This does not apply to all vegans, but is my personal story of what happens why B12 levels become critical.
I assume that I am no different to most vegans, in that I read about nutrition and food widely. I think vegans probably read more books about food than most other people.
So I knew that B12 (cobalamin) of all the vitamins and minerals was the most important one, being sourced via animal products.
It is produced by bacteria – so if it is found in plant food, it is in foods such as mushrooms which may have come in contact with dirt, or if it is found in animal products it is still the result of bacteria production.
Which is why, unless vegans pay attention, it can be overlooked.
There is a common idea on vegan websites and books, that there is enough B12 in the body to last five years or so, so when someone first goes vegan there is enough still in their system to last.
Last year, several things happened to me all at once, I got a really bad case of flu, and was not eating, this came after several weeks of dental treatment, where I hadn’t eaten, which came after a personal thing, in which I’d lost my enjoyment of food.
As a result, my weight had dropped by almost 10 kilos. My diet was shocking, I knew there was chance I would be low in some nutrients.
But I had begun to get strange symptoms.
My feet had started to get permanent pins-and-needles, then my hands. And then what was really scary, my memory was being affected.
Several instances stand out:
I was with a group of friends discussion how long we had known each other. I looked at one of my closet friends who I met in 2000 and the word that formed in my mind was 1990, when I spoke it, it came out as “1900”. No, that’s wrong, I mean 1990. My friend wasn’t born til 1991, so I wrote on a piece of paper 2000, which my hand wrote as 1880.
Another, I was with the same friends, trying to find something on a map, I pointed to the red section, the word that formed in my brain was “orange” even though I knew it was red, I told myself “it’s red” but again the word “orange” took the place of red. And as I spoke, the words that came out of my mouth were “I think it’s that purple section”
… So not only did I know that it was red as a colour, yet the letters in my mind were “orange”, my mouth said purple.
I was losing my nouns. I couldn’t remember the names of things, even though I could describe them.
I couldn’t remember the world “Cucumber”, and I was trying to describe it to my dining companion, “it’s long, and round, and hard…” (no, I am not flirting with you) “it’s cold, you eat it in salad, it had a dark green skin…”
It was time for action, this wasn’t a hold over of my flu or dental work.
I have occasional blood tests as part of my job, so during one routine blood test, I asked for my Iron and B12 to be also checked. We discussed my dental work, the flu I’d had and my lose of appetite, so I expected some of my readings to be a little low.
When the results came back, my doctor said my B12 was fine, but my iron was low.
I’d read in several places that low iron can mask a B12 deficiency, so while I expected my iron to be low, but Not out of range, I really thought my B12 would be low too.
I knew these results had to be wrong.
I occasionally take a vitamin supplement that has a B12 component, and I read the instructions: Take 2 every day with food.
I probably would have been taking not even 2 a week. But I made sure I took the recommended dosage.
And within a week and half, or so, the numbness in my hands and feet went, my memory returned. I don’t know that it was B12 deficiency, but I really, sincerely believe that it was. I don’t believe the blood tests told the wole story.
There are four foods I consume regularly that are fortified with B12, and I try to eat them often. And I try to get motivated to take vitamin supplements.
And if anyone wants to say, “but that just shows the inadequacies of being vegan”, take a look around your kitchen/bathroom, at how many pills and medications you take. I only take B12 occasionally, and that is it, that is all.
What happened to me was not just because I am vegan, it happened because there were 3 things in my life at the same time, that occurred one after the other, which meant I was barely eating…
and even having barely eaten in the 6 weeks or so before the medical tests, I still had an Iron level that was in the normal range (allbeit, the low end of normal)… and of all the people I know who have ever been prescribed iron tablets, they have been meat eaters, so I got a smile out of that result.
This is not medical advice, this is my personal story, I don’t blame it on being vegan, I chalk it down to being a young woman, who sometimes has changing life circumstances.
Being vegan is not hard, being a person is.
Edited to add:
Recommended Supplements for Vegans: by Ginny Messina RD
29 November 2010