Nutrient deficiencies are very common, even among people who believe they’re eating a balanced diet. In North America, 31% of the population was found to be at risk of at least one vitamin deficiency or anemia, increasing the risk of health problems over a lifetime.
Your body depends on essential nutrients for growth, development and health maintenance, and deficiencies in certain vitamins can impact your immunity, vision, wound healing, bone health and much more. For example, neurological damage is possible from lack of vitamin B12, while vitamin A deficiency can lead to night blindness.
1. Vitamin D — An estimated 40% of adults are deficient in vitamin D, while 13% are severely deficient. Among older adults, however, it’s estimated that up to 100% may be deficient, in large part due to less time spent outdoors.
It’s now known that vitamin D is necessary not only for healthy bones but for health throughout the body. As a powerful epigenetic regulator, vitamin D influences the activity of more than 2,500 genes, and vitamin D receptors are present all over the body, including in the intestine, pancreas, prostate and immune system cells. Vitamin D plays a role in numerous diseases, including:
- Acute respiratory tract infections
- Chronic inflammatory diseases
- Autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis
The only way to gauge whether you might need to supplement, and how much to take, is to get your level tested, ideally twice a year, in the early spring, after the winter and early fall when your level is at its peak and low point.
2. Magnesium — It’s estimated that more than half the U.S. population may not be consuming enough magnesium. The primary role of minerals is to act as cofactors for enzymes, but that’s just the bare minimum.
You only need about 150 milligrams (mg) to 180 mg a day to prevent deficiency, but optimal levels are closer to the 600 mg/day level.
Dark green leafy vegetables are a good source of magnesium, and juicing your greens is an excellent way to boost your intake, although supplementation is likely necessary for most people. You can measure your red blood cell magnesium to see just how good your magnesium status is.
3. Vitamin K2 — There are two types of vitamin K: phylloquinone, or vitamin K1; and menaquinones, or vitamin K2. Vitamin K2, known for its role in bone and heart health, is found in grass fed animal products such as meat, eggs, liver and dairy, as well as in fermented foods, including sauerkraut, certain cheeses and the fermented soy food natto — items that many North Americans do not consume enough of.
As a general rule, if you have osteoporosis, heart disease or diabetes, you’re likely deficient in vitamin K2. Further, it’s believed that the vast majority of people are in fact deficient and would benefit from more K2, which you can achieve by eating more of the following foods:
- Certain fermented foods such as natto, or vegetables fermented using a starter culture of vitamin K2-producing bacteria
- Certain cheeses such as Brie, Munster and Gouda, which are particularly high in K2
- Grass fed organic animal products such as egg yolks, liver, butter and dairy
4. Vitamin B12 — Vitamin B12, a water-soluble vitamin also known as cobalamin, plays a role in numerous biochemical reactions and neurological functions in your body, including DNA synthesis. Your body can’t make vitamin B12 on its own, so it must be obtained via your diet or supplementation.
A deficiency can be serious and leads to a number of related changes, including personality disturbances, irritability and depression, along with a wide range of symptoms, including joint pain, “pins and needles” sensations, numbness and shortness of breath.
It’s been suggested that nearly two-fifths of North Americans may have lower than ideal B12 levels, with 9% deficient and 16% below 185 pmol/L, which is considered marginally deficient. While vegetarians and vegans are susceptible since B12 is derived from animal products, even meat eaters may be deficient, as problems with absorption are common.
B-12 is the largest vitamin molecule and as such has a hard time being absorbed by your body. Your stomach produces intrinsic factor, which combines with vitamin B-12 so it can be absorbed in your lower small intestine. The problem is that as people age many lose the ability to produce intrinsic factor and are prone to developing vitamin B-12 deficiency.
B12 is tightly bound to proteins and high acidity is required to break this bond. Some people may not have sufficient stomach acid to separate the B12 from the protein. Advancing age may also diminish your ability to absorb the vitamin from food and increase your risk of deficiency.
Regularly eating B12-rich foods, such as grass fed beef liver, wild rainbow trout and wild sockeye salmon, is important to maintain adequate levels, but if you suspect you may be deficient, weekly B12 shots or a high-dose, daily supplement may be necessary.
5. Vitamin A — An estimated 51% of adults are not consuming enough vitamin A, increasing their risk of degenerative diseases like macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness in the U.S. — and the third leading cause of blindness globally (after cataracts and glaucoma).
People who eat foods rich in vitamin A, or retinol, not beta-carotene, experience a reduced risk of developing squamous cell skin cancer as well, as vitamin A affects cell growth and differentiation, which plays a role in the development of cancer.
Vitamin A is a group of nutrients that falls into two different categories: retinoids found in animal foods and carotenoids found in plant foods. The two are chemically different and provide different health benefits, but both are necessary for optimal health.
Plant foods high in beta-carotene include sweet potatoes, carrots, cantaloupe and mangoes. Animal foods rich in vitamin A include liver, egg yolks and grass fed butter.
6. Iodine — Nearly 2 billion people worldwide don’t get enough iodine in their diet. Your body uses iodine across several organ systems, but it is most commonly known to synthesize thyroid hormones. Clinically low levels of iodine are associated with visible symptoms, such as a goiter (swelling of the thyroid gland), hypothyroidism or pregnancy-related problems. However, subclinical iodine deficiency can also interfere with your thyroid function.
Even moderately imbalanced thyroid levels may be associated with increased risk of metabolic syndrome, researchers noted in the journal Environmental International, which is why “studying factors that contribute to low thyroid function, even at the subclinical level, is of high public health importance.”
Thyroid hormones, for instance, are essential for normal growth and development in children, neurological development in babies before birth and in the first year of life, and in regulating your metabolism.
In addition, iodine is an essential mineral that helps prevent polyunsaturated fats from oxidizing, alkalizes your body’s pH, protects against cancer and is a natural antibacterial agent. Foods that are naturally iodine-rich include spirulina, sea vegetables, prunes, raw dairy products, eggs and Himalayan pink sea salt. Eating these foods on a regular basis will help ensure adequate levels.