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Nutritional Deficiencies: Know the Signs

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You might think nutrient deficiencies are a thing of the past, reserved for sailors trapped at sea. But even today, it’s possible to lack some of the essential nutrients your body needs to function optimally. Nutrient deficiencies alter bodily functions and processes such as water balance, enzyme function, nerve signalling, digestion and metabolism. Resolving deficiencies is important for optimal growth, development and function.

Nutrient deficiencies can also lead to other diseases. For example, calcium and vitamin D deficiencies can cause osteopenia or osteoporosis, two conditions marked by brittle bones and inadequate iron can cause anaemia, which zaps your energy.

Tell-tale symptoms are usually the first clue that you might be low in one or more important vitamins or minerals. In this newsletter we’ll try to help you detect nutritional deficiencies since knowing what to look for is part of the battle.

Who is most at risk of nutrient deficiencies?

A healthy diet can provide all a growing body needs, but the reality of our busy lifestyles and sometimes finicky eating habits can lead to a nutrient deficiency. Even if you do eat well, other factors – such as your age, lifestyle and certain health conditions (digestive issues e.g. Coeliac Disease) – can impact your body’s ability to absorb the nutrients in your food. Nutrient requirements are also increased during different stages of the lifecycle when the body calls for additional vitamins and minerals.


Rapid growth during adolescence requires extra nutrients to provide in the baby’s increased demands. These increased needs, coupled with dysfunctional eating or poor eating habits due to peer pressure, erratic eating times and increased activity levels, make adolescents the ideal candidates for supplementation.


The aging process may increase the need for some nutrients due to the fact that the elderly do not always eat enough of the right kinds of food or that the body is no longer able to absorb nutrients effectively. Elderly are very often at risk of developing zinc deficiency.


Even moderate smoking can reduce the body’s vitamin C level significantly. Should one smoke in excess of 20 cigarettes per day vitamin C levels can be reduced by as much as 40%.


Excessive alcohol intake will not only enable you to dance naked on table tops at parties, but can also interfere with the body’s ability to absorb B complex vitamins such as thiamine.

Exercise programmes

Intensive exercise regimes may increase the need for anti-oxidants, B-vitamins and protein. When a weight reducing diet is combined with an increase in exercise levels, nutrient needs are increased even more, especially that of the B complex vitamins.

Stress – Living in the fast lane

Busy lifestyle as well as high stress levels can increase your body’s demand for certain nutrients and if not met can cause nutritional deficiencies.

Restricted diets

Individuals that avoid certain foods like in the case of food allergies or intolerances or have dietary restrictions for example vegetarians may miss out on essential nutrients. Vegetarians are especially at risk of developing vitamin B12, zinc, iron or calcium deficiency.

Weight loss programmes

Individuals who are often on weight-reducing diets may find it difficult to meet the recommended level of nutrient intake for their age.  This is especially the case if you eat less than 1600kcal a day – placing you at risk of nutrient deficiencies. Most weight loss plans are less than the above-mentioned number of calories and therefore warrant the use of nutritional supplements such as a multi-vitamin/mineral supplement.


Certain medications interfere with the absorption of nutrients e.g. long term Metformin usage (seen in Type 2 Diabetics, Insulin resistance and PCOS) increases the risk of vitamin B12 deficiency. Regular measurements of vitamin B12 blood levels during long term treatment should preferably performed to detect possible deficiency. Women using oral contraceptive agents (the pill) could experience low levels of several vitamins – especially vitamin B2, niacin, vitamin B6, folic acid and vitamin C. Laxatives can reduce the absorption of fat-soluble vitamin A, D and E.

Meanwhile, soil quality, storage time and processing can significantly influence the levels of certain nutrients in your food, such that even healthy produce may not be as nutrient-rich as you may think.

Know the signs:

Nutrient deficiencies can be sneaky, unless you are seriously deficient for some time, you may notice no symptoms at all, leading you to believe (falsely) that your body is getting all the nutrition you need. Thankfully our body gives us small warning signs, helping us figure out what nutrients we might be missing out on.

Eye, hair, nail, mouth and skin symptoms are among the early outward warning signs of vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Here’s how to recognise common nutrient deficiencies.


If you tend to have very cold hands it may indicate magnesium deficiency or perhaps could be a symptom related to hypothyroidism or chronic fatigue.


If you have small white spots in your nails it may indicate the deficiency of minerals but more often, it indicates zinc deficiency. A zinc deficiency is also indicated by longitudinal ridges on the nails. While transverse ridges could be indicative of a protein deficiency. If your nails are soft or brittle it is a possible sign of magnesium deficiency. Interestingly, if you bite your nails it is usually because your body is low in minerals.


Coarse, dry and brittle hair is often caused by  zinc and/or vitamin A deficiency. While dandruff could be due to a deficiency in vitamins B2, B6, zinc, magnesium, biotin. Greying of the hair is usually a sign of the times but it can also be exacerbated by a deficiency in folic acid, pantothenic acid, biotin and minerals. Hair loss can be caused by a lack of protein, zinc, vitamin B6, selenium, biotin.


Dry skin in general is caused by a deficiency of vitamins A, C and essential fatty acids. If you have B-vitamin deficiency, your skin on your face and sides of the nose will be greasy red scaly. Seborrheic dermatitis around your nose as well as acne like rash on the forehead is caused by a deficiency of vitamin B6. If you have stretch marks on your skin you are suffering from the deficiency of zinc. Deficiency of vitamin A leads to follicular hyperkeratosis (small bumps on the skin – see picture). If you have a deficiency of vitamins C or K or platelet deficiency spontaneous bleeds will be visible on your skin. If you take beta carotene in excessive amount you will have yellow palms. Pimply rough skin at the back of the upper arms “chicken skin” is due to a deficiency of essential fatty acids and zinc. Dry scaly skin with hair follicles plugged with coiled distorted hairs and a red halo are caused by a vitamin C deficiency. A pale appearance of the skin is mostly due to an iron deficiency.


If you have an iron deficiency, you will have a pale fissured tongue. By having a sore, burning and painful tongue it could indicate a deficiency in vitamins B2, B6, B12 and niacin. If you are low on folic acid you will have a painful sore tongue with a smooth appearance. Cracked lips and at the corners of the mouth are due to a deficiency of zinc and B-vitamins (niacin, riboflavin, B12) as well as folic acid. Bleeding gums are often caused by vitamin C and/or zinc deficiency. A yellowish-brown-coated tongue could indicate liver or gall bladder problems.


A vitamin A deficiency is to be blamed for foamy patches on the conjunctiva known as Bitot’s spots. Cataracts are often associated with a chromium deficiency or excess exposure to free radicals. Itchy, burning, watery eyes could be caused by a vitamin B2 deficiency. Underlying allergies or food intolerances could contribute to bags or dark rings under the eyes. You can suffer from night blindness if you lack in Vitamins A, B2, B6 and zinc. If your eyes are sensitive to strong light, known as photophobia it could be due to Vitamins B2 and A deficiency.


Swelling of the throat area is often caused by an iodine deficiency, associated with hypothyroidism.

Legs, feet

Tender calf muscles are usually due to a magnesium deficiency. Muscle cramps may be a sign of deficiencies in magnesium, calcium and potassium, especially if it happens frequently.

I have a deficiency, what now?

If you suspect you have a nutrient deficiency, talk to Paarl Dietitian’s. Blood tests can be arranged to help determine if you are deficient.

The best way to avoid or remedy nutrient deficiencies is to make sure you are eating a balanced, nutrient-rich diet. Paarl Dietitian’s usually encourage food first, but if you are at an increased risk or already have a nutrient deficiency, you may benefit from taking nutritional supplements. Nutritional supplementation is the quickest, most practical and effective way to address an underlying nutrient deficiency.

Paarl Dietitian’s would be able to advise you on the most suitable, correct dosage and cost-effective nutritional supplements. Make an appointment today if you think you might be lacking.

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