I know from fellow sufferers that some swear by taking extra vitamin B12 against restless legs. I also take a supplement of for this part of the year. Initially, however, I did not immediately think of a connection with RLS.
As a vegetarian, it is less obvious to me that I get enough from food. Vitamin B12 is only found in animal products. I had previously read about the possible consequences of a deficiency and partly on that basis decided to see whether a supplement would be useful for me.
In order to gain more insight into vitamin B12 and the possible connection with restless legs, I will go into the following questions in more detail in this blog:
- What is vitamin B12 and what do you need it for?
- What’s it in?
- Is there a link between vitamin B12 and restless legs?
What is vitamin B12 and what do you need it for
Vitamin B12 is an important nutrient and occurs in the human body in two forms:
Methylcobalamin is required, among other things, for the production of DNA and various neurotransmitters. You need adenosylcobalamin for your energy management and for the production of red blood cells.
The human body can also produce vitamin B12 in the intestines, but it cannot be absorbed there. So you have to get it from food. The body stores a supply, often for at least 3 years. When this stock runs out, a shortage arises. Such a shortage does not arise from one day to the next, but it is also not quickly remedied.
Vitamin B12 affects many systems in our body, including:
- Nervous system
- Immune system
- Cardiovascular system
- Gastrointestinal system
Because it is involved in so many bodily processes, a deficiency can be revealed in many different ways. In the longer term, these are often neurological complaints, but also psychological complaints, for example.
Interestingly for people with RLS, there may be a link between a vitamin B12 deficiency and iron or folic acid deficiency. I wrote a blog before about the link between iron and restless legs. A folic acid deficiency has also been associated with pregnancy.
Other causes of vitamin B12 deficiency are:
- Not enough from food (vegetarians and vegans)
- Reduced absorption due to an autoimmune disease or infection
- Long-term use of certain medications
- Chronic inflammation of the gastric mucosa
- Bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease
What’s it in
Vitamin B12 is found in animal products, such as:
It can also be found in plant products such as seaweed and algae. However, it is less well absorbed from this form than from animal products.
This is comparable to the absorption of iron from food. Animal products contain heme iron and vegetable non-heme iron. Heme iron is better absorbed than non-heme iron. A vegetarian or vegan must therefore eat a lot more than a meat eater for the same effect. (See my blog about iron.)
Above I already indicated that a shortage of vitamin B12 can be related to a shortage of iron. Vegetarians and vegans therefore seem extra vulnerable to both a vitamin B12 and iron deficiency.
Vitamin B12 and restless legs
It seems to me a tricky matter to determine whether it is really or just a vitamin B12 deficiency that causes restless legs. You can periodically test whether taking a supplement provides relief from the complaints. Even then, however, it is difficult to isolate any effect from all possible other factors involved.
It is my suspicion that secondary RLS, i.e. RLS in which the condition arises from something else (another disease or a deficiency), always involves a combination of deficiencies. One shortage causes other shortages, so to speak. An example of this is what I wrote above about the (possible) relationship between deficiencies in iron, vitamin B12 and folic acid. The human body is a complex system in which each part affects other parts.
Be that as it may, if you suspect a vitamin B12 deficiency, see your doctor or other health professional. Based on the results, you can adjust your diet if necessary or take a (oral) supplement periodically. Your doctor will only give injections in case of serious complaints.