Deficiencies of vitamins are not an uncommon problem in humans. It is also not only a nutritional problem associated with poverty, fasting or starvation. Any person can suffer with a vitamin deficiency even if they have access to sufficient food and eat well. It may be a result of not eating a balanced diet or having gut problems that prevents the digestion and even absorption of sufficient vitamins. Often, a person will not even know that they have vitamin deficiency unless it is severe and causes complications. It can even be life-threatening.
Vitamins play a number of different roles in the body. It helps to form certain stuctures in the body, assists with various biochemical processes that are necessary for sustaining health and life, used by tissues for repairing and supports the different systems like the immune system to defend the body. Vitamins are therefore a necessary micronutrient, and for that reason a deficiency will lead to symptoms and diseases over time.
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Although the term vitamin refers to a specific type of micronutrient, it is also used to describe minerals like calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron. Therefore it is not uncommon for a mineral deficiency to be incorrectly referred to as a vitamin deficiency. Furthermore, there is often multiple nutritional deficiencies occurring simultaneously. However, not all of these deficiencies may be detected or treated and the focus may only be on the most severe deficiencies.
How to Spot a Vitamin Deficiency
It is usually not easy to spot a vitamin deficiency in the early stages without diagnostic tests. There may be little to no symptoms in many instance. If the vitamin deficiency does not become severe or is not detected with laboratory investigations then a person may be completely unaware of the deficiency for long periods of time. However, this also depends on the type of vitamin deficiency.
Apart from vitamin D, the body has no ability to produce vitamins. Therefore vitamins have to be sourced from foot on a reguler basis. The fat-soluble vitamins can be stored for period of time in the body, whereas water-soluble vitamins cannot be stored in large quantities for long periods of time. Therefore water-soluble vitamins need to be consumed on a daily basis to be available for the various processes in the body.
Despite the hype around vitamin and mineral supplementation, most people who eat a balanced diet will not require any additional micronutrients. Furthermore many foods are fortified with vitamins that are commonly deficient in the general population which helps to prevent deficiencies. Therefore people who cannot access a balanced diet or choose not to eat a sufficient quantity and variety of foods are at risk of a vitamin deficiency.
Just as important is the body’s ability to digest foods, absorb nutrients like vitamins and assimilate it. Diseases of the gut, liver and other organs can therefore contribute to vitamin deficiencies even if a person is eating a balanced duet with sufficient macro- and micronutrients.
Read more on vitamin deficiencies.
Fatigue is one of the more common and early signs of almost any vitamin deficiency. However, fatigue is non-specific. It can occur with a host of medical conditions and fatigue even arises without any medical abnormality. Therefore it is difficult to associate fatigue with a vitamin deficiency specifically. A person may not just feel more tired than usual or have less stamina, but there may also be poor concentration and sleepiness.
Dulled Senses and Abnormal Sensations
The various sensory organs require different vitamins to function properly. Therefore the senses can be disrupted in the event of vitamin deficiencies, for example poor eyesight at night. In addition, deficiencies can also give rise to abnormal sensations such as pins and needles or tingling. Usually there is a concomitant mineral deficiency which affects nerve impulses and even normal musle activity, leading to symptoms like muscle weakness and cramps.
Shortness of Breath
Several vitamins play a role in the formation of red blood cells and ensuring that it has a normal oxygen-carrying capacity. When a deficiency occurs, the blood may not be able to carry sufficient oxygen. This may not be noticeable under normal daily circumstances but when a person is physically exerted then it becomes apparent. Usually it presents as a shortness of breath with moderate physical activity.
Dizziness and Lightheadedness
Dizziness and lightheadedness are other possible signs of a vitamin deficiency for several reasons. Nutrients are required for blood and heart health. If affected, oxygen capacity of the blood and distribution of the oxygen is affected to some degree. There may also be abnormalities of the heart rate and blood pressure. All of these effects may be perceived as dizziness and lightheadedness.
Paleness of the skin is another sign of vitamin deficiencies, particularly those vitamins that play a role in red blood cell formation. The color of skin is partly due to the blood flowing through it and this can be altered when there are fewer red blood cells or less hemoglobin in these cells. However, the effects of vitamin deficiencies on the skin can also alter its luster and therefore affect the appearance which may be described as paleness.
Dry and Weak Skin
The skin requires sufficient nutrients to maintain its strength and integrity. Some vitamin deficiencies can contribute to skin symptoms like dryness and poor wound healing in the event of an injury. There can sometimes be additional symptoms like itching which occurs with the skin changes due to a vitamin deficiency. Itching can also occur for othe reasons associated with nutritional deficiencies, apart from the localized effects of vitamin deficiencies on the skin.
Brittle Nails and Hair
The hair and nails, like the skin, often represent the nutritional status of the body. When some of these vitamins are deficient, there may be changes in the hair and nails. Like the skin, the hair may become dry and along with the nails it can become brittle. This means that the hair and nails may break easily. Depending on the specific deficiency and severity, there may be some degree of hair loss. Nail growth may also be affected apart from being weaker.