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Common Nutrient Deficiencies and How to Avoid Them

Most of us have good intentions when it comes to eating healthy. Still, it can be a challenge to get all the nutrients we need from our everyday diet. Many of our modern food staples, like refined breads, pastas, and rice, are heavily processed and lacking in nutrients. Even the fruits and vegetables we eat are less nutritious than they used to be, thanks to the depletion of nutrients in the soil.[1]

Even when we’re trying to eat healthy, our diets may lack the variety that it takes to provide the full range of nutrients our bodies need. This is especially true for those on restricted diets, including vegans and vegetarians, people with food intolerances, and those who are following a weight loss diet, or any diet that eliminates entire food groups.[2][3]

Other health factors can also influence our nutrition. Our gut health may be compromised, triggering food sensitivities and interfering with proper digestion and absorption of nutrients. Drinking alcohol can increase nutrient demands and impair nutrient absorption.[4] Heightened stress levels can also deplete the body’s store of nutrients.[5]

With all these factors in mind, it’s no surprise that many of us come up short on important vitamins and minerals. While severe nutritional deficiencies are pretty rare in the U.S., research shows that milder deficiencies, or nutritional inadequacies, are much more common. These minor deficiencies are often harder to detect, manifesting in subtle symptoms like general fatigue, brain fog, or a weaker immune system. But they can lead to more serious health consequences down the road.[6]

Here are some of the most common nutrients that many of us are lacking, and some tips on how to make sure you get enough.

Iron

Woman feeling lightheaded

 

Iron is the mineral that makes your blood red. It’s a key component of hemoglobin, the protein in your red blood cells that enables them to carry oxygen to all your tissues. Without enough iron, your cells are effectively deprived of oxygen, which affects your energy levels, brain function, and muscle function. If your iron levels drop too low, you may feel fatigued, lightheaded, and weak.[7]

Iron deficiency is a higher risk for menstruating women, because iron is lost through menstrual blood each month. If you frequently feel wiped out during your period, it could be a sign that you’re low in iron, especially if your periods are heavy. Extreme physical activity can also deplete your iron reserves, since iron is used at a higher rate during exercise, and is also lost through sweat.

You can have your doctor check your blood iron levels if you think you may have a deficiency. If your levels are very low, you may need an iron supplement to help bring them back to normal. Otherwise, you can keep your iron levels healthy by eating plenty of iron-rich foods.

Iron can be found in red meat, shellfish, and poultry, as well as leafy greens like spinach and chard, red beets and tomatoes, beans, and nuts. There’s a caveat though: the heme iron found in animal protein is easier for our bodies to absorb than the non-heme iron in plant-based foods.

This means that vegetarians have a harder time meeting their iron targets. If you’re relying on plant-based foods for your iron, you have to eat about twice as much to meet healthy iron levels. It also helps to combine these foods with a good source of vitamin C, like bell peppers, since vitamin C helps with non-heme iron absorption.[8]

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is best known for its important role in bone health. When we don’t get enough vitamin D, our bodies have trouble absorbing calcium, which we need to build strong bones and teeth. Lack of vitamin D can lead to bone loss and muscle weakness. However, these effects may not be noticeable right away.

But vitamin D has other, more immediate benefits, too. It’s important for keeping your immune system healthy, and lack of vitamin D has been linked with an increased risk of colds and flus.[9] It also seems to play a role in mood regulation, and low vitamin D levels are linked with an increased risk of depression.[10]

Vitamin D is known as the “sunshine vitamin,” because our bodies produce it naturally when our skin is exposed to sunlight. Although vitamin D can be found in a few foods, including salmon,  egg yolks, and fortified milk or orange juice, sunlight is our primary source for this vitamin. This seems like an easily accessible source, yet vitamin D deficiency is surprisingly common. By some estimates, about 40% of the U.S. population is low in vitamin D.[11]

Why aren’t we getting enough vitamin D? For one thing, we’re spending more time indoors, as work, shopping, and recreation have all moved increasingly online. When we are outdoors, we’re more conscientious about wearing sunscreen or protective clothing, which helps shield us from harmful UV rays, but also limits our absorption of vitamin D.[12] 

If you have darker skin, your skin has built-in sunscreen in the form of melanin, a pigment that blocks UV absorption but also reduces vitamin D production. This puts people of color at higher risk of vitamin D deficiency.[13] Changes in the skin as you age can also reduce vitamin D production, putting seniors at higher risk of deficiency.[14] Carrying extra body weight has also been shown to negatively affect vitamin D levels.[15]

While the simplest way to get more vitamin D is to spend more time in the sun, this isn’t always as simple as it sounds. Sun exposure may be limited by the season, the weather, the time of day, and how far north you live. Considering how important vitamin D is, and how common it is to be low, a vitamin D supplement is a smart choice.

Calcium

Calcium is the main structural component of your bones, giving them their hardness and strength. You may think of your bones as a permanent structure, but in truth, your bones are living tissue, constantly rebuilding themselves. They need a steady supply of calcium to feed this process and keep your bones strong.

Your body also uses calcium to perform daily functions like muscle contractions and nerve impulses. When it doesn’t have enough calcium in the blood for these functions, it borrows calcium from your bones, contributing to bone loss. This is why it’s so important to get enough calcium regularly.

You may not notice these effects until you get older. But as we age, the breakdown of old bone begins to outpace the building of new bone, and our bones gradually lose mass. This process accelerates rapidly for women after menopause, because the loss of estrogen has a negative impact on bone density. Women can lose as much as 25% of their bone mass in the first 5-10 years after menopause,[16] putting them at higher risk of osteoporosis and fractures.

Low calcium is a particular risk for postmenopausal women. It’s also a risk for vegans and those who are dairy sensitive, because it’s more difficult to meet calcium targets without eating dairy foods. The richest food sources of calcium are milk, cheese, and yogurt, but you can also find calcium in broccoli, kale, almonds, and soy. A daily multivitamin that includes a decent amount of calcium can also help you meet your target.

But it’s not just how much calcium you eat that matters, it’s how much you absorb. As we’ve seen, without vitamin D, your body can only absorb a small fraction of the calcium you ingest. Vitamin K2 also helps your body use calcium properly, helping to direct calcium into the bone structure where it belongs and protect against calcium buildup in your blood vessels.[17] Even if you’re confident that you eat enough calcium, it’s a good idea to take Vitamin D3 + Vitamin K2 to make sure the calcium is absorbed and metabolized correctly.

Magnesium

leg cramp

 

One of the busiest minerals in your body, magnesium plays hundreds of important roles that affect your energy, muscles, nerves, bones, sleep, and more. Although it gets less attention than calcium, magnesium has a major influence on bone density, and is considered especially important for postmenopausal women.[18] You also need magnesium to help activate vitamin D in the body.[19] So if you’re taking either calcium or vitamin D, magnesium is a great team player.

Your body uses magnesium at a 10-20% higher rate during exercise, as it’s involved in cellular energy production, delivering glucose to the muscles, and regulating muscle contractions.[20] You also need magnesium to help relax those muscles, calm your nerves, and prepare you for sleep.[21] Ever taken an Epsom salt bath to relax before bed? That’s your body absorbing magnesium from the Epsom salts.

If you’re low in magnesium, you may have noticeable symptoms, such as fatigue, nervous tension or restlessness, weak or cramp-prone muscles, sleep issues, or headaches. But low magnesium can also be hard to detect, and even blood tests aren’t very reliable.6What we do know is that nearly 50% of Americans don’t get enough magnesium in their diet,[22] so this is definitely one to keep an eye on.

Magnesium is found in dark, leafy greens, whole grains, beans, and nuts. Many Americans simply don’t eat enough of these foods. But alcohol, caffeine, and carbonated drinks can also reduce magnesium levels. Older adults are also more likely to be low in magnesium, because of age-related changes that reduce magnesium absorption in the gut and increase magnesium excretion.18 For an extra daily boost of magnesium, try our Magnesium supplement, which is naturally derived from seawater.

Covering Your Bases

Eating a healthy, varied, whole food diet is the best way to give your body the well-rounded nutrition it needs. But we all have days when our diet is less than perfect, and it’s easy to fall short on important nutrients. Our Smarter Multivitamin is designed to complement your diet and help cover those crucial nutrient gaps, with just the right amount of vitamins and minerals needed to make up common shortfalls. It features healthy amounts of calcium and magnesium from plant-based sources for easier absorption, plus vitamin D, vitamin K2, and other essentials that may be missing in your diet. It’s a great way to cover your bases.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1]Dirt Poor: Have Fruits and Vegetables Become Less Nutritious?” Scientific American, April 2011.

[2]Do Special Diets Put You At Risk of Nutritional Deficiencies?” St. Luke’s Health, Feb 2019

[3] Calton JB. Prevalence of micronutrient deficiency in popular diet plans. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2010;7:24. Published 2010 Jun 10. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-7-24

[4]Does Alcohol Cause Nutrient Deficiency?” MedicineNet, Feb 2021.

[5]What Nutrients Are Depleted By Stress?” A. Vogel, Feb 2019.

[6]Micronutrient Inadequacies in the U.S. Population: An Overview.” Linus Pauling Institute, Oregon State University.

[7]Iron Deficiency Anemia.” Mayo Clinic.

[8]7 Nutrient Deficiencies That Are Incredibly Common.” Healthline, May 2019.

[9]Low Vitamin D Levels Associated with Colds and Flu.” National Institutes of Health.

[10] Penckofer, Sue et al. “Vitamin D and depression: where is all the sunshine?.” Issues in mental health nursing vol. 31,6 (2010): 385-93. doi:10.3109/01612840903437657

[11] Forrest KY, Stuhldreher WL. “Prevalence and correlates of vitamin D deficiency in US adults.”Nutr Res. 2011;31(1):48-54. doi:10.1016/j.nutres.2010.12.001

[12] Holick MF. Vitamin D: importance in the prevention of cancers, type 1 diabetes, heart disease, and osteoporosis. Am J Clin Nutr. 2004; 79:362-71

[13] Holick MF. Vitamin D deficiency. N Engl J Med. 2007; 357:266-81.

[14] Boucher, Barbara J. “The problems of vitamin d insufficiency in older people.” Aging and disease vol. 3,4 (2012): 313-29.

[15] European Society of Endocrinology. "Larger waistlines are linked to higher risk of vitamin D deficiency: Higher levels of belly fat are associated with lower vitamin D levels in obese individuals, according to data presented in Barcelona at the European Society of Endocrinology annual meeting, ECE 2018." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 21 May 2018.

[16]Causes of Osteoporosis.” WebMD, Jan 2020.

[17] Maresz, Katarzyna. “Proper Calcium Use: Vitamin K2 as a Promoter of Bone and Cardiovascular Health.” Integrative medicine (Encinitas, Calif.) vol. 14,1 (2015): 34-9.

[18]Magnesium.” National Institutes of Health.

[19] Uwitonze AM, Razzaque MS. “Role of Magnesium in Vitamin D Activation and Function.” J Am Osteopath Assoc. 2018 Mar 1;118(3):181-189. doi: 10.7556/jaoa.2018.037. PMID: 29480918.

[20] Nielsen FH, Lukaski HC. “Update on the relationship between magnesium and exercise.” Magnes Res. 2006 Sep;19(3):180-9. PMID: 17172008.

[21]How Magnesium Can Help You Sleep.” Healthline, April 2017.

[22] Rosanoff A, Weaver CM, Rude RK. “Suboptimal magnesium status in the United States: are the health consequences underestimated?” Nutr Rev. 2012 Mar;70(3):153-64. doi: 10.1111/j.1753-4887.2011.00465.x. Epub 2012 Feb 15. PMID: 22364157.

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