7 Common Nutrient Deficiencies: Know the Signs
The hidden cause of common symptoms such as fatigue and muscle aches could be a nutrient deficiency.
By Elizabeth Shimer Bowers and Moira Lawler
Medically Reviewed by Lynn Grieger, RDN, CDCES
Last Updated: March 9, 2021
vitamins and minerals
If you think you may have a nutrient deficiency, talk to your doctor, who may recommend a supplement.
You may think nutrient deficiencies are a thing of the past, experienced only by sailors on long sea voyages. But even today, it’s possible to lack some of the essential nutrients your body needs to function optimally.
“Nutrient deficiencies alter bodily functions and processes at the most basic cellular level,” says Tricia L. Psota, PhD, RDN, a lecturer in the exercise and nutrition sciences department at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health in Washington, DC. “These processes include water balance, enzyme function, nerve signaling, digestion, and metabolism. Resolving these deficiencies is important for optimal growth, development, and function.”
Nutrient deficiencies can also lead to diseases. “For example, calcium and vitamin D deficiencies can cause osteopenia or osteoporosis, two conditions marked by brittle bones,” says Kate Patton, RD, a dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. “And inadequate iron can cause anemia, which zaps your energy.”
Telltale symptoms are usually the first clue that you are low in one or more important vitamins or minerals, says Patton. Here’s how to recognize seven common nutrient deficiencies.
- Calcium: Numb, Tingling Fingers and Abnormal Heart Rhythm
Calcium is important for maintaining strong bones and controlling muscle and nerve function, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Signs of severely low calcium include numb, tingling fingers and abnormal heart rhythms, says the Cleveland Clinic. That said, there are no short-term, obvious symptoms of calcium deficiency.
Most adults need 1,000 milligrams (mg) of calcium each day, though women over 50 and men over 70 need 1,200 mg, per the Mayo Clinic. Patton says you’ll likely get enough from at least three servings of milk or yogurt a day. Cheese is another good source of calcium, but if you’re not big on dairy, you can find this nutrient in calcium-fortified orange juice or breakfast cereal (check the nutrition facts label of the food to see if calcium has been added), and dark leafy greens like kale and broccoli, according to the NIH.
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- Vitamin D: Fatigue, Bone Pain, Mood Shifts, and More
This vitamin is another that’s crucial for bone health and may also prevent some cancers, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Symptoms of a vitamin D deficiency can be vague — fatigue, bone pain, mood changes, and muscle aches or weakness may set in.
“If it goes on long term, a vitamin D deficiency can lead to softening of the bones,” Psota says. Long-lasting deficiency also may be linked with cancers and autoimmune diseases, says Michelle Zive, an NASM-certified nutrition coach based in San Diego.
According to the NIH, most adults need 15 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin D each day, and adults older than 70 need 20 mcg. Patton suggests having three servings of fortified milk or yogurt daily and eating fatty fish, such as salmon or tuna, twice a week, as these are foods that contain vitamin D; spend some time outside in the sunshine every day, too, as this is a great source of the nutrient. Ten to 30 minutes a few times a week of direct sunlight exposure should help, Zive says.
- Potassium: Muscle Weakness, Constipation, Irregular Heart Rhythm, and More
Potassium helps your heart, nerves, and muscles work properly and also delivers nutrients to cells while removing waste, according to MedlinePlus. Plus, it’s a useful nutrient that helps offset sodium’s negative impact on your blood pressure: “It’s important in maintaining a healthy blood pressure,” Zive says.
You could become low in potassium in the short term because of diarrhea or vomiting; excessive sweating; antibiotics, laxatives, or diuretics; excessive alcohol consumption; or because of a chronic condition such as kidney disease, per the Mayo Clinic. Symptoms of a deficiency include muscle weakness, twitches, or cramps; constipation; tingling and numbness; and an abnormal heart rhythm or palpitations, says MedlinePlus.
For natural potassium sources, try bananas, milk, acorn squash, lentils, and kidney beans and other legumes. Adult men need 3,400 mg each day, and women need 2,600 mg, according to the NIH.
- Iron: Fatigue, Shortness of Breath, Cold Hands and Feet, Brittle Nails, and More
Iron is necessary to produce red blood cells, which carry oxygen throughout the body, according to the University of California in San Francisco. When iron levels get too low, there may be a deficiency in red blood cells, resulting in a condition called anemia. Some groups at increased risk of iron deficiency include menstruating women, growing individuals (such as children and pregnant women), and those following a vegan or vegetarian diet, Zive says.
Anemia can leave you with symptoms including weakness and fatigue, shortness of breath, a fast heartbeat, pale skin, headache, cold hands and feet, a sore or swollen tongue, brittle nails, and cravings for strange things like dirt, according to the Mayo Clinic. The symptoms may be so mild at first that you don’t notice something’s wrong, but as iron stores become more depleted, they will become more intense.
To boost iron levels, Patton recommends eating iron-fortified cereal, beef, oysters, beans (especially lima, navy, and kidney beans), lentils, and spinach. Adult men and women over 50 need 8 mg per day, and adult women younger than 50 need 18 mg each day, according to the NIH.
- Vitamin B12: Numbness, Fatigue, Swollen Tongue, and More
Vitamin B12 aids the production of red blood cells and DNA, and also improves neurotransmitter function, according to the NIH. Vegetarians and vegans may be at particular risk for vitamin B12 deficiency because plants don’t make the nutrient, and people who’ve had weight loss surgery may also lack B12 because the procedure makes it difficult for the body to extract the nutrient from food, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Symptoms of severe B12 deficiency include numbness in the legs, hands, or feet; problems with walking and balance; anemia; fatigue; weakness; a swollen, inflamed tongue; memory loss and difficulty thinking, per Harvard Health Publishing. These symptoms can come on quickly or gradually, and since there’s such a wide range in symptoms, you may not notice them for a while.
Adults need 2.4 mcg of B12 per day, according to the NIH. It’s most commonly found in animal products, and Patton recommends fish, chicken, milk, and yogurt to boost your B12 levels. If you’re vegan or vegetarian, Zive suggests opting for foods fortified with B12, such as plant-based milk and breakfast cereals. You can also find B12 in most multivitamins, according to the NIH, but if you’re at risk of being deficient, you can take a supplement specifically containing B12.
Source: Everyday Health
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