Dr Dawn Harper on signs of vitamin B12 and vitamin D deficiency
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One of the greatest risks of vitamin B12 deficiency is damage to the nervous system, due to low myelin levels. Failure to treat the signs within six months could result in permanent damage, so symptoms like ataxia should never be ignored. Here’s what to look for:
Yellow skin, anaemia, paranoia and hallucinations are all classic signs of suboptimal B12 levels, but the list of symptoms doesn’t stop there.
Less widely discussed symptoms include changes in hand coordination, speech swallowing, eye movements and walking and balance.
These tend to result from issues involving the production of myelin, an insulating substance that is formed around the nerves.
The sheath enables electrical impulses to be transmitted along cells inside the brain and spinal cord, making it vital to the nervous system.
Without it nerves become vulnerable to damage, which can trigger a cascade of multi-sensorial complications.
The first symptoms will typically include muscle weakness, numbness, trouble walking, nausea, weight loss, irritability, fatigue and an increased heart rate.
The Vitamin B12 Information website explains: “Vitamin B12 deficiency results in damage to the fatty tissue, myelin, surrounding the nerves.
“B12 deficiency is progressive and symptoms may take years to develop. But correct and timely B12 treatment can mean a reversal of all of your symptoms.”
One of the neurological signs listed on the website is Ataxia, a neurological disorder that affects balance, coordination and speech.
The NHS defines ataxia as the term describing a group of disorders that affect coordination, balance and speech.
“Any part of the body can be affected, but people with ataxia often have difficulties with balance and walking,” explains the health body.
It results from damage to the part of the brain that controls muscle coordination, which could lead to a staggering gait.
John Hopkins Medicine explains: “An unsteady, staggering gait is described as an ataxic gait because walking is uncoordinated and appears to be ‘not ordered’.”
How is a deficiency diagnosed?
A deficiency in B12 will generally be detected by low blood levels, but it’s important to remember that symptoms can be slow to develop.
This is because once B12 is stored in the liver, it takes roughly two years for signs of a deficiency to arise.
Treatment will thereafter be directed towards the cause of the deficiency, such as malabsorption.
According to NHS Inform, treating vitamin B12 deficiency anaemia can involve a combination of injections or supplements.
It’s important to avoid self-medicating with supplements, as this can lead to significant health complications if done improperly.
NHS Inform explains: “Vitamin B12 deficiency anaemia is usually treated with injections of vitamin B12, in a form called hydroxocobalamin.
“At first, you’ll have these injections every other day for two weeks, or until your symptoms have stopped improving.”
In cases where malabsorption is not the cause of a deficiency, eating sufficient amounts of food high in B12, like meat and dairy products may help correct levels.
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