After 17 years on the air, followed by cancellation, rumors have it that the X Factor, Simon Cowell’s popular talent show, may be returning to television in 2023. Today, though, we’re going to be examining a different “factor,” one that’s got nothing to do with Simon Cowell (as far as we know) but that is actually generating interest among consumers, especially those with vitamin B12 deficiency. We’re talking about intrinsic factor.
Let’s first start with a refresher course of the need-to-knows when it comes to vitamin B12.
One of eight B vitamins, B12 (cobalamin) is an “essential” vitamin, meaning that your body does not manufacture it; therefore, it’s important to be sure that you’re getting vitamin B12 through your diet. You can do that by eating foods like red meat (e.g., beef or beef liver), certain kinds of fish (e.g., salmon or tuna or crab). Clams, too, are rich in B12, and chicken and certain cheeses (such as Swiss) and egg yolks contain vitamin B12. And don’t forget fortified breakfast cereals or other fortified foods that are labeled as such. For more info, click here.
While some people can get enough vitamin B12 from food alone, many others add B12 vitamin supplements to help ensure their status of the vitamin stays in the healthy range. Even that doesn’t do it for everyone, and for some, B12 injections may be medically necessary and recommended by your doctor.
Why Do you Need Vitamin B12?
B12 maintains healthy blood and functioning nerve cells. Generally speaking, without the B vitamins, your body won’t work properly. Specifically, B12 helps produce DNA, the genetic material found in every cell in your body. It works as a team player with other B vitamins to produce red blood cells, control blood levels of homocysteine and make S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe), a compound that regulates mood and immune functions.
You may have heard that vitamin B12 is the “energizer” vitamin. That’s because B12 (and some of the other Bs) turns the food you eat into usable energy.
In addition to B12’s basic functions that contribute to your overall health, some research has shown potential benefit in other specific areas too. For instance, this water-soluble vitamin may support bone health, brain health, heart health, and might improve your state of mind, help prevent macular degeneration, and protect your unborn baby from certain birth defects. This piece talks about 9 health benefits of B12.
Who is at Risk for Vitamin B12 Deficiency?
Most people get enough B12 from their diet and nutritional supplements. For others, however, getting the right amount of B12 isn’t easy. For example, people over 60 years old, vegans and vegetarians, and those with gastrointestinal disorders like celiac or Crohn’s disease, are just some populations that are at risk for vitamin B12 deficiency or insufficiency.
And then there are those with intrinsic factor issues.
If you’ve not heard of intrinsic factor before, you’re probably not alone. Right now, you might be asking yourself “what is intrinsic factor” and “what is the relationship between vitamin B12 deficiency and intrinsic factor?” We’re about to tell you.
Intrinsic factor is a protein made by cells in the stomach lining. Vitamin B12 and intrinsic factor engage in an intricate dance, one in which intrinsic factor and vitamin B12 attach (think tango!), making their way to the end of the small intestine where vitamin B12 is properly absorbed. That’s the romantic version; this article explains it more explicitly and scientifically.
But like many things in life, everything doesn’t always go as planned. Not everyone’s bodies can make intrinsic factor, and for others, medical issues destroy or deplete the intrinsic factor that the body does produce. That may lead to a rare—but potentially serious—condition known as intrinsic factor deficiency.
If you have a lack of intrinsic factor, the result may be pernicious anemia, “pernicious” meaning “harmful.” Sometimes experts refer to pernicious anemia as vitamin B12 deficiency anemia; other experts advise that pernicious anemia is just one type of vitamin B12 deficiency anemia. You may have also heard the term megaloblastic anemia in reference to vitamin B12 deficiency? Pernicious anemia is one type of megaloblastic anemia.
For now, forget the different types of anemia and let’s focus on this fact: if your body can’t make intrinsic factor, your body will not be able to absorb vitamin B12 from your diet on its own. There are other reasons for vitamin B12 deficiency or insufficiency, but what is most important is that intrinsic factor deficiency as well as vitamin B12 deficiency (and even insufficiency) left untreated, can result in serious short and long-term damage to your health.
Who is Susceptible to Pernicious Anemia?
For starters, pernicious anemia is a rare condition that is more common among those of northern European ancestry, so low intrinsic factor may be genetic. In fact, this article suggests that around 20% of those with pernicious anemia themselves have relatives with the disease, suggesting there may be a genetic connection.
Further, the article notes that while pernicious anemia develops in only about two percent of those over age 60, low vitamin B12 levels are more prevalent in that older population. According to this information on the OmegaQuant website, vitamin B12 deficiency is present in about 20% of the elderly population.
Beyond genetic and age factors, there are other specific conditions that may result in the inability to manufacture intrinsic factor. For example, those who have had their stomach, or part of their stomach, removed, as well as those with chronic gastritis, may be at higher risk for intrinsic factor deficiency. An autoimmune condition—like diabetes or other endocrine conditions including Addison’s disease, Graves’ disease and some specific thyroid issues—may also be associated with pernicious anemia. And actually, pernicious anemia is itself considered an autoimmune condition.
Symptoms of Vitamin B12 Deficiency and Anemia
Symptoms can be similar for vitamin B12 deficiency/insufficiency and pernicious anemia, which is not surprising as the two are so intertwined. This post explains that without sufficient levels of vitamin B12, there are fewer red blood cells carrying the oxygen throughout your body. If that’s not concerning enough, think about this: you could have pernicious anemia for years before you start to see symptoms and without regular testing of vitamin B12 status, you might not realize that something may be wrong.
Symptoms (in the early stages) include:
- diarrhea or constipation;
- loss of appetite;
- swollen tongue; and
- shortness of breath
The longer your low vitamin B12 status is left untreated, the more serious the symptoms become. They include:
- extreme exhaustion, fatigue or weakness;
- neurological symptoms, dizziness and numbness or tingling in the extremities, particularly the hands or feet;
- memory loss, confusion;
- heart palpitations or skipped heart beats;
- loss of balance; and
- optic nerve degeneration that could negatively impact your eyesight.
Although all of this may seem complicated, there is a simple way to get started if you have concerns about whether your vitamin B12 status may be an issue. At OmegaQuant, we offer an easy at-home test to measure methylmalonic acid (MMA) in your urine. MMA is a specific indicator of low B12 status.
Your doctor can also order tests for determining vitamin B12 status, or you can bring your results in to discuss with them. You can also ask your doctor about other tests to determine if you have pernicious anemia or other types of anemia. More information can be found here.
And although not commonly ordered, there is also an IF (intrinsic factor) antibody test that may help to figure out the cause of your vitamin B12 deficiency and whether it is related to an intrinsic factor issue. Ask your doctor if you’re a candidate. Learn more here
The solution to raising your vitamin B12 status may simply be to add vitamin B12 supplements to your routine, and that too, is something that can be raised with your doctor.