What is Pernicious Anemia?

Posted on Monday, May 2nd, 2016

Written by Megan Scarth

For many people, the concepts of “anemia” and “lack of iron” are often thought of as one and the same. But did you know that there are actually different types of anemia caused by a lack of different nutrients?

One of these types is known as pernicious anemia, and it’s caused by a lack of vitamin B12 in the body. Just like iron-based anemia, it means that the body is unable to make enough red blood cells to maintain normal functioning. A lack of B12 in particular means that the red blood cells have a difficult time dividing, and are becoming too large and are unable to diffuse out of the bone marrow.

Pernicious anemia can sometimes be tricky to diagnose because people don’t always display symptoms, and the symptoms that they do display are fairly common to other conditions. However, some common deficiency symptoms include light-headedness/a lack of energy, loss of appetite, pale skin, diarrhea, problems concentrating, and swollen gums. Since vitamin B12 plays critical functions in the nervous system, people may start to experience nervous system damage if the deficiency is long-term. Some of the more long-term symptoms include confusion, depression, a loss of balance, and numbness/tingling in the hands and feet.

To absorb B12, the stomach secretes an enzyme called intrinsic factor, which binds to the B12 and carries it to the liver, where it is stored. The liver can store B12 for long lengths of time, so it can take months or sometimes years to become deficient. However, if one doesn’t have doesn’t have enough intrinsic factor, the B12 won’t be absorbed properly, and pernicious anemia will eventually result. This condition is relatively uncommon, and only about two percent of people will ever develop it. It’s also more common in the elderly, who don’t produce as much stomach acid, and thus not as much intrinsic factor. For some people though—and that includes myself!—the condition is genetic, and not enough intrinsic factor is produced, regardless of age or other medical conditions.

For these people lacking intrinsic factor, it doesn’t matter if they’re getting adequate amounts of vitamin B12 in their diets; their bodies simply cannot absorb it, and so supplementation is often necessary. Additionally, B12 is only found in animal products, so vegans will also require supplementation. One of the easiest ways of getting extra B12 is simply through over-the-counter vitamin pills. People with very low levels, however, may need to bypass their digestive system entirely and get their dose in the form of shots or lozenges.

And for the rest of the population who eats animal products and absorbs B12 just fine, all they have to worry about is getting enough through their diet. Some sources of B12 include meats (especially organ meats), fish, dairy products, and eggs. Since B12 is found in quite a few common foods, most people should be fine as long as they’re eating a balanced diet.

So if you think your B12 levels may be low, or if you haven’t gotten them checked recently, it’s probably a good idea to get a simple blood test. A little bit of prevention can go a long way in protecting your nervous system!

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