How to Avoid Common Nutrient Deficiencies
It may be hard to imagine that we don’t get enough nutrients when we see an abundance of food available 24/7 and many of us are overweight, but it’s true. Studies have shown that Americans may be deficient or have inadequate intake of several essential nutrients. This article will review six nutrients that many of us need more of.
Should you be concerned about being low in one or two vitamins or minerals? In a word, yes. That’s because vitamins and minerals are essential for optimal health. Being low may not cause immediate symptoms, but it puts you at risk for many serious illnesses that can affect your brain, heart, blood, immune system, metabolism, bones, mental health, etc. Nutrients are key pieces your body needs to maintain all of your systems in good working order. Missing just one or two pieces can throw off the delicate balance you need to be healthy and feel great. That’s because most nutrients don’t have just one vital role to play within the body, they play many, many vital roles.
How would you even know if you’re at risk for a nutrient deficiency? It’s not always obvious. Sometimes symptoms aren’t felt for a long time and sometimes they’re very vague and non-specific. For example, fatigue, irritability, aches and pains, decreased immune function, and heart palpitations can be signs of many things, including a nutrient deficiency. Speak to your doctor if you are experiencing symptoms of concern. This article goes over a few commonly deficient nutrients, some of the more obvious symptoms, and foods that are high in each so you can get enough.
1: Vitamin B6
This vitamin is important for your blood, brain and metabolism. Vitamin B6 helps the formation of hemoglobin in the blood (the part that carries oxygen around). It also helps to maintain normal levels of homocysteine (high levels of homocysteine are linked with heart disease). In addition, this vitamin plays an important role in the production of neurotransmitters (chemical messengers allowing nerve cells to communicate with each other). Not to mention the fact that it’s also involved with over 100 enzyme reactions in the body, mostly for metabolism. It is involved in immune function and blood sugar control.
Manifestations of vitamin B6 deficiency include nervousness, depression, insomnia, confusion, irritability, seizures, impaired immune function and a type of anemia called “microcytic” anemia.
Vitamin B6 may be useful in preventing or treating cardiovascular disease, depression and anxiety. It supports heart health, boosts immune function and promotes brain health. These wide-ranging health effects are why Vitamin B6 is so essential for health.
Foods containing B6 include potatoes and other starchy vegetables, bananas, meat, poultry, fish, and whole grains. People who eat high-fiber cereals tend to have higher levels of vitamin B6 because cereals are often fortified with it.
2: Vitamin B12
Like vitamin B6, vitamin B12 is also very important for your blood and brain. It is needed for the creation of healthy red blood cells and the formation of the outer coating of nerve cells (myelin) which is very important for their optimal functioning. It is very involved in immunity and the functioning of the nervous system.
Vitamin B12 can be a bit difficult to absorb from your food. To improve absorption, it’s important to have adequate acid and digestive enzymes in the stomach. This is because the vitamin is very strongly bound to the proteins in food, and stomach acid and enzymes help to break those bonds and free the vitamin so your body can take it in.
Having a vitamin B12 deficiency can be caused by a type of anemia called “pernicious” anemia. Pernicious anemia is an autoimmune disease that affects the stomach and reduces its ability to absorb vitamin B12. A deficiency in vitamin B12 can then lead to a different type of anemia called “megaloblastic” anemia. Low levels of vitamin B12 can also cause neurological damage (due to impaired myelination of nerve cells).
B12 can help prevent or treat cardiovascular disease, skin conditions, back pain, muscle cramps, migraines, anxiety, depression, dementia and cognitive decline.
Vitamin B12 isn’t naturally present in most plant-based foods, except it is found in fortified nutritional yeast products. It is naturally found in dairy, eggs, fish, poultry and meat, and it is particularly high in clams, beef liver, trout and salmon. Many breakfast cereals are fortified with vitamin B12.
A vegetarian or vegan diet is naturally low in B12.
It takes three-five years to deplete the body’s stores if a person has normal body stores of Vitamin B12 and then changes their diet to one that is B12 deficient, or loses their ability to absorb B12 (as in pernicious anemia).
If you are consuming vitamin B12 supplements or eating foods that are fortified with vitamin B12, your levels of stomach acid and digestive enzymes aren’t as critical as they are for the absorption of the vitamin directly from foods. This is because when adding vitamin B12 to foods and supplements, it’s not tightly bound to their proteins and this makes it much more easily absorbed.
3: Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid)
Vitamin C is an antioxidant and plays a role in immune function. Antioxidants reduce the damage caused by free radicals that can worsen chronic diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. It is also important in the production of neurotransmitters and metabolism. It is essential for the formation of collagen used in our connective tissue. vitamin C also helps your body absorb the essential mineral iron, which is also included in this article.
Collagen is a vital component of connective tissue, and this contributes to the symptoms of its deficiency disease, scurvy. Symptoms include weak connective tissue, bleeding, wounds that won’t heal and even the loss of teeth.
You can get vitamin C from many fruits and vegetables. Ones particularly high in vitamin C include bell peppers, oranges and other citrus fruits. Other good sources of vitamin C include kiwifruit, broccoli, strawberries, brussels sprouts, tomato juice, cantaloupe, cabbage and cauliflower. Vitamin C is not naturally present in grains, but some breakfast cereals are fortified with it.
When choosing foods for vitamin C, choose the freshest options because levels of the vitamin naturally reduce over time the longer the food is stored. Try, as much as possible, to eat vitamin C-rich foods raw. If you do cook them, then choose to steam or microwave instead of prolonged boiling because the vitamin is destroyed by heat and is water-soluble.
Vitamin C can be useful in treating or preventing cardiovascular illness, skin conditions and infectious conditions such as colds, influenza and urinary tract infections. It can be helpful with depression and muscle impairments.
4: Vitamin D
Vitamin D, also known as the “sunshine vitamin,” is very important for your bones. It promotes the absorption of the mineral calcium. When your body has enough calcium, it can maintain normal bone mineralization and prevent problems in the muscles that lead to cramps and spasms. Getting enough vitamin D and calcium can also help protect against osteoporosis. Vitamin D also plays a role in neuromuscular function, helps to reduce inflammation, and modulate both immune function and sugar metabolism.
Without enough vitamin D bones can become thin, brittle, or misshapen. Vitamin D prevents these issues known as rickets (in children) and osteomalacia (in adults).
Vitamin D may be useful in treating or preventing infectious diseases such as colds and viruses. Skin conditions such as eczema as well as a variety of other illnesses such as diabetes, depression, fatigue and asthma.
Your skin makes vitamin D when it’s exposed to the ultraviolet rays of the sun, very few foods naturally contain it. The few vitamin D-rich foods include fatty fish and fish liver oils (e.g., salmon, trout, cod liver oil). Other foods that naturally contain small amounts of vitamin D include egg yolks, beef liver and cheese. Some mushrooms can contain vitamin D – particularly those exposed to UV light.
Most of the dietary vitamin D that people in the U.S. get is from fortified foods and beverages. These include some dairy products (mainly milk), certain plant milks (e.g., soy, almond or oat milks), various breakfast cereals and a few types of orange juice. Be sure to look at the nutrition labels to see if and how much vitamin D is in each serving of the food or beverage.
Iron is a mineral essential to transport vital oxygen throughout your body every second of every day. This happens via a compound in your red blood cells called “hemoglobin.” Iron also supports your muscles (like Vitamin D) and your connective tissue (like Vitamin C). Iron is required for proper thyroid function and the production of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Having adequate iron is necessary for physical growth, neurological development, hormone production and the function of your cells.
An iron deficiency is commonly known as “anemia.” Menstruating women tend to be lower in iron simply because of their regular loss of blood. Symptoms of anemia include fatigue and impaired concentration.
Most iron in the body is in the blood, but there is some stored in the liver, spleen, bone marrow and muscles. This is why iron deficiency progresses slowly from depleting your stores (mild iron deficiency), to reducing the number of red blood cells (marginal iron deficiency), before you get to full-out iron deficiency anemia.
Iron is naturally found in many foods in one of two forms: heme and nonheme. Animal-based foods (meat, poultry, fish) contain the more absorbable heme form. Plant-based foods naturally contain nonheme iron. This is where vitamin C comes in. Vitamin C helps your body absorb the nonheme iron from plants, which is why, if plants are a main source of iron in your diet, it’s important to combine iron-rich plants with vitamin C-rich plants in the same meal.
Plant-based sources of iron include blackstrap molasses, leafy green vegetables, fortified cereals, white beans, dark chocolate, lentils and tofu.
Magnesium is one of the most abundant minerals in our bodies. It is a cofactor in more than 300 different enzymes, meaning it is essential for more than 300 different biochemical pathways in your body . It plays a role in bone health, sleep, digestion, heart function and mental health.
It is essential for the production of energy in the form of ATP (adenosine triphosphate – the body’s main storage form of energy). Magnesium is involved in the function of the nervous and cardiac systems. It promotes the widening of blood vessels when needed and has an antispasmodic effect on muscle. It plays a role in the metabolism of carbohydrates and fats and in the production of glutathione – an important antioxidant made by our body.
A mild to moderate magnesium deficiency contributes to anxiety, depression, fatigue, insomnia, irritability, muscle cramps and twitches, loss of concentration, headaches, intestinal complaints, and certain types of cardiac arrhythmias. Deficiency also contributes to osteoporosis, heart disease, and diabetes.
Magnesium may be useful in preventing or treating constipation, and muscle cramps, as well as supporting mental health, bone health and much more.
Foods with magnesium include nuts, pumpkin seeds, whole grains, legumes, leafy green vegetables, fish, meat and dairy products. Boiling vegetables can remove 50-75% of the magnesium present and refining whole grains removes more than 80% of the magnesium.
Eating a nutrient-rich diet with a variety of foods can help everyone achieve their health and nutrition goals. Vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients needed regularly and in adequate amounts for good health. Lacking any one nutrient can have far-reaching consequences. Certain conditions such as chronic stress and intestinal problems make us more susceptible to inadequate nutrition.
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Bird, J. K., Murphy, R. A., Ciappio, E. D., & McBurney, M. I. (2017). Risk of Deficiency in Multiple Concurrent Micronutrients in Children and Adults in the United States. Nutrients, 9(7), 655.
National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Iron fact sheet for health professionals.
National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin B6 fact sheet for health professionals.
National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin B12 fact sheet for health professionals.
National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin C fact sheet for health professionals.
National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin D fact sheet for health professionals.
National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Magnesium fact sheet for health professionals.