Pernicious Anemia and B12 Deficiency – Should You Take Vitamin B12 to Prevent It?
Pernicious anemia is a condition that results when the body cannot absorb enough vitamin B12. In this particular condition, cells that line the stomach have lost the ability to produce enough of a substance called Intrinsic Factor. Why is this important? Because Intrinsic Factor must first combine with B12 to form a B12-Intrinsic Factor complex so that the digestive system can absorb it.
We know that vitamin B12, also known as cobalamin, plays an important role in several processes: it helps make red blood cells, supports nerve cell function, and even helps build DNA. When the body’s immune system malfunctions and begins attacking the cells in the stomach that make intrinsic factor, the decrease in intrinsic factor production greatly affects B12 absorption, for the worse.
Pernicious anemia is also known in medical circles as megaloblastic anemia. The term megaloblastic describes the large, immature red blood cells that are seen in people with this condition, which is more common in persons of northern European descent. Often the terms pernicious anemia and B12 deficiency are used interchangeably, but it is important to note that pernicious anemia refers only to the B12 deficiency that happens when there is an absence of intrinsic factor.
What are the symptoms of pernicious anemia?
Weakness Fatigue Numbness
tingling of hands and feet
Tender, smooth tongue
Increased heart rate
Why is it important to supplement B12?
Even though the red blood cell abnormalities can be improved to normal by supplementing vitamin B12, if too much time passes before the pernicious anemia is detected, the neuropathy (nerve damage) that causes numbness and tingling can become permanent. Usually pernicious anemia is found through a routine check up and a blood test (CBC, or cell blood count) at the doctor’s office. Persons most at risk of developing it are the elderly; strict vegetarians who don’t supplement B12; and pregnant women.
An important note is that breastfed babies of vegetarian moms can easily develop vitamin B12 deficiency by age 4 to 6 months because their liver reserves–which are normally plentiful–are limited and can be depleted quickly due to their rapid growth rate, (which results in a high demand for B12). One last thing to remember is that folate supplementation should not be taken alone instead of vitamin B12 because folate may indeed alleviate the anemia but allow the neurologic (nerve) deficits to progress or even accelerate. For this reason, both B12 and folate should be supplemented together.