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7 common nutritional deficiencies and symptoms

  • , by SANUSq Research team
Causes and symptoms of nutritional deficiencies

Eating a well-balanced diet provides your body with all the nutrition it needs for proper growth and functioning. You need proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants that enable growth, development, maintenance and healthy ageing.

Important and life-critical processes like heartbeat, bone formation, nerve transmission and immune function work well when you have healthy levels of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients in the body. Adequate nutrition is not only important for physical health but also keeps your emotional and mental health in good shape.

Unexplained fatigue, poor energy levels, pale skin, recurring aches and pains in the body, hair loss, excessive sleeping or lack of sleep and mouth ulcers are some of the common signs of nutritional deficiencies. Long-term, chronic deficiencies can even increase the risk of serious health conditions such as anemia, osteoporosis, thyroid disorders, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, fertility issues and neurological disorders.

Nutritional deficiencies in pregnant women not only creates problems for the mother but can also have an adverse effect on fetal growth and development. Maternal deficiencies are known to cause birth defects and can also increase the risk of developing chronic diseases and allergies in children later in life.

Unhealthy dietary choices are arguably the most common causes of nutritional deficiencies. Other factors such as chronic health conditions, use of certain medications (that may affect or interact with the absorption of nutrients), gastro-intestinal diseases such as celiac or Crohn’s disease and excessive smoking and drinking also leech vital nutrients from the body, resulting in poor nutritional status. Did you know chronic stress also depletes important vitamins and minerals such as magnesium?

Let’s look at some of the common nutritional deficiencies, their causes and symptoms.

1.    Vitamin D Deficiency

Vitamin D deficiency is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies, and is a worldwide problem. Besides maintaining bone health, vitamin D plays an incredibly important role in regulating immunity and reducing the risk of autoimmune disorders [1], upper respiratory infections and heart disease, according to emerging research. It also supports eye health, gut health and healthy pregnancy. Did you know you need vitamin D for healthy thyroid function too? Vitamin D, together with other vitamins and minerals, helps in the conversion of inactive thyroid (T4) hormone into active and usable thyroid (T3) hormone.

Vitamin D deficiency is associated with reduced bone density, and can cause rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults. Inadequate vitamin D can also cause poor thyroid function, diabetes, infections, some types of cancer, dry eyes, adverse pregnancy outcomes (gestational diabetes and preeclampsia) [2-4], and increased risk of allergies.  

You can make your own vitamin D when you expose your skin to the sunlight. But this natural process of obtaining vitamin D from the sun depends on several factors, for example, colour of your skin, where you live, the season and the duration of sun exposure. If you live far from the equator, your skin will not be able to make a sufficient amount of Vitamin D3 from the sunlight, especially during winters. In addition the UVB rays (the type that helps your skin to synthesise Vitamin D) are strongest around noon.

Inadequate sun exposure, old age, obesity, chronic liver or kidney disease and diseases that interfere with the absorption of nutrients in the small intestine (Celiac and Crohn's disease) are some important causes of vitamin D deficiency. Some foods such as oily fish and egg yolk contain some vitamin D but not enough to prevent deficiency.  Magnesium deficiency is another risk factor for less than optimal vitamin D levels as you need magnesium to process and absorb vitamin D that you get from food, sunlight and supplements.

What does vitamin D deficiency feel like? Some of the common symptoms of vitamin D3 deficiency include excessive fatigue, painful leg cramps, muscle and joint pain, and getting sick frequently. Other signs may include excessive sweating, mood changes, depression and gut issues. Taking high quality vitamin D3 supplements and stepping out in the sun for the right duration and at the right time (if you are not at the risk for developing skin cancer) can help you prevent vitamin D deficiency.

2.    Vitamin B12 deficiency

Vitamin B12 is an important player in your nervous system and brain health. You also need vitamin B12 to make healthy red blood cells and its shortage can result in the formation of abnormally large and underdeveloped red blood cells, leading to vitamin B12 deficiency anaemia. [5]

People on a strict vegetarian diet are likely to have vitamin B12 deficiency as it is not found in plant foods. Other causes of vitamin B12 deficiency include lack of intrinsic factor (IF), a protein produced by cells lining of the stomach. IF helps in the absorption of B12 in the small intestine. Pernicious anaemia (an autoimmune disorder where your immune cells destroy stomach cells responsible for secreting intrinsic factor), atrophic gastritis (thinning of stomach lining), and abdominal surgery can reduce IF in the body.

In addition, Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, gastric bypass surgery or surgery that removes some or all parts of small intestines, bacterial overgrowth in small intestine, tapeworm infection and use of certain medications (such as antidiabetic drug metformin, proton pump inhibitors and H2 blockers) are some important risk factors for developing vitamin B12 deficiency.

Since vitamin B12 is involved in a number of functions – including synthesis of DNA, myelin sheath, healthy red blood cells and neurotransmitters, its deficiency can trigger a spectrum of symptoms such as fatigue and shortness of breath caused by anaemia, mouth ulcers, balance issues, sluggish reflexes, and ‘pins and needles’ sensation in the limbs. Vitamin B12 deficiency can also induce symptoms like poor memory, blurred vision and ringing in the ears.

Taking high quality vitamin B12 supplements can reverse most symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency. Mild symptoms like tingling sensation, fatigue and muscle weakness are reversible if you are able to address your deficiency in time. However, some damage (such as damage to the nerves) can be devastating and permanent if the deficiency is severe and chronic.

3.    Vitamin B6 deficiency

Vitamin B6 works as a coenzyme and helps more than 100 enzymes to carry out a wide range of biochemical reactions. It helps the body to convert food into energy and to breakdown proteins, fats and carbohydrates. This versatile vitamin is also involved in the production of important neurotransmitters epinephrine, serotonin and dopamine, thus contributing to healthy brain function and mood.

You also need vitamin B6 for the production of red blood cells and conversion of iron into haemoglobin. It is easily found in foods such as chickpeas, beef liver, poultry, tuna, salmon, bananas, nuts, raisins and dark leafy greens.

You can get vitamin B6 deficiency from not eating enough B6 rich foods, excessive intake of alcohol, absorption issues, and use of certain medications such as corticosteroids and some drugs used to treat seizures, Parkinson’s disease, TB and high blood pressure.

Vitamin B6 deficiency can cause symptoms such as itchy skin rash, cracked lips, sore tongue, poor immunity, tiredness, low energy, and numbness in the hands and feet.

Severe deficiency can also lead to mood changes and seizures. Research suggests that vitamin B6 supplements can help with nausea in pregnancy. [6] It is also required for healthy growth and development of the foetus during pregnancy.

4.    Vitamin A deficiency

Vitamin A is not a single vitamin, but a group of compounds found in foods such as green leafy vegetables, eggs, sweet potatoes and colourful vegetables like pumpkin, squash and carrots. You need vitamin A to maintain healthy vision and immunity. It also helps in the formation and maintenance of teeth, bones, hair, skin and mucous membranes.

Too little of this vitamin can cause night blindness, infertility, stunted growth, and frequent infections. Since vitamin A keeps the inner lining of many organs healthy, vitamin A deficiency can lead to dryness and damage to tissues such as skin and eyes. 

While it is not common to get toxicity from consuming vitamin A rich foods, care must be taken when you are taking vitamin A supplements. Too much of vitamin A can cause toxicity with symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, light sensitivity, dry rough skin, bone pain, vision changes and even birth defects.

5.    Iron deficiency

Iron plays an important role in the synthesis of haemoglobin, a protein found in the red blood cells. Hemoglobin transports oxygen from the lungs to every part of the body. Iron also helps in the production of myoglobin, a protein found in the muscle cells. It stores oxygen that is used by muscles during exercise and other activities.

You can get iron deficiency from a diet low in iron, absorption issues, heavy bleeding during periods, vitamin C deficiency and gastrointestinal bleeding. Lack of iron in the body can cause iron deficiency anaemia with symptoms such as extreme fatigue, pale skin, tiredness, dizziness, light-headedness, shortness of breath and fast heartbeat. Iron deficiency anaemia can also trigger abnormal cravings for non-food items substances like ice and dirt.

You can get iron from foods such as red meat, poultry, seafood, peas, sweet potatoes, broccoli, green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale. Dates, figs, raisins, lentils and pumpkin seeds are also a good source of iron. Consuming vitamin C rich foods helps as you need vitamin C to absorb iron. Haem iron, found in meat, is more easily absorbed by the body that the non-haem iron found in plant based foods. Taking coffee, tea and calcium supplements with iron can interfere with iron absorption from foods and supplements.

6.    Calcium deficiency

Calcium is required to build and maintain healthy bones and teeth. While this role of calcium is widely known, the mineral is also involved in many important functions such as blood clotting, nerve transmission and muscle contraction. It also helps in the secretion of neurotransmitters.

Calcium deficiency is common in people who have lactose intolerance, in vegetarians, and in postmenopausal women. Other nutritional deficiencies such as vitamin D or magnesium deficiency can also make the body deficient in calcium.

Calcium deficiency can cause weak and brittle bones that can break easily. Insufficient calcium in the body can also trigger muscle spasms, irregular heartbeat and seizures in healthy people. You can get calcium from foods such as dairy, sesame seeds, chia seeds, dried figs, almonds, broccoli and sardines. Some dark green leafy vegetables such as okra and kale also provide dietary calcium.

You cannot absorb calcium from food or supplements if you have vitamin D deficiency as vitamin D helps in calcium absorption. At this point it is also important to note that your body needs a healthy amount of magnesium to absorb and use Vitamin D. [7] In addition your body depends on vitamin K2 to use the absorbed calcium effectively, another example of perfect nutritional synergy that your body works on. For example, vitamin K2 drives the calcium to the bones and keeps it from accumulating in soft tissues such as blood vessels, kidneys and intestines. 

7.    Magnesium Deficiency

Magnesium works as a cofactor in hundreds of biochemical reactions critical for survival and sustenance. You need magnesium for important processes such as energy production, DNA synthesis and repair, and vitamin D absorption. This multifaceted mineral is also involved in maintaining healthy calcium levels and in the production of glutathione, a very important anti-oxidant that your body needs for detoxification.

Did you know that magnesium helps you deal with stress and keeps you calm? It does so by regulating stress hormones. Magnesium also regulates the activity of glutamate and calcium, a job required for the smooth and proper functioning of your nervous system.  
What causes magnesium deficiency? While you can easily get magnesium from foods such as grain nuts seeds and fruits, depletion of minerals from our soil and water has led to the shortage of important minerals in our food chain. In addition, factors such as chronic stress, recurring infections, and alcohol abuse remove magnesium from the body.

Some of the important magnesium deficiency symptoms to watch out for are heightened stress, increased anxiety, muscle cramps, migraine, constipation and low energy levels. Tinnitus which is ringing in the ears, acid reflux and increased PMS are some other important signs that you may have magnesium deficiency.

Mild nutritional deficiencies can be reversed by eating a healthy, wholesome diet packed with vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants. You may even need to take nutritional supplements if you have a health condition that interferes with proper absorption in the intestines. Surgeries, stress, acute or chronic infections, excessive drinking and smoking and poor dietary choices may increase your nutritional requirements, where diet may not help alone. Pale skin, fatigue, wide-spread aches, irregular heartbeat and mouth ulcers may indicate a nutritional deficiency or a combination of several deficiencies. Consult your doctor to find out the root cause so that you can proactively address the deficiency before it can aggravate, increasing the risk of permanent damage and serious chronic conditions.


  1. Ifigenia Kostoglou-Athanassiou, Lambros Athanassiou and Panagiotis Athanassiou. Vitamin D and Autoimmune Diseases. Intechopen. 2019.
  2. Hollis et al. New insights into the vitamin D requirements during pregnancy. Bone Res. 2017
  3. Sasan et al. The Effects of Vitamin D Supplement on Prevention of Recurrence of Preeclampsia in Pregnant Women with a History of Preeclampsia. Obstet Gynecol Int. 2017
  4. Bakacak et al. Comparison of Vitamin D levels in cases with preeclampsia, eclampsia and healthy pregnant women. Int J Clin Exp Med. 2015
  5. Vitamin B12 Deficiency Anemia. John Hopkins Medicine.
  6. Mc Parlin et al. Treatments for Hyperemesis Gravidarum and Nausea and Vomiting in Pregnancy. JAMA. 2016.
  7. Uwitonze et al. Role of Magnesium in Vitamin D Activation and Function. The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association. 2018


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