My 'Brain Fog' Was Actually A B12 Deficiency
I had already been to the gynecologist for my annual exam where I’d written on the form that I was experiencing what I thought might be depression. The doctor had met me in the room after making me wait 45 minutes and, though he appeared to look at the questionnaire I’d filled out, he hadn’t asked about the depression. When, at the end of my appointment, he asked if there was anything else I wanted to talk about, I chickened out and told him no.
Now I was at my general practitioner’s office, determined that even if she neglected to look at the form I had filled out, I would tell her about my heavy mood, how hard it was to keep myself awake for a whole day, how forgetful I was, and about the big underlying issue that I was sure was causing it all: I was pretty sure I was gay. That last bit wouldn’t have been any cause for alarm except that at the time I was still in a heterosexual marriage of 16 years.
My doctor listened to me for nearly an hour, writing down as much as she could, trying to tease apart possible physical causes from psychological ones. She recommended a therapist nearby who was well-versed in LGBTQ issues. She thought I might very well need a medication to help with my depression, but first, she wanted to run some blood tests.
When I returned a few weeks later to go over my blood test results with her, she told me I was low in a few key nutrients, all of which could affect energy and mood: iron, vitamin D, and B12.
We agreed that before we would try antidepressants, we would try to get my nutrient levels back up to where they needed to be, the B12 in particular since that was the lowest. My doctor recommended I begin a regimen of B12 shots to inject the vitamin directly into my bloodstream. Needles don’t bother me, and I was desperate to feel better, so that was fine by me. The nurse taught me how to inject myself, though they also gave me the option of coming into the office to have someone do the shot for me at no additional charge. But I wanted to do it myself to avoid wasting time driving to and from the office.
For the first two months, I injected myself with a dose of B12 once per week. After that, once per month. Disclaimer: I am oddly skeptical of medicine. I have this weird psychological thing going on where I convince myself a medicine is only working because I believe it’s working. Kind of like I think it’s a placebo effect even when I wasn’t given a placebo. Even so, I noticed a difference in how I felt once I started giving myself B12 shots. And when I went back to the doctor for my follow-up visit, after having done new labs, we saw that my nutrient levels were back in the normal range.
After a few months, I stopped the shots and switched to a sublingual (under the tongue) over-the-counter B12 supplement. My doctor told me that for B12, sublingual pills absorb better than the kind you simply swallow.
In the past year though, as I’ve separated from my ex-husband and begun my new gay life, I have gotten careless about remembering to take my B12 pills. And, granted, I have many other stressors in my life right now, including going through a divorce and rebuilding my life on my own and figuring out how to co-parent as effectively as possible, but lately I have noticed that I’m feeling “off” again. It’s not exactly a depressed feeling, because I can’t say that I’m grappling with the hopelessness I was experiencing that first time I went to the doctor. It’s more like, if I were allowed to, I would happily sleep all day. My energy levels are in the toilet. Also, my brain feels foggy and I’m embarrassingly forgetful.
Fatigue is the most common symptom of a B12 deficiency. In fact, B12 is known as the “energy vitamin.” Its primary jobs are to assist in the production of DNA and keep your body well-stocked with the red blood cells that distribute oxygen throughout your body. It also assists in the production of myelin, a critical nerve coating that can impact nerve sensation and balance.
B12 isn’t made in the body, so it must be obtained from food like meats, dairy, and fortified grains, or from supplements. For some people, even if they eat the right foods, they may have something else going on, like pernicious anemia or atrophic gastritis, preventing them from absorbing the vitamin.
Besides fatigue, other symptoms of a vitamin B12 deficiency include tingling in the hands and feet, poor balance, confusion, and depression. The tricky thing about some of these symptoms, though, is that most of them can appear as a result of ordinary, everyday stress. What parent among us isn’t exhausted and foggy and in general barely hanging by a thread?
But you know your body, and you know when something just feels off. Like I felt something was off. I knew I was struggling with a private psychological battle, but there was something more than that. In fact, fixing my vitamin deficiencies only made it more clear that my gayness wasn’t going away and I needed to get honest with myself and take steps to live authentically even though I was scared shitless. Because, though I regained my energy with the B12 shots, the other stuff was still there. Getting physically healthier gave me cognitive clarity.
I don’t feel hopeless or trapped the way I did before, though I admit I’m stressed, but the amount of things I forget lately makes me feel sometimes like I’ve had my usual cognitive abilities switched out for a stranger’s. Sometimes I feel like I’m swimming through my thoughts trying to locate a specific thought that keeps swimming away from me. My recall is awful, and I drop words all the time (infuriating for a writer), just like I did last time I learned I had a B12 deficiency.
All of this makes me think it’s time to head back to the doctor for more labs so that we can figure out what might be causing this physical depletion. I don’t know if it’ll be a B12 deficiency or something else, but if you have symptoms like the ones mentioned above — or others that have you feeling a bit “off” — it might be time for you to talk to your doctor too. We all deserve to live our best lives and feel healthy, after all.
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