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7 Nutrient Deficiencies That Are Incredibly Common

Health + Wellness
Mr.TinDC / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

By Adda Bjarnadottir, MS

Many nutrients are essential for good health.


While it's possible to get most of them from a balanced diet, the typical Western diet is low in several very important nutrients.

This article lists 7 nutrient deficiencies that are incredibly common.


1. Iron Deficiency

Iron is an essential mineral.

It's a large component of red blood cells, in which it binds with hemoglobin and transports oxygen to your cells.

The two types of dietary iron are:

  • Heme iron. This type of iron is very well absorbed. It's only found in animal foods, with red meat containing particularly high amounts.
  • Non-heme iron. This type, found in both animal and plant foods, is more common. It is not absorbed as easily as heme iron.

Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the world, affecting more than 25% of people worldwide (1Trusted Source, 2Trusted Source).

This number rises to 47% in preschool children. Unless they're given iron-rich or iron-fortified foods, they are very likely to lack iron.

Around 30% of menstruating women may be deficient as well due to monthly blood loss, and up to 42% of young, pregnant women may be deficient as well.

Additionally, vegetarians and vegans have an increased risk of deficiency because they consume only non-heme iron, which is not absorbed as well as heme iron (3Trusted Source, 4Trusted Source).

The most common consequence of iron deficiency is anemia, in which the number of your red blood cells and your blood's ability to carry oxygen drops.

Symptoms usually include tiredness, weakness, a weakened immune system, and impaired brain function (5Trusted Source, 6).

The best dietary sources of heme iron include (7Trusted Source):

  • Red meat. 3 ounces (85 grams) of ground beef provide almost 30% of the Daily Value (DV).
  • Organ meat. One slice (81 grams) of liver gives more than 50% of the DV.
  • Shellfish. Clams, mussels, and oysters are excellent sources of heme iron, with 3 ounces (85 grams) of cooked oysters packing roughly 50% of the DV.
  • Canned sardines. One 3.75-ounce (106-gram) can offer 34% of the DV.

The best dietary sources of non-heme iron include:

  • Beans. Half a cup (85 grams) of cooked kidney beans provides 33% of the DV.
  • Seeds. Pumpkin, sesame, and squash seeds are good sources of non-heme iron. One ounce (28 grams) of roasted pumpkin or squash seeds contains 11% of the DV.
  • Dark, leafy greens. Broccoli, kale, and spinach are rich in iron. One ounce (28 grams) of fresh kale provides 5.5% of the DV.

However, you should never supplement with iron unless you truly need it. Too much iron can be very harmful.

Notably, vitamin C can enhance the absorption of iron. Eating vitamin-C-rich foods like oranges, kale, and bell peppers alongside iron-rich foods can help maximize your iron absorption.

Summary

Iron deficiency is very common, especially among young women, children, and vegetarians. It may cause anemia, fatigue, a weakened immune system, and impaired brain function.

2. Iodine Deficiency

Iodine is an essential mineral for normal thyroid function and the production of thyroid hormones (8Trusted Source).

Thyroid hormones are involved in many bodily processes, such as growth, brain development, and bone maintenance. They also regulate your metabolic rate.

Iodine deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies, affecting nearly a third of the world's population (9Trusted Source, 10Trusted Source, 11Trusted Source).

The most common symptom of iodine deficiency is an enlarged thyroid gland, also known as a goiter. It may also cause an increase in heart rate, shortness of breath, and weight gain (8Trusted Source).

Severe iodine deficiency is linked to serious harm, especially in children. It may cause mental retardation and developmental abnormalities (8Trusted Source, 10Trusted Source).

Good dietary sources of iodine include (7Trusted Source):

  • Seaweed. Only 1 gram of kelp packs 460–1,000% of the DV.
  • Fish. Three ounces (85 grams) of baked cod provide 66% of the DV.
  • Dairy. One cup (245 grams) of plain yogurt offers about 50% of the DV.
  • Eggs: One large egg contains 16% of the DV.

However, these amounts can vary greatly. As iodine is found mostly in soil and ocean water, iodine-poor soil will result in low-iodine food.

Some countries mandate the enrichment of table salt with iodine, which has successfully reduced the incidence of deficiencies (12Trusted Source).

Summary

Iodine is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the world. It may cause enlargement of the thyroid gland. Severe iodine deficiency can cause mental retardation and developmental abnormalities in children.

3. Vitamin D Deficiency

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that functions like a steroid hormone in your body.

It travels through your bloodstream and into cells, telling them to turn genes on or off. Almost every cell in your body has a receptor for vitamin D.

Vitamin D is produced from cholesterol in your skin upon exposure to sunlight. Thus, people who live far from the equator are likely to be deficient unless their dietary intake is adequate or they supplement with vitamin D (13Trusted Source, 14Trusted Source).

In the United States, about 42% of people may be deficient in this vitamin. This number rises to 74% in older adults and 82% in people with dark skin since their skin produces less vitamin D in response to sunlight (15Trusted Source, 16Trusted Source).

Vitamin D deficiency is not usually obvious, as its symptoms are subtle and may develop over years or decades (17Trusted Source, 18Trusted Source).

Adults who are deficient in vitamin D may experience muscle weakness, bone loss, and an increased risk of fractures. In children, it may cause growth delays and soft bones (rickets) (17Trusted Source, 20Trusted Source, 21Trusted Source).

Also, vitamin D deficiency may play a role in reduced immune function and an increased risk of cancer (22).

While very few foods contain significant amounts of this vitamin, the best dietary sources are (23):

  • Cod liver oil. A single tablespoon (15 ml) packs 227% of the DV.
  • Fatty fish. Salmon, mackerel, sardines, and trout are rich in vitamin D. A small, 3-ounce (85-gram) serving of cooked salmon provides 75% of the DV.
  • Egg yolks. One large egg yolk contains 7% of the DV.

People who are deficient may want to take a supplement or increase their sun exposure. It is hard to get sufficient amounts through diet alone.

Summary

Vitamin D deficiency is very common. Symptoms include muscle weakness, bone loss, an increased risk of fractures, and — in children — soft bones. It is very difficult to get sufficient amounts from your diet alone.

4. Vitamin B12 Deficiency

Vitamin B12, also known as cobalamin, is a water-soluble vitamin.

It is essential for blood formation, as well as brain and nerve function.

Every cell in your body needs B12 to function normally, but your body is unable to produce it. Therefore, you must get it from food or supplements.

B12 is only found in sufficient amounts in animal foods, although certain types of seaweed may provide small quantities. Therefore, people who do not eat animal products are at an increased risk of deficiency.

Studies indicate that up to 80–90% of vegetarians and vegans may be deficient in vitamin B12 (24Trusted Source, 25Trusted Source).

More than 20% of older adults may also be deficient in this vitamin since absorption decreases with age (26Trusted Source, 27Trusted Source, 28Trusted Source).

B12 absorption is more complex than that of other vitamins because it's aided by a protein known as intrinsic factor. Some people are lacking in this protein and may thus need B12 injections or higher doses of supplements.

One common symptom of vitamin B12 deficiency is megaloblastic anemia, which is a blood disorder that enlarges your red blood cells.

Other symptoms include impaired brain function and elevated homocysteine levels, which is a risk factor for several diseases (29Trusted Source, 30Trusted Source).

Dietary sources of vitamin B12 include (7Trusted Source):

  • Shellfish. Clams and oysters are rich in vitamin B12. A 3-ounce (85-gram) portion of cooked clams provides 1,400% of the DV.
  • Organ meat. One 2-ounce (60-gram) slice of liver packs more than 1,000% of the DV.
  • Meat. A small, 6-ounce (170-gram) beef steak offers 150% the DV.
  • Eggs. One whole egg provides about 6% of the DV.
  • Milk products. One cup (240 ml) of whole milk contains about 18% of the DV.

Vitamin B12 isn't considered harmful in large amounts because it's often poorly absorbed and easily excreted.

Summary

Vitamin B12 deficiency is very common, especially in vegetarians, vegans, and older adults. The most common symptoms include blood disorders, impaired brain function, and elevated homocysteine levels.

5. Calcium Deficiency

Calcium is essential for every cell in your body. It mineralizes bones and teeth, especially during times of rapid growth. It is also very important for bone maintenance.

Additionally, calcium serves as a signaling molecule. Without it, your heart, muscles, and nerves would not be able to function.

The calcium concentration in your blood is tightly regulated, and any excess is stored in bones. If your intake is lacking, your bones will release calcium.

That is why the most common symptom of calcium deficiency is osteoporosis, characterized by softer and more fragile bones.

One survey in the United States found that fewer than 15% of teenage girls, fewer than 10% of women over 50, and fewer than 22% of teenage boys and men over 50 met the recommended calcium intake (31Trusted Source).

Although supplementing increased these numbers slightly, most people were still not getting enough calcium.

Symptoms of more severe dietary calcium deficiency include soft bones (rickets) in children and osteoporosis, especially in older adults (32Trusted Source, 33Trusted Source).

Dietary sources of calcium include (7Trusted Source):

  • Boned fish. One can (92 grams) of sardines contains 44% of the DV.
  • Dairy products. One cup (240 ml) of milk provides 35% of the DV.
  • Dark green vegetables. Kale, spinach, bok choy, and broccoli are rich in calcium. Just 1 ounce (28 grams) of fresh kale offers 5.6% of the DV.

The effectiveness and safety of calcium supplements have been somewhat debated in the last few years.

Some studies demonstrate an increased risk of heart disease in people taking calcium supplements, although other studies have found no effects (34Trusted Source, 35Trusted Source, 36Trusted Source).

While it's best to get calcium from food rather than supplements, these supplements seem to benefit people who are not getting enough in their diet (37Trusted Source).

Summary

Low calcium intake is very common, especially in women of all ages and older adults. The main symptom of calcium deficiency is an increased risk of osteoporosis later in life.

6. Vitamin A Deficiency

Vitamin A is an essential fat-soluble vitamin. It helps form and maintain healthy skin, teeth, bones, and cell membranes. Furthermore, it produces eye pigments, which are necessary for vision (38).

There are two different types of dietary vitamin A (7Trusted Source):

  • Preformed vitamin A. This type of vitamin A is found in animal products like meat, fish, poultry, and dairy.
  • Pro-vitamin A. This type is found in plant-based foods like fruits and vegetables. Beta carotene, which your body turns into vitamin A, is the most common form.

More than 75% of people who eat a Western diet get more than enough vitamin A and do not need to worry about deficiency (39Trusted Source).

However, vitamin A deficiency is very common in many developing countries. About 44–50% of preschool-aged children in certain regions have vitamin A deficiency. This number is around 30% in Indian women (40Trusted Source, 41Trusted Source).

Vitamin A deficiency can cause both temporary and permanent eye damage and may even lead to blindness. In fact, this deficiency is the world's leading cause of blindness.

Vitamin A deficiency can also suppress immune function and increase mortality, especially among children and pregnant or breastfeeding women (40Trusted Source).

Dietary sources of preformed vitamin A include (7Trusted Source):

  • Organ meat. One 2-ounce (60-gram) slice of beef liver provides more than 800% of the DV.
  • Fish liver oil. One tablespoon (15 ml) packs roughly 500% of the DV.

Dietary sources of beta carotene (pro-vitamin A) include:

  • Sweet potatoes. One medium, 6-ounce (170-gram) boiled sweet potato contains 150% of the DV.
  • Carrots. One large carrot provides 75% of the DV.
  • Dark green, leafy vegetables. One ounce (28 grams) of fresh spinach provides 18% of the DV.

While it is very important to consume enough of this vitamin, too much preformed vitamin A may cause toxicity.

This does not apply to pro-vitamin A, such as beta carotene. High intake may cause your skin to turn slightly orange, but this effect isn't dangerous.

Summary

Vitamin A deficiency is very common in many developing countries. It may cause eye damage and blindness, as well as suppress immune function and increase mortality among women and children.

7. Magnesium Deficiency

Magnesium is a key mineral in your body.

Essential for bone and teeth structure, it's also involved in more than 300 enzyme reactions (42Trusted Source).

Almost half of the U.S. population consumes less than the required amount of magnesium (43Trusted Source).

Low intake and blood levels of magnesium are associated with several conditions, including type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, and osteoporosis (43Trusted Source, 44Trusted Source).

Low levels are particularly common among hospitalized patients. Some studies find that 9–65% of them are deficient (45Trusted Source, 46Trusted Source, 47Trusted Source).

Deficiency may be caused by disease, drug use, reduced digestive function, or inadequate magnesium intake (48Trusted Source).

The main symptoms of severe magnesium deficiency include abnormal heart rhythm, muscle cramps, restless leg syndrome, fatigue, and migraines (49Trusted Source, 50Trusted Source, 51Trusted Source).

More subtle, long-term symptoms that you may not notice include insulin resistance and high blood pressure.

Dietary sources of magnesium include (7Trusted Source):

  • Whole grains. One cup (170 grams) of oats contains 74% of the DV.
  • Nuts. Twenty almonds pack 17% of the DV.
  • Dark chocolate. One ounce (30 grams) of dark chocolate offers 15% of the DV.
  • Dark green, leafy vegetables. One ounce (30 grams) of raw spinach provides 6% of the DV.

Summary

Magnesium deficiency is common in Western countries, and low intake is associated with many health conditions and diseases.

The Bottom Line

It is possible to be deficient in almost every nutrient. That said, the deficiencies listed above are by far the most common.

Children, young women, older adults, vegetarians, and vegans seem to be at the highest risk of several deficiencies.

The best way to prevent deficiency is to eat a balanced diet that includes whole, nutrient-dense foods. However, supplements may be necessary for those who can't obtain enough from diet alone.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Healthline.

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The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

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We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

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What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

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Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

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