How To Tell If You Have A Nutrient Gap Or Nutrient Deficiencyby Corrie Ulbricht-Shatto, Carroll Reider
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.
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 severe health issues including infection, illness, and even death.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 A NUTRIENT 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 a nutrient 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 a nutrient 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 low mood.1 For example, vitamin D plays important roles in muscle, immune, and bone health.1 One person may experience vitamin D deficiency symptoms such as muscle aches and pains, while another may experience respiratory conditions, while a third person may not show any vitamin D deficiency symptoms at all, but rather develop osteoporosis later in life as a result.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 Night blindness, or an inability to see in low light or darkness, is an early sign of a common vitamin A deficiency symptom.6 Bitot’s spots are another trademark symptom and early sign of a vitamin A deficiency.6
In children, vitamin A deficiency is one of the top preventable causes of blindness.6 People with a vitamin A deficiency also tend to have a low iron status, which can cause anemia.6
The thing to keep in mind with deficiencies is that they don’t always have early signs. For example, vitamin A deficiencies increase the mortality and severity risk of certain infections, specifically diarrhea and measles.6
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
- Diet (milk allergies, lactose intolerance, veganism)NIHD
- Location (air quality, cloud coverage, seasons)
- Sunscreen and sun-protective clothing
- Dark complexion
- Chronic kidney disease
- Gastrointestinal diseases
- Fat malabsorption syndromes
- Certain medications (diabetes medication, corticosteroids)
WHAT VITAMIN DEFICIENCY CAUSES SUGAR CRAVINGS?
There is no direct evidence that a nutrient deficiency can cause sugar cravings. Many nutrients, however, do play a role in blood sugar (glucose) metabolism and balance. For example, low magnesium status may result in insulin impairment that can lead to high glucose levels.9 Vitamin D deficiency is prevalent among Type 2 Diabetes patients and may also be related to abnormal insulin action.10 Chromium is an essential mineral that plays an important role in blood sugar regulation, and not having enough chromium in your diet may impact glucose levels as well.11
WHAT VITAMIN DEFICIENCY CAUSES LINES IN NAILS?
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. For example, nail bed pallor can be a sign of anemia and indicate the body is low in iron.13 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.
WHICH VITAMIN DEFICIENCY CAUSES HAIR LOSS?
An iron deficiency is the world’s most common nutritional deficiency and is a well-known cause of hair loss, although it’s not clear yet the degree to which this may contribute to hair loss.14 Women of childbearing age are at a higher risk of iron deficiency as a woman’s iron needs are increased during this time, most notably during pregnancy and lactation.14 Vegans and vegetarians are also at a higher risk for iron deficiency because the iron found in plants isn’t a bioavailable as the iron found in meats and fish.14
Vitamin D plays a role in hair follicle integrity and is also associated with hair loss, although not to the same extent as iron.14 One study showed women with hair loss also had lower vitamin D blood levels.14
WHAT KIND OF VITAMIN DEFICIENCY MAKES YOU COLD?
Iron. Poor thyroid function is likely to disrupt the body’s ability to maintain normal body temperature.15
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. Multivitamin supplements 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 treating 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, low mood) 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!
This information is only for educational purposes and is not medical advice or intended as a recommendation of any specific products. Consult your health care provider for more information.
- Oregon State University. “Micronutrient Inadequacies in the US Population: an Overview.” 2018. Linus Pauling Institute, Micronutrient Information Center. Accessed on: August 6, 2020. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/micronutrient-inadequacies/overview#shortfall-micronutrients
- US Department of Health and Human Services. “2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.” 2015. 8th US Department of Agriculture. Accessed on: August 6, 2020. https://health.gov/sites/default/files/2019-09/2015-2020_Dietary_Guidelines.pdf
- US Department of Agriculture. “Americans Still Can Meet Fruit and Vegetable Dietary Guidelines for $2.10–2.60 per Day.” 2019. Economic Research Service. Accessed on: August 6, 2020. https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2019/june/americans-still-can-meet-fruit-and-vegetable-dietary-guidelines-for-210-260-per-day/
- Blumberg JB, et al. The Use of Multivitamin/Multimineral Supplements: A Modified Delphi Consensus Panel Report. Clin Ther. 2018;40(4):640-657. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29573851/
- Mohn E, et al. Evidence of Drug-Nutrient Interactions with Chronic Use of Commonly Prescribed Medications: An Update. 2018;10(1):36. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5874849/
- US Department of Health and Human Services. “Vitamin A: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals.” 2020. National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Accessed: August 6, 2020. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminA-HealthProfessional/#h5
- Oregon State University. “Vitamin D.” 2017. Linus Pauling Institute, Micronutrient Information Center. Accessed on: August 6, 2020. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/vitamins/vitamin-D
- US Department of Health and Human Services. “Vitamin D: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals.” 2020. National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Accessed: August 6, 2020. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/
- Paolisso G, et al. Magnesium and glucose homeostasis. Diabetologia. 1990;33:511–514. https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/BF00404136.pdf
- 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/
- Oregon State University. “Chromium.” 2014. Linus Pauling Institute, Micronutrient Information Center. Accessed on: August 6, 2020. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/minerals/chromium
- Cashman M, et al. Nutrition and nail disease. Clin Dermatol. 2010;28(4):420-5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20620759/
- Seshadri D, et al. Nails in nutritional deficiencies. IJDVL. 2012;78(3):237–241. http://www.ijdvl.com/article.asp?issn=0378-6323;year=2012;volume=78;issue=3;spage=237;epage=241;aula
- Guo E, et al. Diet and hair loss: effects of nutrient deficiency and supplement use. Dermatol Pract Concept. 2017;7(1):1-10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5315033/
- Oregon State University. “Iron.” 2016. Linus Pauling Institute, Micronutrient Information Center. Accessed on: August 6, 2020. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/minerals/iron