“Under the weather.”
“Out of sorts.”
No matter how you describe it, you’ve probably had those days where you just don’t feel your best. You’re not actually sick, but you’re not at the top of your game either. Tired, achy, foggy-headed, and more. Or, your symptoms may be more serious, but they’re not readily tied to any actual disease.
You may be surprised to learn that one of the main culprits that can cause these sorts of odd, hard-to-pin-down symptoms is vitamin deficiency. A serious lack of one or more vitamins can result in serious complications too, especially if left untreated for too long. In some cases, it’s a symptom itself — a sign that your body isn’t absorbing or utilizing certain nutrients as it should — but more often it’s an unpleasant little wake-up call reminding you to improve your diet.
Let’s look into each of the essential vitamins your body needs, what it feels like to experience a deficiency of that vitamin, and what you can do to make sure you’re getting enough.
Vitamin A serves a host of functions everywhere in the body because it plays an important role in healthy cell membranes. It’s especially important to healthy skin, teeth, bones, and eyes. It’s also vital to a strong immune system.
If you’re deficient in Vitamin A, the first thing you’ll probably notice is ridges forming on your fingernails where they were once smooth. You may also notice your hair feels drier than usual, and you’ve developed dandruff (or, it’s gotten worse.) You may also notice annoying skin problems such as acne, dryness, rough-feeling skin, or unexplained bumps on the backs of the arms or thighs.
Left untreated, Vitamin A deficiency will show up in weakened tooth enamel (leading to more cavities), impaired immune function, and marked eye and vision problems starting with impaired night vision, then moving on to color blindness and macular degeneration. Chronic Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of preventable blindness in the world.
Fortunately, Vitamin A is readily available in the common western diet. If you eat animal products, there’s plenty of Vitamin A in organ meats like beef or lamb liver, and cod liver oil contains a healthy dose. Many commonly consumed fish are high in Vitamin A, including mackerel, salmon, and tuna. Eggs and most cheeses are also good sources.
But, Vitamin A is even more readily available from plant-based sources in the form of Beta-carotene, which the body naturally converts into Vitamin A once it’s digested. Excellent sources of Beta-carotene include carrots, sweet potatoes, dark leafy greens, squash, bell peppers, and broccoli.
You may notice all the “B” vitamins are missing… that’s because there’s so much good info there, it warranted its own article. Click here to dive in.
Vitamin C’s claim to fame is its powerful impact on the immune system. It’s also proven vital to tissue repair and the production of certain neurotransmitters. Sufficient vitamin C has also been linked to improved cardiovascular health, eye health, and skin care. As an antioxidant, it may help prevent certain cancers. It’s so important, many medical professionals consider blood levels of vitamin C to be a valid indicator of overall health.
You probably already associate vitamin C with citrus fruits, which is correct. You may also recall from your history lessons that early sailors struggled with scurvy — a disease characterized by bleeding gums, tooth loss, wounds that don’t heal properly, weakness and fatigue, rashes, and easy bruising — until they finally recognized that it was a direct result of their lousy diet: what we would today call acute vitamin C deficiency. By adding fresh citrus fruits to the sailors’ rations, scurvy was eliminated.
The best natural sources of vitamin C are (as you might expect) fresh fruits and veggies. Citrus fruits are great, and you can also find plenty of vitamin C in cantaloupe, strawberries, and papaya — but kiwi is actually the reigning king for vitamin C content. It’s also prevalent in colorful vegetables like bell peppers, broccoli, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes.
Pretty much every cell in your body needs to interact with vitamin D at one point or another. It functions like a hormone, telling the genes in cells when to turn on and off.
Vitamin D deficiency is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies found in the United States, affecting approximately 42 percent of Americans. Although it’s available in a few foods, most of the vitamin D you need is produced when cholesterol in your skin is exposed to sunlight. That’s why the deficiency is so common: we spend far more time inside these days than we used to.
The symptoms of vitamin D deficiency can be subtle. They can include a weakened immune system and impaired healing of wounds, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, depression, hair loss, and a reduction in bone density. A vitamin D deficiency is often diagnosed through standard blood tests before a patient complains about the symptoms. Following treatment, however, the patient may realize how much better they feel even if they didn’t identify the symptoms for what they were.
Definitely consume dairy products that have been fortified with vitamin D if you can. Small amounts are also available from fatty fish like salmon and trout. However, the best way to get enough vitamin D is to spend some time outside in the sunlight. Experts recommend 10-30 minutes of midday sun exposure several times a week to maintain adequate levels of vitamin D in your system. People with fair skin need less time while those with darker skin absorb less light and may need more exposure to get the same results.
Vitamin E, like C, is a powerful antioxidant that supports the immune system. It also plays a role in vascular health and avoiding blood clots, and helps cells communicate with each other.
Without sufficient vitamin E in your system, some of your first signs will be dry hair and skin. Other skin problems may show up, including acne, blisters, excessive scarring, and stretch marks (because your skin is not as elastic as it once was.) As it progresses, vitamin E deficiency can lead to impaired immune function, eye problems such as retinopathy, and even brain function abnormalities.
You can get some vitamin E from green vegetables, but you probably can’t eat enough of them to get all you need. The best sources are seeds and nuts, as well as vegetable oils like sunflower, safflower, and wheat germ oil.
Vitamin K is even more integral to healthy blood clotting than vitamin E. It also plays an important role in preventing bone loss.
Fortunately, vitamin K is readily available in the typical American diet (if you’re eating right), so deficiency is rare among healthy people. However, vitamin K deficiency becomes common among people who are battling chronic health conditions, taking strong drugs (such as those used in chemotherapy to treat cancer), or whose conditions make it difficult for their bodies to absorb nutrients effectively.
In those cases, the most common symptoms include easy bruising, excessive bleeding from wounds, heavy menstrual periods, bleeding from the digestive tract, and even bleeding on the brain.
The best food sources of vitamin K include leafy vegetables like kale and spinach, as well as broccoli, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage. Dairy products, cereals, and vegetable oils also contain some vitamin K.
So, do you think you may be struggling with a vitamin deficiency? Remember: the best course of action is to eat a balanced, healthy diet, including a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. The less processed, the better. But, there’s also nothing wrong with supplementing your diet just to make sure you’re getting what you need. It can be as simple as one multivitamin a day along with a healthy diet, and you won’t need to deal with anything on this list.
Unless, of course, you’re short on iron, iodine, calcium, magnesium… (Stay tuned!)