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I’m Vitamin B12 Deficient: Now What?

Posted Sep 17 2012 8:26am

Sometime around July, when I first started getting sick, feeling exhausted all the time and experiencing weird twinges in my legs that then traveled up to my arms, wrists and groin, I knew something had to be wrong. I scheduled my first doctor’s appointment with a general physician since college nearly 4 years ago, and then continued to scan the Web for an answer to all my achy woes.

That, of course, was a bad idea.

(They should really add a disclaimer to their logo: “Not for the easily alarmed.”)

After convincing myself that I was plagued with a number of terrible muscle, bone, joint, nerve and neurological diseases, I banned myself from WebMD altogether and decided to wait it out. On the day of my appointment last Thursday, I unloaded all of my fears to my new physician — one of which, in addition to a host of terrible physical dysfunctions — was a simple vitamin B12 deficiency.

How’d I first hear of this? Twitter — the most reliable source on the Internet. Naturally, when a fellow runner (I can’t remember who anymore) told me that she had heard these strange shooting pains could be caused by a vitamin B12 deficiency, I resolved to ignore the comment. But with a strong need to know why my body was failing me — and this was totally apart from the fact that my shins were preventing me from running — I began to research it.

As it turns out, although vitamin B12 deficiencies are typically characterized by a loss of feeling or tingling in the fingers and toes, as opposed to shooting pains around the body, the rest of the symptoms seemed all too familiar — fatigue being at the forefront of this laundry list.

When the day finally arrived for my much-anticipated check-up, I showed up to the doctor’s office prepared for the worst.

“I have bad news for you,” he reported after a thorough intake, physical and blood-work. “Chances are, you’re probably fine.” My doctor went on to tell me that the aches were likely the cause of an old, lingering virus, and that to be vitamin B12 deficient, you have to basically subsist on a diet of bread (non-fortified, that is) and water.

Translation: the biggest problem I was dealing with was a serious case of hypochondria.

(Me? Hypochondriac?)

Point taken.

The fatigue continued. The discomfort subsided temporarily. Yet while I was somewhat 1:2, I still wasn’t satisfied. Instead, I was convinced there had to be another answer for those shooting pains in my body.

The following week, I called my doctor’s office to obtain my blood test results. As it turns out, I have hereditary anemia and, you guessed it, a vitamin B12 deficiency.

Stacy, 1; Doctor, 0.

A few things you should know about why vitamin B12 is so important.

  1. Vitamin B12 is water-soluble and found both in food and supplement form. It is naturally present in animal products, including fish, meat, poultry, eggs, milk and milk products. It is not present in plant sources, though it can be found in fortified cereals and grains.
  2. Vitamin B12 is required for proper red blood cell formation, neurological function and metabolic function.
  3. A deficiency of vitamin B12 can lead to anemia, fatigue, weakness, constipation, numbness, tingling, confusion and poor memory.

Check, check and check.

To be clear, I wasn’t technically deficient at the time of my appointment. As my new doc explained, it’s recommended that our bodies’ levels of B12 fall somewhere between 200 and 1,100 mcg. I rang in at 211 (and this was only days after a hangover that resulted in a massive craving for meat and the rapid consumption of a towering plate of deli meat; a very non-vegetarian act that could have significantly spiked my levels).

(Raves like this sometimes result in a need for turkey meat. Little did I know it was actually making me healthier. Conclusion: partying is good.)

Still, it is in no way surprising that I’ve allowed myself (is it bad that I see it as something I’ve done to my body?) to become deficient in a vitamin that seems so important to our very being. Consuming a largely vegetarian, sometimes vegan, diet after years and years and years of consuming every part of the farm has been incredibly beneficial in some ways and incredibly challenging in others. The most important part of this process, I suppose, is to now listen to my body and heed those challenges that arise.

The good news is that step 1 is to simply stock up on vitamin B12 supplements. Easy. Last week, I popped in to my local CVS and scanned my different options, choosing a natural-sounding brand of swallowable 1,000 mcg vitamin B12 pills over the cherry flavored chewable generic kind. The last thing I needed was a reason not to take my daily vitamin, and cherry chewables would have been more than enough.

I can’t say that I’ve felt a tremendous difference since beginning my new vitamin regimen a week ago, but while the shooting pains still materialize every now and then, they have become less frequent. I hope to be able to say that they continue to do so.

As for the fatigue, running around from New York to Pennsylvania and back again in 24 hours while completing a half marathon somewhere in between doesn’t quite give me the proper environmental factors to gauge my energy reserves. I’m sore, I’m tired, and I’m incredibly grateful that today, the day after the race, is Rosh Hashana — the Jewish New Year — meaning that I’ll be doing whatever work that needs to be done from the comfort of my parents’ house while resting up and resetting.

At the end of the day, I’m relieved to finally know what was causing all these mysterious physical concerns. I’m even more relieved that, on top of getting my body back to where it needs to be, I’ve completed my fourth half marathon (recap to come) and can finally get back to shorter, more body-conscious runs.

As I told my new doctor at the start of my appointment, August wasn’t exactly my month. Midway through September now, I truly feel as though I’m turning a new leaf; I just hope that the wheel continues to spin in my direction.

To a happy and healthy new year, whether you’re Jewish or not. Because, we really shouldn’t need an excuse to press “restart” in our lives; but often, we look for one anyway.

  • Have you ever been physically affected by a severe vitamin deficiency?
  • Has your diet ever directly affected your running?

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