By Laurie Saloman
If you're feeling weak, shaky, and irritable you may be lacking this essential vitamin.
Vitamin B12 is a key nutrient that people need for the production of red blood cells and DNA and for the maintenance of nerve health. Found in meat, fish, poultry and dairy, B12 is widely available, and as our bodies stockpile several years' worth, it's difficult to be deficient in it. But some people are at risk, including strict vegetarians and vegans as well as those suffering from anemia. The risk of B12 deficiency increases as people get older--with one estimate of as much as 15 percent of people 65 and older lacking B12. How do you know if you're missing this important vitamin, and what can you do if you are?
First, look out for some typical symptoms of B12 deficiency. You may experience memory loss, trouble balancing, a shaky gait, or other problems such as depression or irritability. You also may experience numbness and tingling sensations in the arms, legs, feet and hands, fatigue, and loss of appetite.
If you suspect you may be suffering from low B12 levels, speak with your doctor. Sometimes a B12 deficiency can be detected through a routine blood test, but further testing may be necessary. If you're found to be low in B12, here's how you can get more of it into your diet:
Meat and poultry. Chicken and beef livers are particularly rich in B12. If you're averse to eating liver, one chicken breast at dinner supplies a decent amount of your daily B12 requirement.
Eggs and dairy. If you're vegetarian, have a cheese omelet with a glass of milk a few times a week to bump up your B12 intake.
Fortified products. Vegans and others who don't eat any kind of animal products have a tougher time getting their fill of B12. Look for foods that are fortified with B12 such as certain breakfast cereals, soy products, and nutritional yeasts.
If making dietary changes doesn't boost your levels of B12, consider taking an oral supplement or getting B12 injections. One other important step you can take to increase your B12 levels-stop reaching for antacids after a meal. These over-the-counter gastric-acid blockers may make you feel better, but they can seriously interfere with the absorption of B12 into your body. Some doctors believe that widespread use of antacids, particularly among older people, is a contributing factor to low B12 levels.
American Family Physician, www.aafp.org
Harvard Health Letter, www.hsps.harvard.edu
, The Mayo Clinic, www.mayoclinic.com