How Does Alcohol Interfere With Vitamin B12?

by Sharon Perkins

About Sharon Perkins

A registered nurse with more than 25 years of experience in oncology, labor/delivery, neonatal intensive care, infertility and ophthalmology, Sharon Perkins has also coauthored and edited numerous health books for the Wiley "Dummies" series. Perkins also has extensive experience working in home health with medically fragile pediatric patients.

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Alcohol in large quantities can damage not only the liver and pancreas but also the intestinal tract. Many alcoholics develop vitamin deficiencies from poor absorption in the intestine, as well as poor diet. B-complex vitamin deficiencies occur more frequently in alcoholics than in other people. Poor vitamin B-12 absorption can lead to anemia since B-12 is essential for red blood cell formation.

Mechanism

Alcohol has a toxic effect on cells. Cells that line the intestine can become inflamed, a condition called gastritis. Since nutrients are absorbed through the intestinal lining, inflamed cells can’t function properly and fewer nutrients enter the bloodstream. Cells in the pancreas are also damaged by alcohol ingestion. Since the pancreas produces enzymes necessary for fat, protein and carbohydrate absorption, foods can’t be properly broken down if the enzymes aren’t released. Vitamin B deficiencies develop more quickly when alcohol accounts for a major part of the diet.

Effects

When B-12 isn’t absorbed, blood levels fall. B-12 blood levels less than 170 to 250 picograms per milliliter indicate a B-12 deficiency in adults, the Office of Dietary Supplements reports. Folate deficiency, another B-complex vitamin, often occurs in conjunction with B-12 deficiency in alcoholics. Taking folate supplements without B-12 supplements can mask vitamin B-12 deficiency by correcting the anemia without correcting the neurological damage, which can become permanent, the Office of Dietary Supplements warns.

Results

Vitamin B-12 deficiency leads to anemia, a lack of red blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen to tissues throughout the body. A lack of red blood cells can cause a lack of oxygen to tissues. Symptoms include fatigue upon exertion, shortness of breath, pallor, loss of appetite, diarrhea or a swollen red tongue. Long-term B-12 deficiency can cause numbness and tingling in the extremities, confusion, dementia, difficulty maintaining balance or depression.

Treatment

Alcoholics who develop B-12 deficiency may require B-12 injections, since they may not be able to absorb oral supplements of B-12. Injections are given first every day, then every week and finally every month until the condition improves, MedlinePlus reports. In alcoholics, treating the condition may eliminate the need for B-12 supplements.

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This article reflects the views of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Jillian Michaels or JillianMichaels.com.