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All About Nutrient Deficiencies


With the lack of variety in countless nutrition plans and the health of food dependent upon the ever-diminishing nutrients in soil, it’s no wonder that we’d be concerned with nutrient deficiencies. Add regular bouts of exercise, stress and medications to the mix, and all of the sudden we have a recipe for major nutrient scarcity.

How do you know if you’re deficient in nutrients?

Are your lips cracked? You may be deficient in riboflavin, niacin or pyridoxine.

Nutrient deficiencies can have a variety of effects throughout the body. Often the signs are subtle — perhaps you feel a bit “off” or your skin doesn’t look quite as glowing as it could. Occasionally the signs are more obvious. (For instance, it’s kind of hard to ignore your feet tingling, or uncontrolled muscle spasms.)

Now don’t worry — we’re not trying to scare you into buying stock with GNC and loading up on vitamin pills, or trying to turn you into a nutrient hypochondriac. We simply want to highlight some of the physical manifestations of nutrient deficiencies.

As you read through the following, you may fit the criteria for some of the deficiency symptoms. Instead of self-diagnosing and slamming a bottle of “vitamin [fill in the blank],” your concern should simply warrant further investigation into eating patterns and habits. If you notice any of the symptoms/signs fit you, then jot down some notes and initiate a dialogue with your dietitian, naturopath, chiropractor or physician (whoever you work with and trust).

Try to find a “food form” of your desired nutrient before you stock up on supplement bottles. Research suggests that nutrients tend to work better together, and are found in more complex forms in nature. For example, there are over six hundred known carotenoids, which give plants their red or orange colours. We don’t know what all of them do yet, but we’re pretty sure that many are important. Just taking a beta-carotene supplement on its own probably isn’t the same — in fact, as a few high-profile studies have shown, it may be actively harmful.

Also, as we indicate below, taking extra doses of certain vitamins doesn’t necessarily make things better. Nutrients work in complicated ways in the body, and they’re often related to one another (for example, as the amount of X increases, the body may make or absorb less of Y).

Here’s a handy guide to common deficiencies. Part 1 is organized by the body part affected, and alphabetized by part for easier navigation. Part 2 is organized by health conditions and people at risk for deficiencies.

Deficiencies by body part

If you have… You may be or have…
Ankles Swollen ankles Over-hydrated
Brain Memory problems, disorientation or dementia Niacin (B3), vitamin B12, or thiamine (B1) deficiency
Eyes Puffy, swollen eyes Over-hydrated
Sunken, dull or dry eyes Vitamin A or zinc deficiency; under-hydration
Dry eyes with gray spots Vitamin A deficiency
Red or difficult-to-control eyes Riboflavin (B2), pyridoxine (B6), thiamine (B1) or phosphorus deficiency
Face Acne Vitamin C deficiency
Feet Tingling feet Pyridoxine (B6) or vitamin B12 deficiency
Gums Sore and spongy or red and swollen Vitamin C deficiency
Hands Tingling hands Pyridoxine (B6) or vitamin B12 deficiency
Lips Cracked lips Riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), or pyridoxine (B6) deficiency
Lungs Shortness of breath Over-hydrated
Mouth and mucous membranes Dry mucous membranes Under-hydrated
Sore mouth Pyridoxine (B6) or vitamin B12 deficiency
Muscles Muscle spasms Calcium, magnesium or vitamin D deficiency
Nails Brittle, thin nails Iron deficiency
Saliva Sticky saliva / dry mouth Under-hydrated
Skin Moist skin Over-hydrated
Dry, scaly, pale or bruises easily Iron, vitamin A, C, K, zinc, essential fatty acid or protein deficiency
Red spots under your skin’s surface Vitamin C deficiency
Cool, pale, clammy skin Under-hydrated
Scaly, greasy skin Vitamin A, zinc or riboflavin (B2) deficiency
Tongue Purple, white, or smooth and slick; painful Riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pyridoxine (B6), folic acid (B9), B12, zinc or iron deficiency
Sore tongue Pyridoxine (B6) or Vitamin B12 deficiency
Urine Light-coloured urine Over-hydrated
Dark coloured urine Under-hydrated

Part 2: Who’s at risk?

Health condition Deficiency risk
AIDS Vitamin B12
Alcoholism Thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), biotin, folic acid (B9)
Blood loss Iron
Crohn’s disease Vitamin A
Diabetes mellitus Riboflavin (B2)
Diarrhea Selenium
Excessive consumption of goitrogenic foods (cassava, cabbage, rutabagas, turnips, among others) Iodine
Gastric bypass Vitamin B12
Gastritis Vitamin B12
Gluten intolerance (untreated) Vitamin A
Gut flora irritation/alteration Vitamin A
Hyperparathyroidism Pyridoxine (B6)
Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid) Vitamin C
Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) Riboflavin (B2)
Increased energy needs (illness, intense training, injury rehabilitation, etc.) Vitamin A
Inflammatory bowel disease Pantothenic acid (B5)
Lactation Vitamin C
Living in endemic areas with un-supplemented food supplies Iodine
Menstruation (heavy or lengthy periods) Iron
Pregnancy Vitamin C, iron
Raw egg white consumption (excessive amounts) Biotin
Rheumatoid arthritis Zinc
Sickle cell anemia Zinc
Smoking Vitamin C
Stress (excessive amounts) Iodine
Sun exposure (insufficient amounts) Vitamin D
Vegan diet Vitamin B12

Medication use

Aminosalicylic acid – Vitamin B12 deficiency
Amitryptyline – riboflavin deficiency
Anticoagulant therapy – vitamin K deficiency
Anticonvulsants – vitamin D deficiency, folic acid deficiency, vitamin B12 deficiency
Anti-thyroid therapy (methimazole, propylthiouracil) – iodine deficiency
Barbiturates – vitamin C deficiency
Carbamazepine – biotin deficiency
Cholestyramine – vitamin D deficiency
Colchicines – vitamin B12 deficiency
Colestipol – vitamin D deficiency
Corticosteroids – vitamin D deficiency
Cycloserine – pyridoxine deficiency, folic acid deficiency
Diethylenetriamine – zinc deficiency
Diuretics – zinc deficiency
D-penicillamine – zinc deficiency
EPO use – iron deficiency
Estrogen/oral contraceptives – vitamin C deficiency, folic acid deficiency
Ethionamide – pyridoxine deficiency
Hydralazine – pyridoxine deficiency
Imipramine – riboflavin deficiency
Iron megadoses – copper deficiency
Isoniazid – vitamin D deficiency, niacin deficiency, pyridoxine deficiency
Metformin – vitamin B12 deficiency
Methotrexate – folic acid deficiency
Neomycin – vitamin B12 deficiency
Nitrous oxide – vitamin B12 deficiency
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) – iron deficiency
Omeprazole – vitamin B12 deficiency
Penicillamine – pyridoxine deficiency
Pentamidine – folic acid deficiency
Phenothiazines – riboflavin deficiency
Phenytoin – biotin deficiency
Primidone – biotin deficiency
Probenecid – riboflavin deficiency
Pyrazinamide – pyridoxine deficiency
Pyrimethamine – folic acid deficiency
Salicylates – vitamin C deficiency, iron deficiency
Sulfasalazine – folic acid deficiency
Tetracycline – vitamin C deficiency
Triamterene – folic acid deficiency
Tricyclic antidepressants – riboflavin deficiency
Trimethoprim – folic acid deficiency
Valproate – zinc deficiency
Vitamin A megadoses – vitamin K deficiency
Vitamin E megadoses – vitamin K deficiency
Zinc megadoses – copper deficiency

There you have it. You’re now armed with more information than you ever wanted about nutrient deficiencies.

Again, if you are concerned about something, take notes and make an appointment with your health care provider.


Click here to view the information sources referenced in this article.

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