Imperfect Veganism: Nature’s Protection Against Pernicious B12 Deficiency?

Having been a perfectly healthy vegetarian for many years in my teens and early twenties without paying any attention to my intake of particular nutrients, I’ve taken a similarly lax approach since going almost entirely plant based. Since I use specialized enriched products for vegans here and there and do (in theory) allow myself an occasional non-plant-based meal with bivalves, eggs, or a little dairy every so often, I figured I was getting what I needed.

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A couple weeks ago, though, I started to feel a bit off. At first, there was nothing really specific I could put my finger on… just a general sense of feeling less vibrant and healthy than usual. This lethargy progressed to slight mental fogginess. I wasn’t forgetting important things, but little details that I could usually recall easily–like the name of that cute little cocktail bar on 96th street that I’ve been to a million times– completely escaped me, and basic mental math–like figuring out how much tip to leave– suddenly demanded extra mental power.

There’d also been other odd things going on here and there that I hadn’t initially connected. A few months ago, the tip of my nose started to feel cold all the dang time, even when the rest of me was warm. And over the last week, I had found myself lusting after meat, dairy, and egg dishes a few times (I was thisclose to snatching T’s chicken finger the other night), which came as quite a surprise because I’ve never been one to crave animal products, even in my omnivore days.

I was going to chalk this all up to my natural proclivity to overthink everything and to obsess about things no one else would even notice, but, then, I was sitting on the bus and my pinky fingers started to feel strange, almost tingly. This pins-and-needles feeling recurred on and off a few times over the next couple of days. While still relatively benign, this was one vague symptom too many. I grabbed my phone and punched all the symptoms (minus the cravings) into Google.

Usually when you search symptoms, a zillion different possible conditions pop up, along with dozens of posts from hypochondriac-support message boards that lead you to the inevitable conclusion that you’re perfectly healthy and just being a worrywort. (Yes, I know because I do it all the time… Doesn’t everyone?) This time, though, there was a clear consensus among my search results:

B12 deficiency. Duh! Facepalm! And I hadn’t even put the word vegan in my search. How did I not see this coming? 

If you’re not familiar with it, B12 is an essential vitamin that is central to brain and nervous system function, production of DNA in our cells, and maintaining red blood cells. If left unaddressed, B12 deficiency can lead to severe, permanent neurological issues and dementia. This is pretty scary stuff, guys. To say that I’m a little freaked out that I took this so lightly in the past is a bit of an understatement.

As soon as I realized what the problem was, I made a conscious effort to bolster my B12 levels by taking vitamins and eating some (sustainably sourced) clams. Sure enough, within hours I felt sharper and energized, the tingling disappeared, and my nose stayed warm even during a 5 hour hike through the mountains on the coldest day so far this season. My husband T chalks this all up to a placebo effect, but I’m now convinced that the lack of naturally occurring B12 in a vegan diet is something that needs to be taken very seriously.

While fully herbivorous animals naturally have the bacteria to produce this vitamin in their own digestive tracts, humans unfortunately do not have (or perhaps no longer have) this capacity and thus, until the advent of supplements, had to obtain it by eating foods derived from animals that were able to synthesize it. The good news is that we need to consume only trace amounts of it in order to be healthy, and if we eat more than we need in one sitting, we can build up stores of the vitamin that will last for years.

This likely explains why no ancient 100% vegan culture has ever been discovered, while there are several groups (e.g. Choctaw Native Americans, Buddhists, Jains, and some Ancient Greeks) that follow(ed) essentially plant-based diets including only negligible amounts of dairy, eggs and/or meat. Interestingly enough, our closest primate relatives, chimpanzees (with whom we share a whopping 98% of our DNA), follow a similar diet pattern, eating plants at least 97% of the time, plus a few insects here and there and the fruits of an occasional opportunistic hunt.

While I advocate on this blog for a plant-based but flexible (aka “just about vegan“) diet similar to that of our ancient human and primate ancestors, I have to confess that even I at times have found myself ignoring my instincts in order to strive after the “right” to consider myself part of the vegan community. (More about this in an upcoming post…) What that amounted to is allowing unnecessary guilt and fear of judgment to prevent me from consuming an occasional egg, oyster, or suspiciously buttery restaurant meal. In practice, that meant entirely eliminating the few natural sources of B12 that existed in my diet.

Being someone who values a natural lifestyle, I’m uncomfortable with the idea that being vegan means that I need to depend on a man-made, factory-produced supplement for the rest of my life in order to be healthy. I would also hazard a guess that the pollution that ultimately results from the production and packaging of my supplements causes more cruelty to intelligent animals than occasionally consuming organisms like oysters and clams that have no brain or nervous system, and just so happen to be B12 powerhouses. I’d much rather find a comfortable spot just right of veganism on a continuum that already exists in nature and human history. Our need for B12 shouldn’t be an excuse to completely reject veganism, but, if you ask me, it’s a reason to reconsider our obsession with perfect veganism.

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8 thoughts on “Imperfect Veganism: Nature’s Protection Against Pernicious B12 Deficiency?

  1. I love the name of your blog! Very similar to mine – Mostly Vegan!
    I’m intrigued by your vitamin B12 information and am thinking maybe I should do something to boost my intake. Hmmm … Apparently vegetarians of yore got their B12 from the soil – vegetables that are not scrubbed clean of any speck of dirt. Maybe we just need to eat a few dirty carrots?
    Thanks for stopping by my blog!

    • Thanks for your comment, msokane. Love the name of your blog as well– great minds think alike! And yes, maybe we just need to eat some dirty carrots! You’d think by now that someone would have come up with a probiotic that would allow humans to produce B12 ourselves like cows do!

  2. Really interesting post. I’ve been vegetarian my whole (pretty long!) life, regularly eating eggs and dairy up until recently when I became 95% vegan. I periodically get tested for B12 deficiency and have found that I have it a number of times. This is despite eating foods that supposedly contain the vitamin naturally. Hmmm, not sure what I think about this. Perhaps the foods don’t contain the vitamin in the required dose, or perhaps I’m not absorbing it properly. Needless to say I have had to supplement with B12 tablets, which I guess is even more important now that I’m vegan. A test is a good idea for vegetarians and vegans alike, just in case.

    • Thanks for your comment! I wonder if the issue for you is that, having been a life long vegetarian, you never built up the large B12 stores that most folks can draw from if they fall short in their intake. Many people can be vegan for years and not have a problem, but they also likely spent decades eating meat at least daily. Similarly to you, I think part of why I had B12 issues earlier than most (after only a couple years of following a fully plant-based diet) is that I likely also had very limited stores to draw from since I’ve been at least mostly vegetarian for the majority of my life.

      • Yes, you might very well be right. I hadn’t considered it like that before but it does make sense. Vigilance is obviously really important when it comes to checking your B12 reserves. I didn’t start checking my levels until I was well into my 30’s but had probably been low for most of my life without realising it.

  3. Not sure if this helps or if anyone is interested but I recently heard about a new oral prescription alternative to the injections called Eligen B12. I recently read that it works even if you don’t have intrinsic factor (so even if you don’t have normal gut absorption). Apparently it came out a month or two ago. Has anyone heard of it or tried it??

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