To function optimally, your body needs a variety of nutrients. While a balanced diet should provide all the nutrients you need, sometimes people do become deficient in certain nutrients. Knowing the signs of nutrient deficiency can help you identify if you are missing one or more important nutrients. If you are, then you can take steps to correct the deficiency. You may want to consult a doctor for testing and supplementation recommendations and/or adjust your diet accordingly. In this article, we’ll look at some of the most common nutrient deficiencies and their warning signs.
Iron Deficiency: Fatigue, Shortness Of Breath, Paleness, And More
Iron is an essential mineral. It performs important functions in the body including forming red blood cells and carrying oxygen throughout the body. A lack of iron can lead to anemia, a condition in which there are not enough red blood cells to carry oxygen.
Signs of iron deficiency include (7):
- Feeling tired all the time
- Having a hard time breathing
- Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
- Having pale skin and/or conjunctiva
- Suffering from brittle nails
- Having cold hands and feet
- Being irritable
Certain people are more at risk of iron deficiency than others.
They include (7):
- Menstruating women
- Pregnant women
- People who donate blood frequently
- People who have a vegetarian or vegan diet
There are two types of dietary iron:
- Heme iron. It is found in animal foods, especially red meat. It is very well-absorbed.
- Non-heme iron. It is found in both animal and plant foods. It is not absorbed as easily as heme iron.
So, if you’re iron deficient, or at risk of it, including the following foods in your diet may help:
- Lean red meat
- Dark green leafy vegetables
- Dried fruits
- Fortified breakfast cereals, bread, and pasta
Vitamin C enhances the absorption of non-heme iron (6). So, eating vitamin C-rich foods like citrus fruits, strawberries, and bell peppers, along with iron-rich foods, can help increase your body’s absorption of the mineral.
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Calcium Deficiency: Muscle Cramps, Numbness, And More
Calcium is an important mineral that is needed by the body for many reasons. One of the most well-known roles of calcium is its importance in bone health (2). A calcium deficiency can lead to health problems such as osteoporosis and bone fractures (1).
There are a few signs that you may be deficient in calcium, such as (1):
- Muscle cramps
- Numbness and tingling in the hands and feet
- Periodontal disease
- Poor nail growth
- Abnormal heart rhythm
Some people are at a higher risk of developing a calcium deficiency include (1):
- Postmenopausal women
- People who consume a vegan or vegetarian diet or avoid dairy
- People who drink alcohol excessively
- People with lactose intolerance
- People with celiac disease
- People who have kidney disease
- People who have cancer
There are many dietary sources of calcium, and some good sources include:
- Milk and dairy products
- Dark green leafy vegetables such as kale and spinach
- Sardines and salmon with bones
- Nuts and seeds
If you think you may be deficient in calcium, be sure to talk to your doctor. They may recommend taking a calcium supplement or increasing your intake of calcium-rich foods.
Vitamin D Deficiency: Fatigue, Mood Swings, And More
Vitamin D is essential for human health and is mainly obtained from exposure to the sun. Vitamin D deficiency is a condition in which not enough vitamin D is present in the body. It can lead to health problems such as Rickets, osteoporosis, and other problems (10).
There are several signs that you may be deficient in vitamin D, including (10):
- Feeling tired all the time
- Having a poor appetite
- Feeling depressed
- Experiencing muscle pain or weakness
- Having low bone density or osteoporosis.
People who are at higher risk for vitamin D deficiency include those who (10):
- Are homebound or have a limited sun exposure
- Are older adults
- Have dark skin
- Are obese
- Have a condition that impairs fat absorption
There are several dietary sources of vitamin D, such as:
- Fatty fish (such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel)
- Fortified foods (such as milk, yogurt, cereal, and orange juice)
- Sun exposure
If you are concerned that you may be deficient in vitamin D, talk to your healthcare provider. They may recommend that you take a vitamin D supplement or increase your sun exposure and intake of vitamin D rich foods.
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Iodine Deficiency: Enlarged Thyroid Gland, Increased Heart Rate, And More
Iodine is essential for the body to make thyroid hormones, which help regulate metabolism. Iodine deficiency can cause problems such as goiter (an enlarged thyroid gland), and severe fetal abnormalities if the deficiency occurs in a pregnant woman (5).
Signs of iodine deficiency include (5):
- An enlarged thyroid gland
- Changes in heart rate
- Fatigue and weakness
- Unexpected weight gain
- Feeling colder than usual
- Dry, flaky skin or hair loss
- Trouble learning or remembering
Some people are more at risk for iodine deficiency than others; these people include those who (5):
- Do not use iodized salt
- Are pregnant
- Are vegan or who eat few or no dairy products, eggs, or seafood
- Have a problem with their thyroid gland
- Live in areas where the soil is low in iodine
- Take medications that can interfere with iodine absorption
Good dietary sources of iodine include:
- Seafood (such as shrimp, cod, and tuna)
- Dairy products (such as milk, yogurt, and cheese)
- Sea vegetables (such as kelp and dulse)
- Iodized salt
- Baked potatoes
Vitamin B12 Deficiency: Lack Of Energy, Poor Appetite, And More
Vitamin B12, also known as cobalamin, is an important water-soluble vitamin that is mainly found in animal products.
It is responsible for numerous functions in the body, including the formation of red blood cells, the maintenance of nerve cells, and the metabolism of fats and proteins (9).
A vitamin B12 deficiency is possible because our bodies cannot produce this nutrient, and it is important to be aware of the signs and symptoms.
- Anemia, which is a low red blood cell count
- Numbness or tingling in the hands and feet
- Muscle weakness
- Lack of energy
- Poor appetite
- Weight loss
People who are at risk for a vitamin B12 deficiency include those (9):
- Who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, as B12 is mainly found in animal products;
- Over the age of 50, as our ability to absorb this nutrient decreases with age;
- Who have gastrointestinal issues that affect nutrient absorption, such as Crohn’s disease or celiac disease;
- Who have had gastric surgery, such as gastrectomy or bariatric surgery; and
- People who take medications that can interfere with B12 absorption, such as proton pump inhibitors or metformin.
Fortunately, a vitamin B12 deficiency can be treated with supplementation or by increasing dietary intake of foods that are high in nutrients.
There are several dietary sources of vitamin B12, including:
- Beef and poultry
- Milk and milk products
- Some breakfast cereals fortified with vitamin B12
- Nutritional yeast
If you are a vegan or vegetarian, you may need to supplement your diet with a vitamin B12 supplement. If your deficiency is due to a problem with absorption, you may require vitamin B12 injections. Talk to your doctor or a nutritionist about the best way to ensure you are getting an adequate amount of this important nutrient.
Vitamin A Deficiency: Poor Eyesight, Dry Skin, And More
Vitamin A is an essential fat-soluble vitamin. This means that, unlike water-soluble vitamins, it is stored in the body’s fatty tissues and liver. Because of this, a vitamin A deficiency can develop over time if you don’t get enough in your diet.
This nutrient is essential for a variety of bodily functions including vision, reproduction, immune system function, cell growth (8).
A lack of vitamin A can cause various health problems, including night blindness and low immunity (8).
Some signs of vitamin A deficiency are (8):
- Dry eyes
- Night blindness
- Increased susceptibility to infection
- Skin problems (such as dry skin or a rash)
- Poor growth in children
People who are more at risk of vitamin A deficiency include (8):
- Children and pregnant women
- People who do not eat a lot of fruits and vegetables
- People who drink alcohol regularly
- People who smoke cigarettes
- Older adults
The best way to prevent a vitamin A deficiency is to eat foods that are rich in this nutrient.
There are two types of dietary vitamin A:
- Preformed Vitamin A. This type of vitamin A is found in animal foods, such as meat, poultry, fish, and dairy products.
- Pro-vitamin A. This type of vitamin A is found in plant foods, such as fruits and vegetables.
Some excellent dietary sources of vitamin A include:
- Organ meat (such as liver)
- Fatty fish (such as salmon and trout)
- Cod liver oil
- Dark leafy green vegetables (such as kale and spinach)
- Sweet potatoes, carrots, and other yellow or orange-colored fruits and vegetables
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Potassium Deficiency: Muscle Cramps, Abnormal Heart Rhythms, And More
Potassium helps regulate blood pressure and heart function. It also helps muscles and nerves work properly. It’s a useful nutrient that can help balance other electrolytes like sodium (4).
A potassium deficiency can lead to several health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke (4).
Signs that you may be deficient in potassium include (4):
- Feeling tired or weak
- Having muscle cramps
- Experiencing constipation
- Feeling bloated
- Experiencing abnormal heart rhythms
- Tingling and numbness
- Suffering from twitches
Short-term potassium loss can be caused by diarrhea, vomiting, or excessive sweating. If you don’t get enough potassium from the foods you eat, your body may pull it from your bones, leading to weak bones (4).
People who are at high risk for potassium deficiency include those who (4):
- Have chronic diarrhea or vomiting, including people with inflammatory bowel disease
- Don’t eat a lot of fruits and vegetables
- Are on insulin
- Take diuretics (water pills) or laxatives
Some good dietary sources of potassium include:
- Leafy green vegetables
- Beans and legumes
If you think you may be deficient in potassium, talk to your health care provider. They may recommend a potassium supplement or changes to your diet.
Magnesium Deficiency: Anxiety, Irregular Heartbeat, And More
Your body needs magnesium for more than 300 biochemical processes, including nerve function, muscle contraction, and energy production. Magnesium also supports healthy bones and teeth (3).
If you don’t get enough magnesium in your diet, you may develop a magnesium deficiency.
The signs and symptoms of magnesium deficiency can vary from person to person. Some people with a magnesium deficiency may not experience any symptoms.
However, the most common signs and symptoms of magnesium deficiency include (3):
- Muscle cramps or spasms
- Numbness or tingling
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Fatigue and weakness
People at a high risk of magnesium deficiency include those who (3):
- Have gastrointestinal issues that affect the absorption of nutrients, such as Crohn’s disease or celiac disease
- Have type 2 diabetes
- Have alcohol dependence
- Are older adults
- Take medications that can interfere with magnesium absorption, such as diuretics and proton pump inhibitors
If you think you may have a magnesium deficiency, talk to your doctor. They can do a blood test to determine if you have a magnesium deficiency and recommend a course of treatment.
In addition to getting magnesium from your diet, you can also take supplements to ensure you’re getting enough.
Some good dietary sources of magnesium include:
- Leafy green vegetables (such as spinach and Swiss chard)
- Nuts, seeds, and legumes
- Whole grains (such as quinoa and brown rice)
- Dairy products (such as yogurt and cheese)
- Fish, especially mackerel, salmon, and halibut
- Dark chocolate
The Bottom Line
Nutrient deficiency can be a serious issue, leading to a variety of health problems. It’s important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of nutrient deficiencies and know how to get the nutrients your body needs.
Talk to your doctor if you think you may be deficient in a particular nutrient. They can do a blood test to determine if you have a deficiency and recommend a course of treatment.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- Calcium (2021, nih.gov)
- Calcium Intake and Health (2019, nih.gov)
- Chronic magnesium deficiency and human disease; time for reappraisal? (2018, oup.com)
- Hypokalemia: a clinical update (2018, nih.gov)
- Iodine Deficiency Disorders in the Iodine-Replete Environment (2010, nih.gov)
- Iron (2021, nih.gov)
- Iron deficiency anemia (2022, mayoclinic.org)
- Vitamin A Deficiency (2022, nih.gov)
- Vitamin B12 Deficiency (2021, nih.gov)
- Vitamin D Deficiency- An Ignored Epidemic (2010, nih.gov)