A vegetarian for six years and a vegan for two, I had been trying—like many other vegans—to get my B12 from food sources, such as greens, sea veggies and nutritional yeast. A few times a week, I would pop a B12 supplement for safe measure. Overall, I felt pretty good and considered myself to be on top of my health.
That is, until I had a pretty bad vegan health scare. It started with general moodiness—I would frequently find myself angry, frustrated and depressed for seemingly no reason at all. Soon, I began to get a tingling, numb feeling in my hands and random heart palpitations. I told myself it was anxiety—I had recently begun a new job and was in a brand new living situation. I assured myself I was healthy—I’m a vegan!
One evening, home alone, I began to feel extremely dizzy and disoriented. My vision was blurred, and I was having trouble following a single train of thought. It felt as if I had had way too much to drink, although I hadn’t been drinking at all! I called a friend for help, and while I waited I did a bit of research online. In no time at all it became clear to me that I was showing classic symptoms for a vegan’s worst nightmare—a B12 deficiency.
I had blood work done and, my suspicions confirmed, I began taking a regular sublingual B12 supplement. However, my symptoms continued, and I began trying to track down a doctor who could help me figure out what was wrong. Finally, after a ton of unanswered phone calls and appointments that lead nowhere, I had a phone consultation with a doctor a few states away who was both an ND and an MD. She asked if I was taking any prescription medications. “No,” I responded. “Well, only birth control.”
You can imagine my surprise when this doctor told me that birth control, especially high-estrogen-doses like the one I was currently taking, block the body’s natural B12 receptors. Women who eat meat and dairy and take birth control can develop B12 deficiencies, so a vegan on birth control is a recipe for B12 trouble, regardless of how diligent you are with your greens.
I went off birth control and within a few weeks my symptoms were gone. While I wish I had done more research about the medication I was on (which, it turned out, wasn’t even vegan!) I would also like to think that my doctors—especially the one prescribing my meds who knew I was vegan—could make the connection between birth control and B12. Unfortunately, many medical doctors aren’t trained to look at a patient as a whole, but merely focus on the symptoms or issue at hand.
If you’re a vegan, oral birth control probably is not the safest method of contraception. Plus, there currently aren’t any totally vegan friendly pills out there, which many vegans are unaware of—I was, despite my background in health promotion. The only true vegan contraception is vegan condoms, as there is controversy over whether or not the IUD is tested on animals.
Even if you aren’t on birth control, getting your levels of B12, folic acid and iron checked once in a while is a safe idea. Deficiencies in all of these vitamins are common—the doctor I spoke with told me that often severe B12 deficiencies are misdiagnosed as dementia in the elderly! A B12 deficiency is not fun, and if gone unnoticed for long enough, can cause serious and sometimes irreversible damage to your body.
Zoe Eisenberg is a Connecticut based editor and freelance writer, and a new writer for Vegan Mainstream. Her work has appeared in various print and online publications. A holistic health counselor with a background in creative writing and health promotion, Zoe can be found at www.sexytofu.com.
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