Nutritional Deficiencies: Causes, Signs, and Prevention

picture of a knife and cutting board with eggs, mushrooms, avocadoes, shallots and spinach to show nutritional variety to avoid deficiencies
Photo by Katie Smith on Unsplash

Nutritional deficiencies- once thought to be the result of malnutrition, due to lack of availability of food, can creep in despite an abundant availability of food. In this post we will explore the causes and signs of nutritional deficiencies, and what we can do to prevent them.

What Are Nutrients?

Nutrients are complex components of food needed for health and vitality. The major classes of nutrients are Macronutrients (Carbohydrates, Fats, Proteins and Water) and Micronutrients (Vitamins and Minerals and more recently phytochemicals)

What Are Nutritional Deficiencies?

Food is central to the survival and growth of any living organism. A human being can go for at least 21 days without food. Anything beyond that depends on the human and their biochemistry. We know that if we deny ourselves food indefinitely, we will eventually die. Food provides fuel (aka energy) to support all metabolic and chemical functions which support life functions such as digestion, reproduction, cognition, and movement. So as long as we eat some food we should be able to sustain life.

It turns out that not only do we need to eat food, we need to eat a variety of foods.

Our ancestors knew instinctively that the prevention of disease was not just about keeping germs and poisons at bay but also depended on certain components of food to sustain health and vitality. For instance, the ancient Egyptians would feed liver to a person with night blindness. They knew instinctively what Nutritional Science has revealed- that liver is a concentrated source of Vitamin A (retinol) which is protective of vision. Our ancestors observed that limiting the variety of foods in their diets resulted in a loss of vitality. This was evident in the ocean voyagers who went for extended periods without access to fresh fruits and vegetables resulting in Scurvy. According to Catherine Price, in her article, The Age of Scurvy -“Scurvy killed over two million sailors between the time of Columbus’s transatlantic voyage and the rise of steam engines in the mid-19th century. According to historian Stephen Bown, scurvy was responsible for more deaths at sea than storms, shipwrecks, combat, and all other diseases combined.”

Who knew that solution would be Vitamin C?

It was not until 1747, that the Scottish surgeon, James Lind, made the connection between citrus fruits and the prevention of Scurvy; however, ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), was not discovered until the 1930s.

Yet another impact of restricted diets was discovered in 1884 by Takaki Kanehiro, a medical doctor of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Kanehiro observed that the disease, beriberi, which can affect both the heart and the nervous system, was endemic among low-ranking crew who often ate nothing but rice. We now know that this is because of a Vitamin B1 deficiency; this vitamin is present in whole grains such as brown rice but is removed when the grain is processed or polished.

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, scientists isolated and identified several vital components in food. In the 1800s chemists recognized and credited the macronutrients, carbohydrates and fats as energy sources in food. However though the presence of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) was evident (primarily through their deficiencies as noted above) it was not until 1912, the Polish chemist, Casimir Funk, coined the term Vitamins (vital amines). In 934 the first multivitamin pill was formulated taking nutritional science to the next level.

Thus we see that food is comprised of various complex organic and inorganic components (nutrients) necessary for health and vitality. The Macronutrients are ones we need in larger amounts and the Micronutrients in minute quantities. When we are lacking any one component or the proportions of the various components are imbalanced, it leads to nutritional deficiencies.

What Causes Nutritional Deficiencies?

Nutritional deficiencies can be caused by several factors as listed below-

Depleted Soil

Some of us are not eating the recommended seven daily servings of fruits and vegetables. Even if we are, we wonder with soil pollution and depletion, are we getting enough of the nutrients we need. According to an NBC news report1, “In 2004, Donald Davis, Ph.D., a former researcher with the Biochemical Institute at the University of Texas, Austin, led a team that analyzed 43 fruits and vegetables from 1950 to 1999 and reported reductions in vitamins, minerals, and protein. Using USDA data, he found that broccoli, for example, had 130 mg of calcium in 1950. Today, that number is only 48 mg.”

Restricted Diets

A diet may be considered restricted if we cut out any of the main food groups from it; The food groups include-whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, meat and poultry, dairy, and nuts, seeds, oils, and fats.  Those of us who are vegetarian or vegan and may not be consuming a larger variety of plant-based proteins may become deficient in certain essential (that our bodies cannot make nor do without) amino acids, preformed Vitamin A, Vitamin B-12 and fatty acids (DHA, EPA in particular); New dietary trends that favor certain food groups over others (examples are Keto and Paleo diets) may inadvertently contribute to nutritional deficiencies long term. Picky eaters (usually children but also many adults) eat the same limited variety of foods repeatedly. Food intolerances (grains, eggs, and dairy among others) may also limit an individual’s diet and nutritional support may be needed.

Standard American Diet

junk food refined flour chips snacks lead to nutritional deficiencies

Refined flour, refined sugars, trans fats, fast foods, and processed foods dominate the Standard American Diet (S.A.D). The overly processed food products are lacking in vital nutrients. They are fortified with synthetic vitamins; However, they are usually loaded with chemicals that have little nutritional value, and have been labeled as “empty calories”. These are not only lacking in nutrients but can also deplete the body of critical minerals. For example, a diet high in processed sugars will deplete the mineral magnesium.

Digestive Dysfunction

Fresh fruits and vegetables are an excellent source of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, but these must be extracted from food during digestion and subsequently absorbed into the bloodstream. This is a challenge for many individuals who lack the enzymes for optimum digestive function or are not practicing mindful eating nor chewing their food adequately.

Limited Exposure to Sunlight

Low levels of Vitamin D are implicated in a host of diseases, including cancer. So, for those of us who cannot get enough safe sun exposure or are sensitive to sunlight, supplementing with vitamin D3 pills or cream is beneficial.

Pharmaceutical Drugs and Nutrient Depletion

Chronic and consistent use of some pharmaceutical drugs may also deplete certain nutrients from our bodies. For example, Statin drugs used to lower cholesterol may reduce CoQ 10, a naturally occurring enzyme in the body that regulates muscle cell function. Certain blood pressure medications may lower zinc.

Chronic Illnesses /Chronic Stress

We know that nutritional demands on the body increase when the immune system is overloaded. Have we not looked at Vitamin C and Zinc supplements for relief from the common cold? Chronic illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, and autoimmune disorders also increase the body’s demand for these micronutrients. An individual may require additional nutritional support post-surgery. During times of chronic stress, magnesium and B vitamins are depleted to fulfill increased demands for energy.

Signs of Nutritional Deficiencies

woman looking ill and tired holding medications in her palm-signs of deficiencies

Nutritional deficiencies may be the underlying cause of some chronic symptoms for which there is no concrete medical diagnoses, or worse yet- a misdiagnosis because symptoms of nutritional deficiencies can mimic medical conditions and vice versa. Thus, it is advisable to consult a physician to rule out any medical conditions for any symptoms you may be experiencing.

Some general signs of nutritional (primarily vitamins and minerals) deficiencies are listed here-

Fatigue/Malaise
Muscle soreness, cramps
Weakness
Headaches
Anemia
Swollen joints
Hair loss
Brittle or spotted nails
Nervous issues
Anxiety, depression, heart palpitations
Skin problems-flaky, dry, bumps

For a list of different symptoms associated with specific vitamin deficiencies you can click here

What Can We Do?

picture of fruits and vegetables that says eat the best leave the rest

Eat whole foods in their natural form as much as possible- the nutrients in food are present along with complexes which have a synergistic effect on their benefits as compared to isolated synthetic nutrients. Eating a variety is key. Plant-based foods have thousands of phytochemicals that have both antioxidant and inflammatory benefits. Processed foods are devoid of natural vitamins and often fortified with synthetic vitamins lacking enzymes and synergy.

Optimal digestion is crucial to maximizing nutrient absorption. Chewing our food well and relaxing while eating is imperative for optimal digestion. Stress will turn off digestion so take the time to taste, smell, and engage with your food. (If you like to pray over/bless the food, go for it!)

Avoid sugary beverages and foods that rob crucial nutrients-Consuming copious amounts of sugar (the FDA recommends 8-10 tsp daily but most our consuming up to 60 tsp, a subject for another blog!) Sugar acts like an “anti-nutrient” robbing the body of critical minerals like Magnesium and B Vitamins.

Healthy fats and proteins are needed for building neurotransmitters, hormones, immune health, detoxification, and a host of other functions. Include healthy animal fats from grass-fed or pasture-raised sources. Plant sources of fats include extra virgin olive, avocado, coconut oils, and nuts and seeds.

Water is essential to life. It is included as a macronutrient and not only transports all nutrients, detoxifies but also participates in energy metabolism.

Chronic stress is a robber of nutrients and shuts down healing and repair. Incorporating stress handling practices (yoga, nature walks, music, meditation, prayer) is crucial for nutritional balance as well.

Practice in Community. You may have heard the adage, wellness begins with ‘we’. True words! We tend to absorb habits and tendencies of the people we hang out with so why not join a group or include a friend or two in your resolve to incorporate these wellness practices into your life? After all, “Two are better than one… … A cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:9–12)

The purpose of this blog is to educate so the reader can make informed choices regarding causes, signs, and prevention of nutritional deficiencies. This post is not to be used as a medical diagnosis or substitute for your physician’s advice. Please consult with your healthcare provider if you are on any medications before you make any lifestyle or dietary changes because these can either interfere with or reduce the required dosage for your medications.

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