Everyone knows that we need vitamins and minerals to keep our bodies healthy. But how do you know when you aren't meeting your body's needs?
"There are many telltale signs of vitamin and mineral deficiencies," says Patricia Graham, MD, an internal medicine specialist at Rush University Medical Center. "But the good news is that often, if you take steps to address the deficiency, the symptoms will either improve or go away altogether."
Here, Graham walks through six red-flag scenarios, and how you might reverse any deficiencies found.
1. Severe hair loss
While everyone loses about 100 strands of hair a day, suddenly finding clumps of hair on your pillow or in your shower drain merits a mention to your doctor. It could be a sign of bigger issues, such as low iron levels, which affects your energy, or thyroid disease, which could lead to sudden unexplained weight gain or weight loss.
"Always get that checked out," Graham says. "We will do a blood test to check your iron levels."
If your iron levels are low, you might also always feel cold, have headaches and feel dizzy often. If you have a thyroid disorder, it can make your muscles weak, your joints ache and your skin dry and pale.
Reversing iron deficiency
The good news is you can eliminate an iron deficiency with supplements. The recommended daily allowance (RDA) is 8 mg for men over 18 years old and 18 mg for women.
"It might take three to four months to remedy, but it is doable," Graham says. Be sure to also include iron-rich foods in your diet, such as spinach and beans.
2. Burning sensation in the feet or tongue
"If you're experiencing this, it should definitely sound an alarm," Graham says. Talk to your doctor, who will likely order a blood test to check your B12 levels. You almost might have issues with balance, constipation and dry skin.
B12 plays an essential role in your health by producing hemoglobin, part of your red blood cells that helps the cells in your body receive life-giving oxygen. The vitamin is needed for a variety of systems, like your digestive tract, to work properly.
In addition, B12 deficiency can create mild cognitive impairment, so if you're experiencing any changes in memory, thinking or behavior, see your doctor. Over time, B12 deficiency can permanently damage your nervous system, traveling up the spine and into the brain.
Vegans take special note: Plant-based diets eliminate most foods (meat and dairy products) rich in B12, increasing the risk of deficiency. But you can get your daily dose from almond milk, nutritional yeast, and fortified soy and coconut milk.
"It can take a long time to become deficient in B12 — as long as three years to deplete the liver of this important vitamin," she says. "But over time, not having enough B12 can seriously damage vital functions and it must be addressed."
Raising your B12 level
Taking B12 supplements will bring back and maintain proper B12 levels. "The body does not create B12 on its own," Graham explains.
Healthy adults should take in 2.4 mg of B12 daily. For some, especially those with autoimmune diseases like pernicious anemia, B12 must be taken in shot form to help carry B12 directly to stomach cells.
Calcium regulates your heartbeat. So a deficiency could cause an arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat, and even lead to chest pains.
3. Wounds are slow to heal
If you are diligent about brushing and flossing daily and your gums are still red, swollen and bleed, you might need to boost your vitamin C intake. Another sign might be that you bruise easily.
"Vitamin C is like a cement. It pulls the cells together and makes wounds heal," Graham says.
In fact, vitamin C has many powers, including serving as an anti-inflammatory and as an antioxidant to limit damage to cells.
Boosting vitamin C
First and foremost: If you smoke, take steps to quit. Among its many negative effects on your health, smoking limits your body's ability to absorb vitamin C.
Also, eat more fruits and vegetables high in vitamin C, including kiwi, red bell peppers and, of course, oranges. Healthy adults should get 60 mg of vitamin C each day.
4. Bone pain
If you are feeling pains in your bones, you might be deficient in vitamin D.
"If you’re an adult and it feels like you’re having growing pains — like you had as a kid — tell your doctor," Graham says.
Treating vitamin D deficiency
For adults, the RDA of vitamin D is 600 IU (800 IU for adults age 71 and older). Foods rich in vitamin D include salmon, herring, sardines, canned tuna, oysters, shrimp and mushrooms. Or, choose cow's milk, soy milk, orange juice, oatmeal and cereals that are fortified with vitamin D.
You can also get your daily dose by going out into the sunshine for 10 minutes without sunscreen (if you're going to be outdoors longer than that, make sure to put that sunscreen on to protect against potentially damaging UV rays).
For severe deficiencies, your doctor might prescribe a vitamin D supplement.
Unlike other vitamins and minerals, vitamin D levels are regularly tested in routine blood tests at your annual physical, so it's easy to identify deficiencies.
5. Irregular heartbeat
"Calcium regulates your heartbeat," Graham says. "So a deficiency could cause an arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat, and even lead to chest pains."
Other signs you might not be getting enough calcium:
- Twitches around your face and mouth. Calcium works with muscles to help them contract properly.
- Muscle cramps. Without enough calcium, the muscles do not fully relax.
- Fractures. Calcium is needed for strong bones. Without it, bone loss, or osteoporosis, can lead to more fractures.
How to get more calcium
Adults should receive 1,000 mg of calcium each day from food sources and supplements.
Calcium-rich foods include as salmon and sardines (both of which are also excellent sources of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids), broccoli and bok choi.
And, of course, dairy products — including skim milk, and nonfat or lowfat yogurt. Try swapping one daily sugary beverage (soda, juice, coffee concoctions, etc.) for an 8 oz. glass of milk. And keep a few yogurts in the fridge at home or work for midday snacks. You can also use the milk and yogurt to make homemade smoothies, with fresh or frozen berries.
6. Your night vision deteriorates
If you don't take in enough vitamin A, your night vision and the sharpness of your sight could deteriorate over time.
"A lack of vitamin A causes the cornea to become dry and that makes the eyes cloudy and can lead to vision loss," Graham says. "It can also damage your retina."
If you notice changes in your vision, schedule a visit with your ophthalmologist, who will examine the back of your eye.
Achieving an "A"
In addition to annual check-ups with your primary care doctor, see your eye doctor annually — and don't hesitate to go sooner if you start experiencing blurriness or trouble with your night vision.
Graham also recommends a diet rich in vitamin A, including milk, eggs, mangos, black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes and apricots. "You can also take supplements if your diet is not meeting your needs," she says. Aim for 900 mg of vitamin A each day if you're a man, 700 mg if you're a woman.
Simple blood tests can reveal your levels of vitamins and minerals. However, the routine blood work at your annual physical doesn't typically include most of these tests.
"Communicating your concerns with your primary care doctor is essential," Graham says. "That way, we can check out your issue and reverse the problems early on. Often the treatment for these deficiencies is fairly simple, so the key is identifying them."