Could You Have a Vitamin Deficiency?
"It used to be that we got plenty of vitamins from diet alone, but over time... many of us have become vitamin-deficient."
In today’s show with Dr. Keller Wortham, MD, we’ll be talking about vitamins, including what we get from our diets, and when it’s time to supplement. Many people have vitamin deficiencies and don’t even know it, so Dr. Keller will give us an overview of what a vitamin deficiency might look like, what vitamins are, and how to make sure we get everything we need for optimal health.
- 00:23: What are Vitamins?
- 01:26: Common Vitamin Deficiencies
- 06:59: Symptoms of Little Known Deficiencies
- 12:39: Wrap-Up
What Exactly is a Vitamin?
Vitamin is a term most of us use, but do you know what it actually is? A vitamin is a substance molecule that we desperately need for our metabolism and overall health, which we cannot generate from our own bodies, and therefore must get from our diets. If we don’t get these vitamins from our diets, our metabolism shuts down, and we can actually die. So vitamins are essential for life.
It used to be that we got plenty of vitamins from diet alone, but over time as both modern diets, and farming practices have changed, and as the soil has become more nutrient-deficient, many of us have become vitamin-deficient, even if we are eating a healthy diet. These deficiencies can lead to some serious health issues if we don’t replenish what’s lacking.
Common Vitamin Deficiencies
Even in the U.S. where we have much more access to healthy foods than some places, there are still some extremely common vitamin deficiencies, including:
You may have heard of Vitamin D, and might know that it’s very important for bone health and development — vitamin D helps absorb calcium into the bones. When we are vitamin D deficient, we can end up with brittle bones, or if we are deficient as children, we can get Rickets, which is a bone development issue.
Vitamin D has other functions as well: it helps reduce the risk of some cancers, including colon cancer, and it’s very important for thyroid function.
In addition to the fact that many people are not getting enough vitamin D from dietary sources, there’s another issue. Vitamin D is made by the sun — the sun helps activate the vitamin D in our bodies. And most of us are spending a lot less time outside than our early ancestors did, and wearing sunscreen to protect us from harmful UV rays and the risk of sun cancer. Unfortunately, this also blocks the UV light we need to activate the vitamin D in our bodies.
If you think you might be vitamin D deficient, there’s a very simple test your doctor can do to determine your vitamin D levels. And if you’re found to have low vitamin D, there are great ways to increase it. Many dairy products are fortified with Vitamin A and D, and you can take supplements. Vitamin D comes in both capsules and drops, so it’s very easy to replace those vitamin D levels if they’re low. It’s important to note that many vitamin D supplements are sourced from sheep glands, so look for a hearty plant-based Vitamin D3 supplement.
Vitamin B12 is very important for neurological health. It’s crucial to nerve function, and to our immune system. If you have a vitamin B12 deficiency, you may start noticing issues with immunity, or if it’s drastic, a decrease in nerve function such as paralysis or weakness of some muscles, or numbness in parts of your body.
Luckily, vitamin B12 is easily absorbed, and tends to stay in the body for a long time. However, if you’re a vegetarian, or vegan, you should pay close attention to your B12 levels. The main sources of vitamin B12 are in meats and animal products, so vegetarians may need to be intentional about looking for other sources. A lot of whole grains, such as farro, are fortified with vitamin B12.
Like vitamin D, your doctor can easily test for a B12 deficiency, and there are multiple ways to replenish it through supplements and food sources.
There is also a special category of people who lack something called Intrinsic Factor. Intrinsic factor is a very important molecule that helps get vitamin B12 out of the stomach and intestines, and into the bloodstream. If you genetically lack that molecule, you can end up with extremely low levels of B12, making it even more important to supplement. In this case, you may even need vitamin B12 injections. Fortunately, as we discussed, it stays in the body for a long time, so even if that’s the case, some injections will get you back on the right track.
This is a relatively common deficiency, worldwide. Vitamin A is really important for our eyes, as it helps make a certain molecule called Rhodopsin, which is very important in the retina, and allows us to see, especially with night vision. In fact, vitamin A deficiency is a leading case of blindness in the world. It’s less common in the United States, but it still can happen.
Your doctor can test for this deficiency as well, but luckily, we get a lot of vitamin A from food sources. Vitamin A can be found in things like broccoli, spinach, and orange foods like carrots and sweet potatoes, which are rich sources of this vitamin. So chances are, you are actually getting enough vitamin A in your diet.
One important thing to know about vitamin A is that it is fat soluble, meaning it stores in the fat. So unlike some of the water soluble vitamins, you can’t take too much of it. That’s why it’s very important, if you’re taking a vitamin A supplement, to look closely at the dose. It shouldn’t be high in vitamin A. If you take too much vitamin A, and it stores too much in your body, you can end up with devastating consequences, including fatigue, brain damage, or even coma. So be careful!
Symptoms that Could Indicate Less Common Deficiencies
Brittle Hair and Nails
Maybe you’ve noticed that your hair breaks easily, and that your nails don’t grow well or break frequently. There can be a lot of reasons for this, but one reason is a decreased level of biotin, in your blood. Biotin is also known as vitamin B7, and is an important vitamin for hair and nail health. Fortunately, vitamin B7 is very plentiful in egg yolks, nuts, and seeds.
Sores in and Around the Mouth
If you get little cracks or sores at the corners of your mouth, or canker sores inside the mouth, these are often caused by viruses. However, studies have shown that people who are deficient in vitamins B1 and B6 are more likely to get these ulcers and get them more frequently. So if you find that you get these more often than you should, you may not be getting enough B1 (Thiamin) or B6 (Pyridoxine) in your diet.
These vitamins are readily available in eggs, as well as grains like farro, and other whole grains and whole wheat. A lot of foods are fortified with Thiamin as well. One important note is that alcohol can deplete Thiamin levels in your blood, so people who drink a lot of alcohol end up with very low levels of Thiamin. This is such an important vitamin for our metabolism, that sometimes alcoholics need to receive Thiamin infusions to restore their levels to where they need to be.
This can be caused by poor oral care. If you don’t brush or floss properly, bacteria can build up in the mouth, leading to gum disease. However, a vitamin C deficiency can also lead to gum disease!
Although we don’t deal with it as much anymore, a condition called scurvy was once a serious problem, especially for sailors crossing the Atlantic, because there was no way to keep fruits and vegetables on board for long periods of time, so sailors were eating primarily fats and fish. Fruits and vegetables are a primary source of vitamin C, which is very important for gum health because it helps make the collagen molecule that is vital for our gums and connective tissues. So people with a vitamin C deficiency could experience problems with connective tissues, like a weak vascular system, resulting in easy bruising. This vitamin is also important for wound healing, so if you cut yourself and it takes a long time to heal, a vitamin C deficiency could be the culprit.
If you have dandruff (flaky skin, especially at the scalp) or seborrheic dermatitis (itchy redness in the face, especially around the nose or forehead), this could be an issue with bacterial infections. However, a deficiency in B3 (Niacin) or B2 can both increase increase the symptoms of these skin conditions. So if you’re experiencing a lot of flaky skin or itching, you may want to increase your sources of vitamin B3 and B2.
Niacin is very common in sweet potatoes, nuts and seeds like chia seeds, and green vegetables like broccoli and kale.
Hair loss can be caused by many things, including stress, and genetics. However, there are a couple of things you can take that can really help improve your hair and slow down hair loss. The Biotin (vitamin B7) we already discussed is helpful, as well as alpha linolenic acid, and plain linolenic acid. You can find these in chia seeds, and dark leafy green vegetables, so following a healthy diet can help reduce or slow down hair loss.
So that’s a rundown of some of the common deficiencies we see, as well as some symptoms that could indicate less common vitamin deficiencies. This is a great reason to make sure your diet is full of healthy fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, which is where you will get the bulk of your vitamins. If you need to augment your diet, find a supplement that can fill in the gaps, like Smarter Nutrition’s multivitamin, which is sourced primarily from organic food sources, and included in the right, balanced amounts so you don’t get an overdose or underdose of these important vitamins.