Much to my embarrassment, I’ve realised it’s been nearly 2 months since I last posted on this blog. In my defence, I was busy with another writing project, which was taking up all my time and energy, so it isn’t as if I haven’t been writing at all, but I was supposed to be committed to blogging regularly, and it seems as if I’ve failed spectacularly …
Never mind! I’m here now, and I have something important to say.
If you are vegan or vegetarian, it’s extremely important that you take a Vitamin B12 supplement because you are not getting enough from your diet.
OK, I might be coming on a bit strong. It’s possible to get enough B12 as a vegetarian, and even as a vegan if you eat enough B12 fortified foods, but it’s very unlikely that you’re eating enough of the right kind of foods. In fact, studies have found that more than 50% of vegetarians who don’t supplement B12 are deficient, and this figure rises to 80% for vegans.
Not convinced? Well, here’s what happened to me.
Back in September (around the middle of the month, I think) I realised I was anaemic, and started taking an iron supplement. You can read about my process of self-diagnosis and my previous experience of anaemia in this post. A month later, nothing much had changed. After a month of supplementing iron, I should have seen some improvement in my symptoms, but I was still feeling just as exhausted as ever, I was struggling to breathe normally, and the cracks in the corners of my mouth were getting worse, if anything, rather than better.
During my original research into anaemia, I had come across B12 deficiency as a possible (and rare) cause, but I had casually dismissed it because:
- It’s rare – every website I looked at said so.
- It’s a vitamin deficiency, and vitamins come from fruit and vegetables – right? – so someone who was almost-vegan and eating loads of fruit and veg wasn’t going to have a vitamin deficiency.
It turns out that I was very wrong. While most vitamins do come from fruit and veg, B12 is different. It’s found in animal products – meat, fish, dairy and eggs – and also in some fortified foods, such as fortified soy products and cereals. My move away from dairy was the most likely trigger for my symptoms.
But it goes deeper than that. It usually takes years for symptoms of B12 deficiency to appear because the body keeps a good supply stashed away in the liver, to draw on as needed. To suffer from B12 deficiency anaemia, you need to go without B12 for a very long time. Which, it turns out, was precisely what I had done.
And there were a few other interesting factors too:
- Being vegetarian or vegan dramatically increases your chances of being B12 deficient, simply because you’re not getting enough of it in your diet, and I have been eating a low dairy diet (because I prefer the taste of soy to cows’ milk) for more than 20 years.
- Many drugs commonly used to treat asthma deplete B12 – drugs such as inhaled and oral steroids, and some types of antibiotics. I’ve been on inhaled steroids for most of my life, with frequent spells on oral steroids and antibiotics.
- Contraceptive drugs deplete B12, and I’ve been on those almost continuously since my late teens.
- Intestinal parasites can cause B12 deficiency through reduced absorption of nutrients, and I was infected with one such parasite, giardia lamblia, for about 6 months over the winter of 2014/15. (In fact, my vet says it’s impossible to eliminate giardia completely, so I am probably still a carrier.)
- Stress, both emotional and physical (through exercise), depletes B12. In addition to the emotional trauma of Sam’s long illness, and the ending of my long term relationship shortly after his death, I put my body through a lot of physical stress by exercising hard.
- Carbon monoxide poisoning can cause B12 deficiency, and my ex and I both suffered CO poisoning at the beginning of 2010, due to a poorly designed flue on the woodburner in our rented house.
All these different factors came together to reduce my body’s store of B12 until, by the spring of 2015, I was already (and unknown to myself) suffering several symptoms of deficiency. My change in diet, and the elimination of nearly all foods containing B12, tipped my body over the edge and into anaemia.
I didn’t waste any time. I bought some B12 supplements and started taking them right away.