Vegans face permanent numbness due to vitamin deficiency

Vegans face permanently numb hands and feet ‘if they don’t get enough vitamin B12’ as doctors urge followers of the diet to take the risks seriously

  • Vegans are at higher risk of developing  peripheral neuropathy, experts warned
  • Irreversible condition develops when nerves damaged due to lack of vitamin B12
  • Milk is high in B12, but plant-based substitutes don’t have enough of the vitamin 

Vegans are being warned they face permanent numbness in their hands and feet due to a lack of a vital vitamin in their diets.

Experts say followers of the plant-based diet must take vitamin B12 supplements to prevent the onset of peripheral neuropathy.

The irreversible condition develops when nerves become damaged, which causes permanent numbness or ‘pins and needles’. 

Most people get vitamin B12, which keeps the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy, from cow’s milk.

But plant-based milk substitutes do not have enough of the vitamin protect people from becoming deficient.

Most people get vitamin B12, which keeps nerves the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy, from cow’s milk

It develops when nerves in the body’s extremities, such as the hands, feet and arms, are damaged. 

The symptoms depend on which nerves are affected.

The peripheral nervous system is the network of nerves that lie outside the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord).

It includes different types of nerves with their own specific functions, including:

  • sensory nerves – responsible for transmitting sensations, such as pain and touch
  • motor nerves – responsible for controlling muscles
  • autonomic nerves – responsible for regulating automatic functions of the body, such as blood pressure and bladder function

In the UK it’s estimated almost one in 10 people aged 55 or over are affected by peripheral neuropathy.

The main symptoms of peripheral neuropathy can include:

  • numbness and tingling in the feet or hands
  • burning, stabbing or shooting pain in affected areas
  • loss of balance and co-ordination
  • muscle weakness, especially in the feet

These symptoms are usually constant, but may come and go.

Causes of peripheral neuropathy

In the UK diabetes (both type 1 and type 2) is the most common cause of peripheral neuropathy.

Over time, the high blood sugar levels associated with diabetes can damage the nerves.

This type of nerve damage is known as diabetic polyneuropathy.

Peripheral neuropathy can also have a wide range of other causes.

  • For example, it can be caused by:
  • vitamin B12 deficiency
  • physical injury to the nerves
  • a viral infection, such as shingles
  • a side effect of certain medicines or drinking too much alcohol

 Source: NHS

Young festival-goers following a vegan diet are most at risk, said Tom Sanders, a professor emeritus of nutrition and dietetics at King’s College London.

He said: ‘Kids these days inhale laughing gas.

‘There is a danger of young people going vegan, not having B12 and it could tip the balance to them getting a serious neuropathy.’

Laughing gas can cause vitamin B12 deficiency, too.

It could be easily fixed if manufacturers of plant-based milks upped the vitamin B12 quantity in their products by three times.  

Professor Sanders said a small UK study on 172 vegan men had shown around a fifth of participants were likely to be ‘seriously deficient’.

He said he was ‘really quite shocked’ at the findings, from 2003, and ‘concerned that many vegans think it’s a myth’. 

The warning comes as thousands of Britons gear up to take up veganism in the new year as part of Veganuary.

They should look into adding supplements to their diet if they continue past the first month, according to Tim Key, professor of epidemiology at the University of Oxford.

He said: ‘You’re not going to get vitamin B12 deficiency in one month in Veganuary, 

‘But if people become vegan because of that and never actually bother to read up on what you need to eat as a vegan, I would be worried they don’t know about B12, and it’s clearly important.

‘I’m worried that doesn’t always happen with people becoming vegan now, they just think vegan food is OK, I’ll eat it, and that’s it.’

The experts, speaking at a Science Media Centre briefing, also warned that vegans should be aware of the rise of vegan ‘fast food’.

They said there has been a ‘rapid, large increase in processed foods that look like animal foods but are not really designed to be nutritionally equivalent or better’.

Peripheral neuropathy affects around one in 10 people over 55, as circulation gets poorer with age.

Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes are the most common cause of the incurable condition.

Over time, the high blood sugar levels associated with diabetes can damage the nerves.

Physical injuries, viral infections and alcohol abuse may also trigger the disorder.


A lack of vitamin B12 can lead to vitamin B12 deficiency anaemia.

This occurs when the body produces abnormally large red blood cells that cannot function properly.

Red blood cells carry oxygen around the body in a substance called haemoglobin.

Anaemia is defined as having either fewer red blood cells than normal or abnormally low haemoglobin in each cell.

Vitamin B12 deficiency is more common in older people, affecting one in 10 over 75. 

Symptoms include:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Pins and needles
  • Sore, red tongue
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Muscle weakness
  • Poor vision
  • Psychological problems, like depression and confusion
  • Poor memory, understanding or judgement

Vitamin B12 deficiency can be brought on by pernicious anaemia, which occurs when the immune system attacks healthy cells in the stomach, leaving them unable to absorb the vitamin.

A lack of B12 in your diet can occur if you are vegan due to it largely only being in animal products.

Good food sources include meat, salmon, cod, dairy, eggs and fortified cereals.

Most people can get all the vitamin B12 they need from their diet, however, vegans may need to take a daily 1.5microgram supplement. 

And medications, such as anticonvulsants, can affect how much vitamin B12 the body absorbs.

Treatment is usually vitamin B12 supplements or injections.

Left untreated, deficiency can cause nervous system problems, infertility, heart conditions, pregnancy complications and birth defects.

The nervous system problems can be permanent even after treatment. 

Source: NHS Choices 

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