Vegetarianism has many health advantages, but a poorly designed diet poses significant health risks. Research shows that vegetarians (and vegans) are vulnerable to deficiencies in two important B vitamins: B12 (cobalamin) and B6 (pyridoxine). Naturopathic provider Jacob Wolf, ND, LAc, Dipl OM, explains the importance of these vitamins and potential signs of a deficiency:
If ever a group of vitamins could be considered “the Force” within you, it’s the B-Complex group, which supports energy production. Individually, each B vitamin – B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6, B12, biotin and folate are vital to different physiological processes throughout the body. Specifically, B12 is essential for healthy nerve cell communication while B6 is necessary for hormone regulation and breaking down dietary fat, protein and carbohydrates.
It’s difficult to get sufficient, high-quality amounts of food-based B6 and B12 in your diet when meat, fish, eggs, and dairy are eliminated. B12 is not present in plants, so vegetarians usually need to take a supplement. Some plants contain a “glycosolated form” of B6 that is not absorbed easily or used efficiently in the body. The aging process, a vegan diet, stress, certain medications and illness can also alter your body’s ability to use vitamins taken from food.
Signs of B12 deficiency include extreme fatigue, sadness, irritability, loss of appetite, anemia, lower immunity and increased risk for heart disease. B6 deficiency is associated with PMS, depression and insomnia. It can lead to nerve damage in the hands and feet, which is usually reversible with proper supplementation.
If you’re considering a vegetarian or vegan diet, your health care provider can give tips and information to help you avoid deficiencies. A naturopathic practitioner can evaluate you to determine if a vitamin deficiency exists and work with you to identify the appropriate therapies and dietary improvements for your health needs.