breast, ovarian and cervical cancer. Couples struggling with infertility are often able to conceive and carry a child to term after increasing their vitamin B12 intake. B12 plays a role in sperm count, in the implantation of a fertilized egg, as well as whether or not the mother is at risk for pre-eclampsia later on in pregnancy. In children, vitamin B12 deficiency has been found to cause 'failure to thrive' and developmental delays in speech, behavior and motor skills. Autistic children are often found to have low levels of vitamin B12 and respond well to treatment of B12 injections. We are seeing a rise in all of these, and yet B12 is rarely considered as the culprit. The good news is that reversing vitamin B12 deficiency is easy, and if caught early enough, can reverse the many symptoms associated with it before long term damage occurs (1).

Up to 65 percent of the population - vegan and meat eating alike - are B12 deficient in varying degrees (2). These are epidemic proportions. The question is why is B12 deficiency on the rise, especially in the meat consuming population? There are several factors that increase ones risk of a B12 deficiency - the primary one being age. It is estimated that 40 percent of the population over the age of 60 are B12 deficient, possibly higher since it is misdiagnosed so frequently (3). It can also be brought about from a genetic predisposition to pernicious anemia or a malfunction in the processing or utilization of the vitamin. Alcoholism, vegetarianism, thyroid disorders, cancer and certain medication use increase B12 deficiency risk factors (4). There are other reasons why B12 deficiency is on the rise, and I'd like to look at three more closely.

Gastrointestinal Disorders Interfere With B12 Absorption

The first has to do with the fact that a damaged gut or intestinal wall interferes with vitamin B12 metabolism and thus predisposes a person to a deficiency. I find this particularly relevant because of my own irritable bowl and leaky gut symptoms. B12 deficiency is more common in people with Crohn's, celiac, inflammatory bowl disease, and other gastrointestinal disorders, which are also on the rise (5). It is estimated that 30 percent of the U.S. population is affected by some type of gastrointestinal disorder (6). Spending on "...gastrointestinal disorders in children has increased by 660 percent over the past five years." (7) Higher rates of gastrointestinal disorders means more medications to treat them, many of which may reduce B12 absorption, causing a further downward spiral of deficiency. The rising rates of gastrointestinal disorders are being blamed on the food we eat, and I agree. Our Standard North American Diet (SAD) contains too much processed foods, genetically modified ingredients and food that we are having a difficult time digesting because we simply were not meant to be eating it. These foods are putting a strain on our immune system, our pancreas and our digestive tract, and consuming them is not without consequence.

When Was the Last Time You Ate Liver?

Not only are we eating more foods that are damaging to our digestive tract, but we are eating less nourishing foods that are full of B12, such as liver. I remember my mother cooking liver for us once a week when I was young. My siblings and I made such a fuss about eating liver that she eventually gave up the practice. It's too bad because a serving of liver contains 690% of our daily recommended intake of vitamin B12. It's full of valuable other nutrients as well, such as preformed vitamin A, folate and vitamin B2 (8). Regular servings of liver have reversed symptoms of the auto-immune disease, pernicious anemia. Liver is one of the best sources of vitamin B12, but when was the last time you ate any? The problem with liver is that as a storage organ it can be both beneficial and harmful to us. The liver stores important nutrients for us, such as vitamin's B12, folate, A, D, E, K and the minerals copper and iron (9). However, the liver also accumulates pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and other environmental toxins, which has, in part, contributed to society's distaste for liver consumption. The best type of liver is from an organically raised, grass fed animal, which preferably hasn't had the time to accumulate a lot of toxins (10).

Does B12 Deficiency Start in the Soil?

The last idea regarding the rise in B12 deficiency is the most intriguing, and has to do with a cobalt mineral deficiency in the soil. Humans need cobalt, but only bacteria can synthesize it into a usable form, which we call vitamin B12. The cobalt content in our soil is imparted to the plants we and other animals consume in trace amounts. However, due to conventional agricultural practices, soil erosion has caused the loss of important mineral content. Chemical inputs further dehydrate and acidify the soil, and contribute to cobalt losses (11). Much of the soil in the U.S. has been found to be cobalt deficient, and thus, so would any vegetative matter grown in it unless the soil is properly supplemented (12). Legumes grown in cobalt deficient soil are severely stunted and show signs of nitrogen deficiency - for without cobalt, legumes cannot fix nitrogen from the air. Consumption of cobalt deficient feed causes vitamin B12 deficiency in livestock (13). If conventionally raised livestock has been found to be deficient in B12, perhaps it would follow to reason that we too are becoming deficient as a result. Interestingly enough, organic soil does contain 'acceptable' levels of cobalt, so it goes to show that proper soil practices are important in maintaining the health of all life.

Unhealthy Soil. Photo by Seaskylab.
The B12 deficiency epidemic is indicative of several things. First, as a society, we are eating too much of the wrong types of food - food that is damaging our digestive tract and decreasing our ability to absorb and utilize essential nutrients. If you consider how certain disorders, such as autism, ADHD, schizophrenia, depression, Alzheimer's, and so forth all have a neurological component, we can see how a 'Bermuda Triangle' emerges in regards to digestive health. Our digestive tract is studded with receptors that create a feed-back loop to our brain - it's called the gut-brain axis. Often by removing foods that are damaging to the digestive tract, nutrient absorption improves and neurological symptoms subside. Second, we are not eating enough of the right food - food that is healing and nourishing and easy for our bodies to digest. Third, the plants and animals we rely on for our nourishment are also becoming less nutritious through conventional farming practices that degrade the vitality of our soil. I believe that the B12 epidemic is the cumulative result of what has gone wrong with all aspects of our food industry.

What can you do? Consuming more liver for start or at least make sure you're getting additional B12 in supplemental form. If you suspect you are suffering from B12 deficiency, pick up Sally Pacholok's book to find out what kind of testing you need to do. Stop eating foods that are harming to your digestive tract. Lastly, Support organic farmers that take care of their soil - it plays an important role in the nutritional content of your food.

This article is linked up with Fight Back Fridays and Fresh Bites Fridays. 

(1) Could it be B12? An Epidemic of Misdiagnosis, by Sally M Pacholok, RN
(2) Could it be B12? An Epidemic of Misdiagnosis, by Sally M Pacholok, RN
(3) Could it be B12? An Epidemic of Misdiagnosis, by Sally M Pacholok, RN
(4) Could it be B12? An Epidemic of Misdiagnosis, by Sally M Pacholok, RN
(5) Could it be B12? An Epidemic of Misdiagnosis, by Sally M Pacholok, RN 



The Marketing Machina said...

B12 is so important. I developed a gluten intolerance and stopped absorbing this all important vitamin. I was extremely tired and foggy. My thyroid tests came back normal, so I didn't know what it could be. Now I take weekly B12 injections and feel a million times better. I do eat meat, but I think the injections might be a good alternative to people committed to being vegetarian or vegan.

Shanon Hilton said...

Good for you for figuring it out! I definitely think most of us could use more B12 - supplement, injection, or a little liver in our diets. I noticed an immediate change in my energy levels as soon as I started taking a supplement.

Terri Burges Hirning said...

Hi Shanon! Someone had linked your blog on FB and I fell in love! We are trying to do the same things it appears. I loved your B-12 article, I meant to email you prior to posting but got crazy! So glad you were OK with me linking to you. I will be reading your blog from now on!

Anonymous said...

I just want to add that older folks may want to rely more heavily on supplements and/or fortification. Natural B12 is bound to proteins and the stomach must produce sufficient acid to break those proteins apart for the B12 to be absorbed. People on acid blockers, or older adults, may not produce enough acid to complete the digestion.

Now, if only I liked liver... I keep trying but I think the fight is lost.