Vitamin Deficiency: 8 Typical Symptoms

Symptoms of vitamin deficiency include brittle hair and nails, mouth ulcers, hair loss, scaly skin patches, and more. Recognizing these signs can help you adjust your diet accordingly.

A well-balanced and nutritious diet has many benefits. On the other hand, a diet lacking in nutrients may cause various unpleasant symptoms. These symptoms are your body’s way of communicating potential vitamin and mineral deficiencies. This article reviews the 8 most common signs of vitamin and mineral deficiencies and how to address them.

1. Brittle hair and nails

A variety of factors may cause brittle hair and nails. One of them is a lack of biotin.

Biotin, also known as vitamin B7, helps the body convert food into energy. A deficiency in biotin is very rare, but when it occurs, brittle, thinning, or splitting hair and nails are some of the most noticeable symptoms. Other symptoms of biotin deficiency include chronic fatigue, muscle pain, cramps, and tingling in the hands and feet. Pregnant women, heavy smokers or drinkers, and people with digestive disorders like Crohn’s disease are at the greatest risk of developing biotin deficiency.

Also, the prolonged use of antibiotics and some anti-seizure medications is a risk factor. Eating raw egg whites may cause biotin deficiency as well. That’s because raw egg whites contain avidin, a protein that binds to biotin and can reduce its absorption. Foods rich in biotin include egg yolks, organ meats, fish, meat, dairy, nuts, seeds, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, yeast, whole grains, and bananas. However, only a few small studies and case reports have observed the benefits of supplementing with biotin, so a biotin-rich diet may be the best choice.

Summary Biotin is a B vitamin involved in many body functions. It plays an important role in strengthening hair and nails. A deficiency in this vitamin is generally rare but may occur in certain cases.

2. Mouth ulcers or cracks in the corners of the mouth

Lesions in and around the mouth may partly be linked to an insufficient intake of certain vitamins or minerals. For instance, mouth ulcers, also commonly referred to as canker sores, are often the result of deficiencies in iron or B vitamins.

One small study notes that patients with mouth ulcers appear to be twice as likely to have low iron levels. In another small study, around 28% of patients with mouth ulcers had deficiencies in thiamine (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2), and pyridoxine (vitamin B6).

Angular cheilitis, a condition that causes the corners of the mouth to crack, split, or bleed, can be caused by excess salivation or dehydration. However, it may also be caused by an insufficient intake of iron and B vitamins, particularly riboflavin.

Foods rich in iron include poultry, meat, fish, legumes, dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.

Good sources of thiamine, riboflavin, and pyridoxine include whole grains, poultry, meat, fish, eggs, dairy, organ meats, legumes, green vegetables, starchy vegetables, nuts, and seeds. If you experience these symptoms, try adding the foods above to your diet to see if your symptoms improve.

Summary People with mouth ulcers or cracks at the corners of the mouth may want to try consuming more foods rich in thiamine, riboflavin, pyridoxine, and iron to alleviate symptoms.

3. Bleeding gums

Sometimes a rough tooth brushing technique is at the root of bleeding gums, but a diet lacking in vitamin C can also be to blame. Vitamin C plays an important role in wound healing and immunity, and it even acts as an antioxidant, helping prevent cell damage.

Your body does not make vitamin C on its own, so the only way to maintain adequate levels of it is through diet. Vitamin C deficiencies are rare in individuals who consume enough fresh fruits and vegetables. That said, many people fail to eat enough fruits and vegetables each day. Routine screenings estimate low vitamin C levels in 13-30% of healthy populations, with 5-17% deficient. Vitamin C deficiency causes symptoms like bleeding gums, tooth loss, scurvy, immune system depression, muscle and bone weakness, and fatigue. Consuming very little vitamin C for extended periods can lead to serious consequences.

Other common signs of vitamin C deficiency include easy bruising, slow wound healing, dry scaly skin, and frequent nosebleeds. Consume 2+ fruits and 3-4 vegetables daily for adequate vitamin C intake.

Summary People who eat a few fresh fruits and vegetables may develop vitamin C deficiency. This can lead to unpleasant symptoms like bleeding gums, a weakened immune system, and, in severe cases, tooth loss and scurvy.

4. Poor night vision and white growths on the eyes

A nutrient-poor diet can sometimes cause vision problems. Low vitamin A intake is linked to night blindness, affecting people’s ability to see in low light or darkness. Vitamin A is essential for producing rhodopsin, a pigment in the retinas that aids night vision.

Untreated night blindness can lead to xerophthalmia, damaging the cornea and causing blindness. Bitot’s spots, white, foamy growths on the conjunctiva, are an early symptom of xerophthalmia. The growths can be removed to a certain extent but only fully disappear once the vitamin A deficiency is treated.

Fortunately, vitamin A deficiency is rare in developed countries. Those who suspect their vitamin A intake is insufficient can try eating more vitamin-A-rich foods, such as organ meats, dairy, eggs, fish, dark leafy greens, and yellow-orange colored vegetables.

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Unless diagnosed with a deficiency, most people should avoid taking vitamin A supplements. Excessive consumption of fat-soluble vitamin A can lead to serious poisoning symptoms, including nausea, headaches, skin rashes, joint and bone pain, and even death. This is due to the vitamin’s fat-soluble nature.

Summary Low vitamin A intake may cause poor night vision or growths on the white part of the eyes. Adding more vitamin-A-rich foods to your diet can help you avoid or reduce these symptoms.

5. Scaly patches and dandruff

Seborrheic dermatitis (SB) and dandruff are part of the same group of skin disorders that affects the oil-producing areas of your body. Both involve itchy, flaking skin. Dandruff mostly affects the scalp, although seborrheic dermatitis can also affect the face, upper chest, armpits, and groin.

The likelihood of these skin disorders is highest within the first 3 months of life, during puberty, and in mid-adulthood. Studies show that both conditions are also very common. Up to 42% of infants and 50% of adults may suffer from dandruff or seborrheic dermatitis at one point or another.

Dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis may be caused by many factors, with a nutrient-poor diet being one of them. Low zinc, niacin, riboflavin, and pyridoxine levels may contribute to skin conditions like dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis. Consuming more of these nutrients may help reduce the link between a nutrient-poor diet and these conditions.

Niacin, riboflavin, and pyridoxine-rich foods include whole grains, poultry, meat, eggs, dairy, legumes, green vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Seafood, meat, legumes, dairy, nuts, and whole grains are all good sources of zinc.

Stubborn dandruff and scaly patches on the scalp, eyebrows, ears, eyelids, and chest may be caused by low intake of zinc, niacin, riboflavin, and pyridoxine. Adding these nutrients to the diet may help reduce symptoms.

6. Hair loss

Hair loss is a very common symptom. In fact, up to 50% of adults report hair loss by the time they reach 50 years of age.

A diet rich in the following nutrients may help prevent or slow hair loss.

  • Iron. This mineral is involved in DNA synthesis, including that of the DNA present in hair
    follicles. Too little iron can cause hair to stop growing or fall out.
  • Zinc. This mineral is essential for protein synthesis and cell division, two processes needed for hair growth. As such, zinc deficiency may cause hair loss.
  • Linoleic acid (LA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). These essential fatty acids are required for hair growth and maintenance.
  • Niacin (vitamin B3). This vitamin is necessary for keeping hair healthy. Alopecia is a condition in which hair
    falls out in small patches, is one possible symptom of niacin deficiency.
  • Biotin (vitamin B7). Biotin is another B vitamin that, when deficient, may be linked to hair loss.

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Niacin-rich foods include meat, fish, dairy, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and leafy greens. These foods are also rich in biotin, which is also found in egg yolks and organ meat. Leafy vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and vegetable oils are rich in LA, while walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and soy nuts are rich in ALA. Diets high in the aforementioned vitamins and minerals may help prevent hair loss because they are essential for hair development. However, the use of supplements — except in cases of deficiency — may cause more harm than good.

7. Red or white bumps on the skin

Keratosis pilaris is a condition that causes goosebump-like bumps to appear on the cheeks, arms, thighs, or buttocks. These little bumps may also be accompanied by corkscrews or ingrown hairs. The condition often appears in childhood and naturally disappears in adulthood.

These little pimples may occur when hair follicles create too much keratin, however, their exact source is yet unknown. This produces red or white elevated bumps on the skin. Since keratosis pilaris may be inherited, the probability of developing it also rises if a family member already has it. That said, it has also been observed in people with diets low in vitamins A and C.

Thus, in addition to traditional treatments with medicated creams, people with this condition may consider adding foods rich in vitamins A and C to their diet.

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These include organ meats, dairy, eggs, fish, dark leafy greens, yellow-orange colored vegetables, and fruit. Inadequate intake of vitamins A and C may be linked to keratosis pilaris, a condition that leads to the appearance of red or white bumps on the skin.

8. Restless leg syndrome

Restless leg syndrome, also known as Willis-Ekbom disease, is a nerve condition causing discomfort and leg movement. It affects 10% of Americans, with women being twice as likely to experience it. For most people, the urge to move seems to intensify when they’re relaxing or trying to sleep.

While the exact causes of RLS are not fully understood, there appears to be a link between symptoms of RLS and a person’s blood iron levels. For instance, several studies link low blood iron stores to increased severity of RLS symptoms. Several studies also note that symptoms often appear during pregnancy, a time during which women’s iron levels tend to drop. Supplementing with iron generally helps decrease RLS symptoms, especially in people with a diagnosed iron deficiency.

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Unnecessary supplementation can harm the body and reduce nutrient absorption. Consult a healthcare provider before taking supplements, as high iron levels can be fatal.

Finally, some evidence suggests that magnesium insufficiency may play a role in restless leg syndrome. Restless leg syndrome is often linked to low iron levels. Those with this condition may want to increase their intake of iron-rich foods and discuss supplementation with their healthcare provider.

The bottom line

A diet that provides an insufficient intake of vitamins and minerals can cause several symptoms, some of which are more common than others. Often, increasing your intake of foods rich in the appropriate vitamins and minerals can help resolve or greatly reduce your symptoms.

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