In theory, following a balanced diet that has grains, vegetables, fruits and quality sources of protein should provide us with all of the essential micronutrients (i.e., vitamins and minerals) that we need.
In practice, however, micronutrient deficiencies tend to occur because we don’t always account for a number of factors like –
Our lifestyles: a hectic lifestyle tends to make it difficult for us to follow a diet that’s diverse enough to provide all our required micronutrients. And then there’s vitamin D3: even though we can make it on our own from sunlight, today’s largely indoor lifestyles, coupled with a lack of dietary sources of this essential nutrient, have made vitamin D3 deficiency very common in India.1
Our body’s absorption of nutrients: issues ranging from stomach infections and binge drinking all the way up to our genetics can even affect the way our body absorbs nutrients, despite getting them from our diet.
The quality of the food we eat: differences in farming techniques, the use of fertilizers and pesticides, depletion of nutrients in the top soil and a long journey from the farm to our table – all of these impact the levels of micronutrients in the produce we get. For instance, a 2013 study showed that carrots bought in Mumbai had significantly lower levels of nutrients than those grown 160kms away on an organic farm in Nasik.2
Addressing these issues or simply topping up with nutritional supplements can fix deficiencies, but there’s a bigger problem: how do we know we have them? Nutritional deficiencies tend to build up over time and only cause serious symptoms after reaching dangerously low levels.
Knowing some of the warning signs of common nutritional deficiencies can help us take charge of our long term health. Here are a few of the most common ones –
Widely attributed to the weather (which, in many cases, is justified), dry skin can also be caused by an insufficient intake of essential fatty acids, vitamin E and vitamin A. Essential fats, especially the omega 3 family, are notoriously low in modern diets, and including a source of omega 3 fats such as flaxseed oil or seafood can help restore normal levels.3
Muscle/Joint Pain, Cracking Joints, or Slow Muscle Recovery After Exercise
A vitamin D3 deficiency can cause issues with our joints and muscles, since the vitamin controls our absorption of calcium, which is a structural component of our bones. Spending time in the sun and having vitamin D3 supplements are easy ways to increase its levels, but severe cases may require vitamin D3 injections.4, 5
Although falling or thinning hair can be caused by a variety of factors, it’s mainly a result of our hormones and genetics.
However, given that our hair is almost entirely made of protein, an inadequate supply of protein in our diet can also lead to hair loss. Moreover, our hair requires a number of micronutrients (such as biotin, vitamin D, niacin, iron, zinc) in order to grow in a healthy manner. A deficiency in any of these nutrients could very well contribute to easily shed/damaged hair. In that case, reversing hair loss could be as simple as correcting the deficiency through dietary changes or supplementation.
While these can be caused by infectious diseases, they commonly occur because of a deficiency in B-complex vitamins, especially vitamin B12.
Our body can’t store B vitamins: what doesn’t get used by our body gets removed along with urine, since these vitamins dissolve in water (vitamin B12 is an exception – we can store a small quantity of it, which gets depleted when there is a dietary deficiency). This makes it imperative to consume sufficient quantities of B vitamins regularly. Most B vitamins are found in grains and vegetables – but vitamin B12’s supply is limited in a vegetarian diet. Turning to a B-complex supplement may be the easiest way for vegetarians to resolve mouth ulcers.6, 7
Cramps in Lower Legs
Proper muscle functioning requires the presence of potassium, magnesium and calcium. The levels of these minerals are intrinsically linked to each other, and a deficiency in any one can lead to painful cramps in the lower extremities. In the absence of other conditions such as dehydration, the cause is quite likely to be a deficiency of magnesium, because it isn’t as freely available as calcium and potassium in our diets. We can increase our consumption of foods like dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, fish, beans, whole grains, yoghurt, bananas, etc., to get enough magnesium in our diet.8
Weak, Spotted or Ridged Nails
While the same nutrient deficiencies that cause hair loss can impact our nail quality, a deficiency of zinc is also a common cause of weak, spotted or ridged nails. Foods rich in zinc include shellfish, meat, whole grains and dairy products. It’s important to note that supplementing with zinc should be done under guidance, as too much can cause complications in the long run.
Worsening Night Vision
In addition to having antioxidant and skin care benefits, vitamin A, or ‘Retinol’, is essential for our eyes’ health – which is why its deficiency can lead to worsening night vision. A simple way to get more vitamin A through the diet is by eating orange coloured fruits and vegetables, since these are high in beta-carotene, a carotenoid (healthy plant pigment) that converts to vitamin A in our body.9
This (as with the rest of the symptoms listed here) is just an example of how the nutrients in our food are instrumental to our health. Simply identifying these changes in our body can help us address potential deficiencies before they get more serious – and spreading the word can help others stay aware, too.
1. Gupta et al. Nutrients 2014, 6(2): 729 – 775.
3. Cosgrove et al. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2007,86 (4): 1225 – 1231.
4. Angeline et al. The American Journal of Sports Medicine 2013, 41 (2): 461 – 464.
5. Holick. The New England Journal of Medicine 2007, 357: 266-281.
6. Weusten et al. The Netherlands Journal of Medicine 1998, 53 (4): 172-175
7. Nolan et al. Journal of Oral Pathology and Medicine 2006, 20 (8): 289 – 391
8. Sills et al. Medical Science Monitor 2002, 8 (5): 326 – 330
9. Douglas Taren, WHO Report (http://www.who.int/nutrition/publications/micronutrients/ background_paper1_report_assessment_vitAandIron_status.pdf)