Health & Medicine

Neurological symptoms might have a surprising cause: vitamin deficiency

Dr. Scott Bridges
Dr. Scott Bridges Photo provided

Fueling your body with proper nutrition is crucial for a brain to function well. It’s like filling your car with the proper fuel. When the body doesn’t get the vitamins it needs, neurological symptoms, including numbness, memory loss or difficulty walking, may occur.

Nutritional deficiencies can occur because of poor diet, but they also can be caused by a medical condition or disease that prevents the body from properly absorbing nutrients. Some of the more common deficiencies that create neurological problems include vitamin B12, vitamin B1 (thiamine) and copper deficiencies.

Like other B vitamins, B12 helps the body convert food into fuel and helps the nervous system and brain function properly. Symptoms of a B12 shortage in the body include numbness or pain in extremities, difficulty walking, weakness, memory loss and, in severe cases, dementia.

A deficiency in vitamin B12 often is caused by autoimmune conditions that prevent the intestines from absorbing the vitamin. Such conditions include Crohn’s disease, celiac disease and pernicious anemia. It also has been linked to the use of acid-reducing drugs for a long period, as well as heavy drinking. Vegans are prone to vitamin B12 deficiency, because the vitamin is found in meat, poultry, seafood, eggs and dairy products.

Treatment usually consists of vitamin B12 injections. The shots are administered into the muscle tissue about once a month at a physician’s office.

Less common is vitamin B1, or thiamine, deficiency. It can be caused by anorexia or alcoholism. It also can occur in pregnant women with extreme nausea and vomiting, someone with Crohn’s disease, or those undergoing kidney dialysis.

The neurological complications from vitamin B1 deficiency are often referred to as Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome. Symptoms include double vision, difficulty walking, memory loss and, in severe cases, coma and death. The deficiency can be treated with intravenous injections of thiamine into a muscle or vein under medical supervision.

Copper deficiency also can lead to seemingly unrelated neurological symptoms, and it’s most commonly linked to a poor diet. Copper is a mineral found throughout the body that helps make red blood cells and energy, and it keeps nerve cells and the immune system healthy. It’s found in seafood, organ meats, nuts, legumes, chocolate, fruits and vegetables, and enriched cereals.

Those with high levels of zinc in their diets, who have undergone gastric bypass surgeries, or alcoholics also are at risk. Symptoms of copper deficiency are similar to those of B12 deficiency and include muscle weakness, numbness or tingling in the extremities, vision loss, difficulty walking and tremors.

These vitamin deficiencies are not routinely monitored in standard medical visits and annual blood tests. If you’re experiencing neurological symptoms such as the ones described, talk with your doctor to see whether a nutritional deficiency might be the cause.

Dr. Scott Bridges is with KentuckyOne Health Neurology Associates.