The hidden cause of common symptoms like fatigue and muscle aches could be a nutrient deficiency. You might think that nutrient deficiencies are a thing of the past, something only sailors have experienced on long sea voyages. But even today it’s possible to be lacking in some of the essential nutrients your body needs. to function optimally. Nutrient deficiencies impair bodily functions and processes at the most basic cellular level. These processes include water balance, enzyme function, nerve signaling, digestion, and metabolism. Addressing these deficiencies is important for optimal growth, development, and functioning.
Nutrient deficiencies can also lead to disease. For example, deficiencies in calcium and vitamin D can cause osteopenia or osteoporosis, two pathologies marked by the fragility of the bones. And a lack of iron can cause anemia, which robs you of energy.
Telltale symptoms are usually the first clue to a deficiency in one or more important vitamins or minerals. Here’s how to recognize seven common nutritional deficiencies.
- 1 1. Calcium: numb fingers, tingling, and abnormal heartbeat
- 2 2. Vitamin D: Fatigue, bone pain, mood swings, etc.
- 3 3. Potassium: Muscle weakness, constipation, irregular heartbeat, etc.
- 4 4. Iron: fatigue, shortness of breath, cold hands and feet, brittle nails, etc.
- 5 5. Vitamin B12: numbness, fatigue, swollen tongue and more
- 6 6. Folate: Fatigue, diarrhea, smooth tongue, etc.
- 7 7. Magnesium: Loss of appetite, nausea, fatigue, etc.
- 8 From nutrient deficiency to healthy eating
1. Calcium: numb fingers, tingling, and abnormal heartbeat
Calcium is important for maintaining bone strength and controlling muscle and nerve function. Signs of severe calcium deficiency are numb fingers, tingling, and abnormal heartbeat. That said, there are no obvious short-term symptoms of calcium deficiency. Most adults need 1,000 milligrams (mg) of calcium per day, but women over 50 and men over 70 need 1,200 mg. At least three servings of milk or yogurt a day should provide you with enough calcium. Cheese is another good source of calcium, but if you don’t like dairy products, you can find this nutrient in orange juice or calcium-fortified breakfast cereals (check the nutrition label for food to see if calcium has been added), and dark leafy vegetables like kale and broccoli.
2. Vitamin D: Fatigue, bone pain, mood swings, etc.
This vitamin is another crucial vitamin for bone health and may also prevent certain cancers. Symptoms of vitamin D deficiency can be vague: fatigue, bone pain, mood swings, and muscle aches or weakness can set in. If prolonged, vitamin D deficiency can lead to softening of the bones. Long-term deficiency can also be linked to cancers and autoimmune diseases. Most adults need 15 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin D each day, and adults over 70 need 20 mcg. Try to eat three servings of oily fish, such as salmon or tuna, twice a week, as these are foods that contain vitamin D. Also spend time in the sun each day, as it is an excellent source of this nutrient. Ten to 30 minutes of direct sunlight a few times a week should help.
3. Potassium: Muscle weakness, constipation, irregular heartbeat, etc.
Potassium helps the heart, nerves and muscles function properly and brings nutrients to cells while eliminating waste. Plus, it’s a helpful nutrient that helps offset the negative impact sodium has on your blood pressure. Potassium deficiency can occur in the short term due to diarrhea or vomiting, excessive sweating, taking antibiotics, laxatives or diuretics, excessive alcohol consumption or chronic illness such as kidney disease. Symptoms of a deficiency are: muscle weakness, twitching or cramping, constipation, tingling and numbness, abnormal heartbeat or palpitations.
Natural sources of potassium are bananas, squash, lentils, kidney beans and other legumes. Adult men need 3400 mg per day, and women 2600 mg.
4. Iron: fatigue, shortness of breath, cold hands and feet, brittle nails, etc.
Iron is necessary for the production of red blood cells, which carry oxygen throughout the body. When iron levels are too low, there can be a deficiency of red blood cells, resulting in a condition called anemia. Groups at increased risk of iron deficiency include menstruating women, growing people (such as children and pregnant women), and people following a vegan or vegetarian diet. Anemia can manifest with symptoms such as weakness and fatigue, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, pale skin, headache, cold hands and feet, sore or swollen tongue, fingernails brittle and cravings for strange things like dirt. Symptoms can be so mild at first that you don’t notice anything is wrong, but as iron stores are depleted they become more intense. To boost iron levels, try eating beef, oysters, beans (especially navy beans and kidney beans), lentils, and spinach. Adult men and women over 50 need 8 mg per day, and adult women under 50 need 18 mg per day.
5. Vitamin B12: numbness, fatigue, swollen tongue and more
Vitamin B12 helps in the production of red blood cells and DNA, and also improves the function of neurotransmitters. Vegetarians and vegans are particularly at risk of vitamin B12 deficiency because plants do not produce this nutrient. People who have had weight-loss surgery may also be low on B12 because the procedure makes it difficult for the body to extract the nutrient from food.
Symptoms of severe B12 deficiency are: numbness in the legs, hands or feet, walking and balance problems, anemia, fatigue, weakness; swollen and inflamed tongue; memory loss and difficulty thinking, according to Harvard Health Publishing. These symptoms can appear quickly or gradually, and since they are so varied, you may not notice them for some time.
Adults need 2.4 mcg of B12 per day. It’s most commonly found in animal products like fish, chicken, milk, and yogurt to boost your B12 levels. You can also find B12 in most multivitamins, but if you’re at risk of a deficiency, you can take a supplement that contains B12 specifically.
6. Folate: Fatigue, diarrhea, smooth tongue, etc.
Folate, or folic acid, is an especially important B vitamin for women of childbearing age, so prenatal vitamins usually contain a high dose of it. Folate promotes healthy growth and function and may reduce the risk of birth defects, especially those affecting the neural tube (the brain and spine). Folate deficiency can decrease the total number of cells and large red blood cells and cause neural tube defects in an unborn child. Symptoms of folate deficiency include fatigue, irritability, diarrhea, poor growth, and a smooth, tender tongue.
Women who could get pregnant should make sure to take 400 mcg of folic acid daily, in addition to consuming foods that contain folate. Interestingly, folate is best absorbed by the body in supplement form, with 85% being absorbed from supplements and 50% from food.
To get folate from food, focus on beans, peanuts, sunflower seeds, whole grains, eggs, and green leafy vegetables.
7. Magnesium: Loss of appetite, nausea, fatigue, etc.
Magnesium contributes to bone health and energy production. Adults need 310-420 mg, depending on gender and age. Although magnesium deficiency is quite rare in healthy people, certain medications (including some antibiotics and diuretics) and certain health conditions (such as type 2 diabetes and Crohn’s disease) can limit magnesium absorption or increase the loss of this nutrient from the body. Magnesium deficiency can lead to loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, fatigue and weakness. In more severe cases, it can also lead to numbness and tingling, muscle cramps or twitches, seizures, irregular heartbeats, personality changes, or coronary spasms. To help your levels return to normal, eat more magnesium-rich foods, such as almonds, cashews, peanuts, spinach, black beans, and edamame.
From nutrient deficiency to healthy eating
If you think you have a nutrient deficiency, talk to your doctor. Blood tests can help determine if you have a deficiency. And if so, your doctor can refer you to a dietitian or recommend dietary supplements. The best way to avoid or remedy nutrient deficiencies is to make sure you eat a balanced, nutrient-dense diet. I encourage diet first, but if you are at increased risk of nutrient deficiency, you may benefit from taking a multivitamin. Those at risk are the elderly, those on a restrictive diet (such as vegans and vegetarians), pregnant women, and those who do not eat a diet high in fruits and vegetables. Do not hesitate to consult your doctor if you have any questions about your risk.