6 common nutrient deficiencies
There are many micronutrients needed for optimal health. While it is possible to get them from your diet, there is still a chance you may be deficient since the typical Western diet is known to lack some very important micronutrients.
Mineral and vitamin deficiencies may lead to long-term symptoms and health issues. Thus, it is important to be informed about the most common deficiencies and what the main signals of the body are to tell you something is wrong. The deficiencies listed below are not all that can exist and there is still room for discussion for each one of them. However, this article briefly outlines the main symptoms one may notice in case of a nutritional deficiency.
Please, make sure to contact your doctor or healthcare practitioner if you suspect a nutrient deficiency.
One of the most common signs that there is a lack of protein in the diet is swelling of the limbs – oedema. Proteins that circulate in the blood, especially albumin, help keep fluid from building up in the tissues. When there is not enough albumin, it becomes harder to move important substances throughout the body (Coulthard 2015). There may be other causes of oedema, so it is important to consult your doctor/dietitian.
Additionally, the brain utilises neurotransmitters to transmit information between the cells. All neurotransmitters are made from amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. Lack of dietary protein can lead to a deficiency in the production of neurotransmitters, which would potentially alter brain function. For instance, low levels of dopamine and serotonin (types of neurotransmitters), can lead to depressive symptoms and/or anxiety (Mikstas 2020).
Other signs of protein deficiency include weight loss, brittle nails, hair loss, slow-healing wounds, and fatigue (Arnarson 2017).
Vitamin A deficiency may result from inadequate intake of vitamin A sources, fat malabsorption and/or liver disorders. There are two main types of vitamin A found in foods, preformed vitamin A (known as retinol) and provitamin A.
Food sources of preformed vitamin A include fish oil, liver, egg yolks, butter, and vitamin A-fortified dairy products. Beta-carotene and other provitamin carotenoids found in green and yellow vegetables, carrots and bright fruits are converted to vitamin A. Carotenoids are better absorbed from vegetables when they are cooked and served with a fat source such as olive oil. Normally, the liver stores 80-90% of the vitamin A in the body (NIH 2022).
Vitamin A is required for the formation of rhodopsin – a photoreceptor pigment in the retina. It supports the maintenance of epithelial tissues, and it is essential for the stability of lysosome and glycoprotein synthesis.
An early symptom of vitamin A deficiency includes dry eyes and impaired adaptation of the eyes to the dark which can eventually lead to night blindness. Xerophthalmia results from keratinisation of the eyes. This includes drying and thickening of the conjunctiva and cornea. Superficial foamy spots may develop.
In advanced vitamin A deficiency, the cornea may become cloudy and may develop erosions (Cruz et al. 2005). There may be keratinisation of the skin and mucus membranes in the respiratory, gastrointestinal and urinary tract. This would lead to dryness, scaling, follicular thickening of the skin and respiratory infections (Oh et al. 2010).
Moreover, immunity can also be impaired. Growth retardation and infections are common symptoms in children who tend to suffer more than adults (Hadi et al. 2000).
Low iron intake is an issue, especially for women of childbearing age and young children. A common sign of iron deficiency is fatigue. Other symptoms may include dizziness, headaches, high sensitivity to cold, pale skin and weakness. Children may experience poor appetite and lethargy when they are anaemic (Cafasso and Zimlich 2021).
Meat and seafood provide iron (haem iron) that the body can easily use. There are also plant sources of iron such as lentils, beans, spinach, or fortified cereals. Since the type of iron in plant foods is different (non-haem iron), it is much more difficult for the body to absorb it, so it is recommended to add a source of vitamin C to aid the absorption of plant-based iron.
Pregnant women or those planning to conceive are advised to discuss the need for iron supplementation with a healthcare practitioner.
Many teenagers and elderly as well as people who limit/avoid dairy products are at risk of calcium deficiency (hypocalcaemia). Calcium is an essential mineral that the body utilises to build strong bones and teeth. Moreover, it is needed for proper heart and muscle function (Kahn 2019). Hypocalcaemia may not cause symptoms when it first develops. However, over time, this can lead to weakened bones, fractures, and even abnormal heart rhythms (Biggers 2020).
Many of the benefits of this hormone are still being researched. However, what is known so far is that it is involved in the absorption of calcium in the bones and strengthens the immune system. The symptoms of vitamin D deficiency can include bone pain, muscle weakness and/or increased infection rates (Kennel et al. 2010).
Although the body does not need large amounts of zinc, it is possible to become zinc deficient since it is found in small amounts in food (Nall 2017). This mineral has numerous functions. It is mainly found in bones, teeth, hair, skin, liver, muscles, leukocytes and testes. In addition, zinc is a component of several hundred enzymes, including nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NADH) dehydrogenase, RNA and DNA polymerase, DNA transcription factors as well as alkaline phosphatase, superoxide dismutase and carbonic anhydrase. All of these enzymes enable the proper function of chemical reactions in the body (Nall 2017).
A diet high in fibre and phytates reduces zinc absorption.
Zinc deficiency in children may cause impaired growth, impaired taste (hypogeusia), delayed puberty and hypogonadism. Alopecia, impaired immunity, anorexia, dermatitis, nocturnal sleepiness, anaemia, lethargy, and impaired wound healing are also common symptoms of zinc deficiency both in children and adults (Nall 2017).
Registered dietitians are trained to identify the causes and risk factors of nutritional deficiencies for all age groups. They work with people struggling to meet their nutritional needs and, together with the patient, develop interventions that restore the balance of nutrients. If you experience any of the symptoms above, please make sure to contact a healthcare practitioner.
COULTHARD, M., 2015. Oedema in kwashiorkor is caused by hypoalbuminaemia. Paediatrics and International Childs Health, 35(2), pp. 83-89.
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OH, S-Y. et al., 2010. Antioxidant nutrient intake s and corresponding biomarkers associated with the risk of atopic dermatitis in young children. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 64(2010), pp. 245-252.
HADI, H. et al., 2000. Vitamin A supplementation selectively improves the linear growth of Indonesian preschool children: results from a randomized controlled trial. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 71(2), pp. 507-513.
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KENNEL, K. et al., 2010. Vitamin D Deficiency in Adults: When to test and how to treat. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 85(8), pp. 752-758.
NALL, R., 2017. All you need to know about zinc deficiency. [online]. USA: Medical News Today. Available from: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320393 [Accessed 2 November 2022].