Today, many people are making the switch to diets like vegetarianism or veganism as a lifestyle choice, due to food sensitivities or for other health reasons. Despite the misconception that vegan and vegetarian diets do not allow you to fulfill your nutritional needs, there are a few health concerns people following these lifestyles should be mindful of. One of these concerns is already a common health problem for women but can be exacerbated by nutritional deficiencies over time: anemia.
Anemia is a health condition in which your body doesn’t have enough healthy red blood cells to deliver oxygen throughout your body. As a result, your muscles, organs and tissues can’t operate as effectively as they should.
Most women with anemia experience persistent fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness and a rapid heartbeat. It’s also common to feel cold, to experience frequent headaches, to experience numbness or tingling in the hands and feet and to feel irritable.
However, anemia does not occur in just one form. A number of things can cause the condition, including iron deficiency, blood loss and blood cell destruction caused by medications or other health problems. Anemia symptoms may also occur during a woman’s menstrual cycle or pregnancy.
The root of anemia that often affects vegetarians and vegans is vitamin B12 deficiency.
Understanding megaloblastic anemia
Vitamin B12 is crucial in your body’s ability to create healthy red blood cells. Without it, red blood cell production may suffer or become abnormal, causing a condition called megaloblastic anemia. In this condition, the body has fewer, larger and less mature red blood cells than normal, which reduces the amount of oxygen capable of being transported throughout the body.
Unfortunately, vitamin B12 is most commonly obtained by incorporating animal products into your diet. Vegetarians and vegans who abstain from eating animal products, as well as people with food allergies or sensitivities and poor diets, may not consume enough B12-rich foods to get the recommended amount each day.
The effects of vitamin deficiency aren’t immediate. As your cells die and are recreated, the lack of vitamin B12 in your diet can slowly cause symptoms of anemia over time. This could take numerous months or even years, meaning it could be hard to spot until the deficiency is severe.
If you begin experiencing the symptoms of anemia, you may need to have a blood test done by your doctor to check your vitamin B12 levels and for abnormalities in your red blood cells.
Many types of people can develop megaloblastic anemia, including those with autoimmune disorders, those who have had surgery on the stomach or intestines and older adults. In these cases, treating the anemia may be more difficult because the body has trouble absorbing vitamin B12 altogether.
Fortunately, vegetarians and vegans following strict diets may have an easier time overcoming anemia by paying greater attention to their B12 intake.
If you eat an animal-product-free diet, actively search for foods that fit into your diet and contain vitamin B12. Vegans tend to have more trouble with this than vegetarians, but both should be mindful of their nutritional intake to ensure balance. Things like eggs, milk, cheese, yogurt, meat and fish are the most abundant sources. Some foods might also be fortified with vitamin B, even if they aren’t rich in vitamin B12 naturally.
If eating vitamin B12-rich foods isn’t possible, it may be necessary to take a daily B12 or vitamin B complex supplement. It is usually necessary to continue supplementation for as long as you maintain your diet.
If you’ve been diagnosed with vitamin B12 deficiency and megaloblastic anemia, your doctor may recommend that you take larger doses of B12 in the form of prescription shots. Speak with your healthcare provider about which option is right for you based on your nutritional deficiencies.
Nutritional balance is key
Aside from red blood cell production, vitamin B12 is essential for other aspects of health—particularly the health of your nervous system and brain. Cognition can be impaired because of a vitamin B12 deficiency, as can your vision and mental health.
If you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, take great care to monitor your nutritional balance and find ways to incorporate all necessary nutrients into your meals. Working with your doctor and nutritional specialist can help ensure that you stay healthy and avoid problems like anemia.