Why Vitamin B12 is So Important for Women

A B12 deficiency can result in migranes and memory problems.

Imagine: You’re walking through the produce section at the grocery store, but you don’t know what you’re doing there. In fact, you don’t know what grocery store you’re even in, how you got there in the first place or where you would go next if you left. You’re lost, and you don’t have any idea as to how to go about being found.

Sounds like a nightmare, right?

Well, for Cilia Smith, a Rhode-Islander-turned-Floridian woman in her mid-fifties, this was a reality — and a frequent one, at that.

“I knew something was wrong because I’ve always had a sharp memory and have always been a productive member of society,” says Smith. “But the simplest of tasks, things I did every day, had become impossible because I would get these random fits of memory loss. I live within a five-mile radius of everything, but I stopped driving because I was afraid of where I would end up.”

After a car accident in July 2015 left her with multiple injuries, including a concussion, Smith had grown accustomed (as much as a person can, anyway) to dealing with lingering side effects like severe migraines. The memory loss, however (which she first noticed in 2016), was entirely new. Smith’s sudden lapses could be as simple as needing to write down a shopping list even if the only two items on it were toothpaste and paper towels; as irritating as misplacing the salt shaker only for it to turn up in the bathroom cupboard; and as devastating as completely blanking on her beloved granddaughter’s name.

“I started thinking it was Alzheimer’s because my mom had it,” Smith recalls. “She didn’t start showing signs until her seventies, but I thought maybe I had early-onset… I was terrified.”

Smith’s latest symptoms didn’t end with memory issues, though. Sudden fatigue spells made it even more difficult for her to leave the house, often prompting her to take midday naps, while morning numbness in her fingers and palms led to shattered mugs and dropped coffee pots.

And so, determined to find out just what was going on with her body, Smith saw numerous doctors, including three different neurologists. No one could give her a straight answer.

“They would assume it had something to do with the accident and put me on different medications — which never helped,” Smith explains. “But then I went to a fourth neurologist in January of this year, and he said, ‘You know what? Before we do anything extreme, I’m going to send you in for bloodwork to test all of your vitamin levels, just in case.’ When the results came in, he told me I was B12-deficient.”

If you’re reading this and wondering, “Okay, but what does that mean?” — you’re not alone.

“I had never heard of it before — it wasn’t something my previous doctors had ever mentioned,” Smith recalls. “After my appointment, I went home and read up on it and sure enough, it all made sense.”

According to Shira Hirshberg, owner and registered dietitian at All Foods Nutrition in Providence, vitamin B12 helps the body with important functions like making DNA, preventing certain types of anemia and keeping nerves and red blood cells healthy.

“The body does not produce vitamin B12 on its own, and so most people get it by consuming animal products,” Hirshberg says. “It’s something that vegetarians and especially vegans should be aware of; most will want to consider taking B12 supplements or eating foods, like cereal or soy products, that are fortified with B12.”

Smith is neither of these labels, but she does have a somewhat restrictive diet; forgoing all red meat and most dairy products and only consuming chicken “on occasion.”

“I’m a pretty healthy eater, or so I’d always thought,” she says. “And I don’t take any supplements because I never had an issue. Before I moved to Florida, my doctor in Rhode Island used to test my blood, but I don’t know if she ever looked at my B12 levels, specifically. Thank God this last neurologist thought to check for it.”

Hirshberg says that B12 deficiency is tricky to diagnose because it can often take years to manifest thanks to the vitamin’s ability to store in the body.

“If you’re not consuming any new sources of vitamin B12, your body can rely on old reserves for a period of time,” she explains. “So, you might switch to a vegan diet one year but not become B12-deficient until three years later.”

Also, for people like Smith, who do consume some foods with B12 (a.k.a. chicken) every so often, there are other possible deterrents. For one, Hirshberg points out that as people get older, the process of absorbing B12 becomes more difficult.

“There’s a specific carrier that stomach acid activates to break down and transport B12, so, as stomach acid strength decreases with age, the ability to uptake B12 also decreases,” she explains. “Likewise, those on Proton-Pump Inhibitors or other stomach acid-decreasing medications would also have similar risks.”

And so, between Smith’s age, medication changes and diet, it seems she had entered into the perfect storm for a vitamin B12 deficiency. But while most people might be able to just proceed by taking oral supplements, unfortunately, in Smith’s case, it would have been too little, too late. In fact, by the time the problem was identified, her doctors found that her stores had been completely depleted. So, they started her on B12 injections once a week for the first month, and then reduced her dosage to once a month. The plan is to check her levels again after a few more months and see if the amount and/or frequency needs to be increased or decreased.

Within two weeks of that first shot, however, Smith had already noticed a world of difference.

“I can’t even begin to explain how much better I felt,” she says. “My body just had energy all of a sudden. A month later, I felt like my old self again.”

Smith’s cognitive function is now back on track and she no longer experiences extreme bouts of fatigue or numbness in her extremities. Even her migraines have decreased in intensity and duration.

“One day I called my daughter, who lives here, in Rhode Island, and she immediately noticed that I sounded more upbeat. She was like, ‘You sound great! What happened?’” Smith laughs. “I felt like I was reborn or something. All that time, I didn’t know what was going on; I could have been dying for all I knew. I was so down and depressed… Sometimes I would just go in my room and cry for hours because I didn’t know what to do. But now I feel like singing again. I’m happy.”

And she looks it, too. Just a couple of months since her first shot of B12, Smith has come up from Florida, by herself, to visit her daughter.

“She just bought a new house, so I’ve been helping her pack and prepare the old place for sale,” she says. “If it wasn’t for feeling the way I do now, I wouldn’t be able to do all that. I wouldn’t have been able to get on a plane or travel alone or make all the phone calls that I’ve been making to contractors and what not.”

It’s also allowed us to meet and chat in person for this article.

“I’m glad you asked me to come in, because if I can help even just one other person out of this situation, that would be wonderful,” she says. “A lot of people don’t know about it — I didn’t know about it — and it’s so important to know how much deficiency can really affect or harm your body. It’s amazing what one little vitamin can do.”