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An abnormally low level of vitamin B12 (cobalamin) is a factor in many disorders.
The absorption of dietary vitamin B12 occurs in the small intestine and requires a secretion from the stomach known as intrinsic factor. If intrinsic factor is deficient, absorption of vitamin B12 is severely diminished. Vitamin B12 deficiency impairs the body’s ability to make blood, accelerates blood cell destruction, and damages the nervous system. The result is pernicious anemia (PA). In the classical definition, PA refers only to B12 deficiency anemia caused by a lack of intrinsic factor.
True pernicious anemia is probably an autoimmune disease. The immune system destroys cells in the stomach that secrete intrinsic factor. Many people with PA have both chronic inflammation of the stomach lining, called atrophic gastritis, and antibodies that fight their intrinsic factor-secreting cells.1
The term pernicious anemia is sometimes used colloquially to refer to any anemia caused by vitamin B12 deficiency. Vitamin B12 deficiency can be due to malabsorption of dietary B12 despite normal levels of intrinsic factor. For example, celiac disease and Crohn’s disease may cause B12 malabsorption, which can lead to anemia. Less common causes of B12 deficiency include gastrointestinal surgery, pancreatic disease, intestinal parasites, and certain drugs. Pregnancy, hyperthyroidism, and advanced stages of cancer may increase the body’s requirement for B12, sometimes leading to a deficiency state.
Low stomach acid, known as hypochlorhydria, interferes with the absorption of B12 from food but not from supplements. Aging is associated with a decrease in the normal secretion of stomach acid. As a result, some older people with normal levels of intrinsic factor and with no clear cause for malabsorption will become vitamin B12-deficient unless they take at least a few micrograms per day of vitamin B12 from supplements.
Caution: Pernicious anemia is a serious medical condition. When fatigue, often the first symptom of PA, is present, a qualified healthcare practitioner should be consulted. Symptoms of PA can be caused by other conditions, none of which would respond to vitamin B12 supplementation. Moreover, if true vitamin B12 deficiency exists, the cause—lack of intrinsic factor, general malabsorption conditions, lack of stomach acidity, or dietary deficiency—must also be properly diagnosed by examination and blood tests before the appropriate treatment can be determined.
Symptoms of severe vitamin B12 deficiency (regardless of the cause) may include burning of the tongue, fatigue, weakness, loss of appetite, intermittent constipation and diarrhea, abdominal pain, weight loss, menstrual symptoms, psychological symptoms, and nervous system problems, such as numbness and tingling in the feet and hands. Most symptoms can occur before the deficiency is severe enough to cause anemia. Healthcare professionals have a series of laboratory tests that can determine B12 deficiency at earlier stages that are not accompanied by anemia.
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The information presented in Aisle7 is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications. Information expires June 2014.