I went to the doctor yesterday for an un-vegan related matter, and I had some blood work done. Most of it looked really good- my cholesterol continues to go down (just a little, but I’ll take it!) and my triglycerides are good, as well as my blood sugar. I don’t have any health problems related to all that, but I have a very strong family history, so I’m always glad to hear good news when it comes that.
The needs improvement: I asked for a B-12 level to be done. As you probably know, we vegans should all be taking a B-12 supplement. I occasionally take a multi-vitamin, but I don’t do it on a regular basis. Mostly, I just didn’t take it. So, my B-12 is low. It isn’t terribly low and I don’t have macrocytic anemia, but without some supplementation I’d be at high risk for developing it. Plus, I’m a lady of a certain age with who wants kids- and I’m sure we’ve all seen the recent articles about how B-12 deficiency causes neural tube defects in developing fetuses. I don’t want a developing fetus right now, but it would be good to know I’ll be healthier when and if the time comes. And while I hate that a lot of bloggers and news outlets have slanted the B-12 issue on vegans, it is what prompted me to ask for the level when I went for an unrelated doctor’s appointment (and again am not planning on letting any fetus develop in me any time soon).
Why is B-12 important? It’s not just for the unborn; the rest of us need it too. Without B-12, we can develop macrocytic anemia, a type of anemia where red blood cells become large, and puts us at risk for potentially irreversible neurological deficits, including numbness and tingling in the hands and feet.
Vegans aren’t the only people at risk for B-12 deficiency: there are two populations that are much more likely to have this problem. One is the elderly. Whether B-12 is consumed by eating animal products or taking an oral supplement, it has to pass through the digestive system. In the digestive system is a substance called intrinsic factor, which is needed for the body to absorb B-12 from the digestive tract. Many elderly people lack this factor or don’t make enough of it, so they can become deficient in B-12, even though they consume it. People who abuse alcohol over a long period of time are at the same risk because of a damaged liver. In these cases, the only way to absorb B-12 is to get it by injection- which bypasses the digestive system.
I’ve done a lot of googling today, and I’ve noticed that a lot of vegans with a low B-12 level are being told that they MUST have injections, and are avoiding treatment because of it. My pharmacy is working on checking this out for me, but these injections are probably not vegan. But unless you’re a vegan who otherwise lacks intrinsic factor or has damage to the digestive system, an oral supplement is absolutely an option. You just need a lot of it. Is it ALWAYS an option? Maybe not. But it’s definitely worth a conversation with your medical provider. Because it’s more common for people to have a B-12 deficiency because a lack of absorption, it would be my guess that most medical professionals would think that injections would more appropriate (side note: they’re also less expensive that way). If it’s simply because you’re a vegan and have taken only maybe 10 multivitamins over the last year… well, it’s probably not anything to do with absorption.
Bottom line? Go out an get yourself a multi-vitamin that contains B-12, or a B-12 supplement. Deva makes both, and they’re definitely vegan. You should also ask for a B-12 level to be included when you get your regular blood work done. Everybody is different in how their bodies store and process vitamins; I’ve only been vegan 2 years, and have a low level- other people can go 20 years without a problem. Get checked and take your vitamins!