It’s not always easy to tell if you have a nutrient deficiency. Both a nutrient gap and a nutrient deficiency can manifest as a range of symptoms as varied as the people experiencing them. Even a question as seemingly straightforward as “what are vitamin D deficiency symptoms” has many answers, across many systems in the body. Providing your body with the nutrition support it needs, is one of the most important things you can do for your health. Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to bridge nutrient gaps found in our diets, including supplementing with personalized vitamins or eating a more diverse fruits and vegetables.
WHAT IS A NUTRIENT DEFICIENCY?
A nutrient deficiency can occur when the status of a certain nutrient in the body is so low, the body can’t function properly.1 A nutrient deficiency can contribute to health issues.1 While nutrient deficiencies are less common in the United States, they’re very common in developing countries, with pregnant women and in children younger than five years old. Also, people with low income and food insecurities are a vulnerable population at high risk for nutrient deficiencies.1
WHAT IS A NUTRIENT GAP?
A nutrient gap is when the dietary intake of a nutrient is below the minimum recommended amounts.1 These minimum recommended amounts are established as the bare minimum required the body to function normally.1 If this gap continues, over time, the body’s storage of that nutrient can run low or become depleted altogether, which can turn into a nutrient deficiency.1 Nutrient gaps are quite common in the United States and other developed countries.1
WHAT CAUSES ANUTRIENT DEFICIENCY?
There are four main causes of nutrient deficiencies: diet, absorption, medication, and lifestyle. Each of these factors can lead to a nutrient deficiency on its own, but many people are affected by more than one of them. This is why it’s important to look at all four factors when considering your overall health.
A poor diet can lead to a nutrient deficiency
A poor diet is one of the most common contributors to nutrient deficiencies. Vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients the body needs to survive, but the body can’t make them alone. Your body relies on you to provide it with enough of these nutrients through a healthy diet. A healthy diet is one that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products, lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, seeds, and nuts.2 A healthy diet pattern should provide our bodies with all the nutrients it needs to thrive.2
Unfortunately, research consistently shows that Americans are not following these recommendations.3 Over 50% of Americans have poor-quality diets, which leads to a substantial number of gaps in many of these key nutrients and an increased risk of several chronic health conditions.3 A shocking 9 out of 10 Americans don’t get enough nutrients through their diet alone.4
Health conditions that affect nutrient absorption can lead to anutrient deficiency
Certain health conditions may affect your appetite, increase nutrient needs, or make it more difficult to eat—all of which can affect how well your body absorbs these essential nutrients from food. For example, gastrointestinal (GI) conditions and fat malabsorption conditions can all alter the body’s ability to absorb nutrients from food.1 Meaning even if you have a healthy diet, you may still not get all the nutrients you need from your food alone.
Medications can contribute to a nutrient deficiency
Certain medications alter how the body absorbs, metabolizes, and passes nutrients. Long-term use of prescription and over-the-counter drugs can also lead to micronutrient deficiencies over years or even months.5 For instance, aspirin is known to affect both iron and vitamin C status.5 Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), and other medications for reflux, may also decrease micronutrient absorption, specifically of vitamin B12, vitamin C, iron, calcium, magnesium, and zinc.5
Lifestyle factors can also contribute to anutrient deficiency
The choices we make beyond diet can also affect our risk of a nutrient deficiency. A lack of sun exposure can lead to a vitamin D deficiency. Other factors such as air pollution and smoking can inhibit how the body absorbs and metabolizes vitamin C.
HOW TO TELL IF YOU HAVE A VITAMIN DEFICIENCY
Blood tests are often available through your healthcare practitioner. The National Academy of Science set definitions for what constitutes a deficiency for most vitamins and minerals.1 Some but not all of the blood test reports will provide these measurements of nutrient deficiencies to compare your levels against.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF A NUTRIENT DEFICIENCY?
Nutrient deficiency symptoms are often related to the vitamin or mineral’s main functions and can range from a lack of energy or muscle aches to poor sleep or mood changes.1 For example, vitamin D plays important roles in muscle, immune, and bone health.1
WHAT IS THE FIRST SIGN OF A VITAMIN A DEFICIENCY?
Vitamin A deficiency is rare in the United States, although still common in many developing countries.6 An inability to see in low light or darkness, is an early sign of a common vitamin A deficiency symptom.6The thing to keep in mind with deficiencies is that they don’t always have early signs. It is important to get a test from your doctor to determine your levels.
WHAT CAUSES A VITAMIN D DEFICIENCY?
Several factors can cause a vitamin D deficiency, including diet, age, and how often you use sunscreen when outdoors.7, 8
Here are a few key factors which could increase your risk of developing a vitamin D deficiency:7
Almost every nutrient deficiency can affect nail growth in some way.12 Zinc deficiencies are associated with brittle nails and Beau’s lines.13 Beau’s lines are quite common, although the causes of its trademark nail plate depressions are varied.13 There are many minerals found in a normal nail plate, including magnesium, calcium, iron, zinc, sodium, and copper. As such, nutrient deficiency symptoms in nails are varied. Soft nails (hapalonychia) has been associated with a variety of nutrient deficiencies including low calcium.13 In general, a healthy diet and a good daily multivitamin can help support healthy nails.
HOW TO BRIDGE THE NUTRIENT GAP & AVOID NUTRIENT DEFICIENCIES
Your diet is the best way to provide your body with all the vitamins and minerals it needs. Personalized multivitamin supplements and personalized vitamin packs can be a helpful addition to bridge any nutrient gaps not covered by your diet alone.4 Higher doses of certain vitamins and supplements may be required for nutrient deficiencies, but you should talk to your doctor first before adding higher dosages to your daily routine.
Vitamin deficiency symptoms aren’t always obvious and vary widely from one nutrient to the other. Many of the annoying symptoms we’ve come to accept as just part of being human (poor sleep, muscle aches, mood changes) may also be tied to key nutrient gaps or deficiencies. We may not have all the research yet to explain those connections fully, but we do know the body needs these nutrients every day, not only to survive but to thrive. Ensuring your body gets the nutritional support it needs from a healthy diet won’t solve all of your problems in life, but it’s sure a great first step!
† These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.
Yousefi Rad, E et al. The Effects of Vitamin D Supplementation on Glucose Control and Insulin Resistance in Patients with Diabetes Type 2: A Randomized Clinical Trial Study.” Iran J Public Health. 2014;43(12):1651-1656. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4499086/
Corrie became a nutritional nerd the second she learned about trans fats in college. Ever since then, she’s been trying to figure out easy life hacks for staying healthy without making her entire world about workouts and kale. She’s dedicated the last few years of her career to writing fun, educational content to help make good nutrition a little less boring and a little more accessible to non-scientists like herself. When she’s not scrolling through new research on gut health, you can find her playing Magic the Gathering or tending to her many (somehow still living) plants.
Carroll is a nutrition scientist and communicator with over 25 years of experience as a clinician, researcher, and educator at major universities, medical centers, and nutrition industry settings. She is a passionate advocate of nutritional health and established the nutrition education and science platforms at Pharmavite. Carroll is an expert in personalized nutrition and has published several scientific papers on vitamin and mineral inadequacies and the impact on health and wellbeing. Prior to joining Pharmavite, Carroll taught nutrition at UCLA Medical School and Santa Monica College and was a chief clinical dietitian and researcher.