In today’s modern world, we have access to a wider variety of food than ever before. However, despite the widespread availability of nutrient-rich food, nutritional deficiencies are still a common problem in Australia. Below we explore the symptoms and causes of some of the most common nutritional deficiencies, and discuss some of the most effective natural therapy-based treatment options.
What is nutrition and why is it important?
Nutrition refers to the study of nutrients and how they affect our health. The nutrients we obtain from the food we eat is the source of energy required by the body to carry out all essential processes, including developmental and metabolic functions.
The importance of Nutrition and how we fuel our bodies cannot be overlooked, as it is one of the strongest and adjustable (to varying degrees) environmental factors that can be used to reduce the burden of diseases throughout an individual’s life. Eating nutritionally rich foods plays a key role in the prevention of chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and cancer.
What is nutritional deficiency?
It is important to distinguish between nutritional inadequacy and nutritional deficiency. Based on the estimated average requirements, nutritional inadequacies may occur when the intake of a nutrient or multiple nutrients is lower than this requirement.
A nutritional deficiency occurs when there are reduced levels of one or more nutrients over a consistent period that impacts physiological processes and optimal bodily functioning.
There are seven main groups of nutrients essential for good health:
- Dietary fibre
These can be further categorised into macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients are the nutrients we need to consume in larger quantities to obtain energy. These include carbohydrates, proteins, fats, fibre and water. Micronutrients on the other hand are predominantly vitamins and minerals that we consume in much smaller quantities, mostly by eating macronutrients.
Most nutritional deficiencies occur when we don’t consume a balanced diet of food from these groups. While it’s possible to have a macronutrient deficiency from not consuming enough fats, protein or carbohydrates, most nutritional deficiencies are actually micronutrient deficiencies.
Common causes of nutritional deficiencies
The majority of nutritional deficiencies are caused by eating a poor diet, including unbalanced, low nutrient diversity and restrictive diets. In Australia, the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare (AIHW) estimates that adults obtain approximately one-third of their daily energy intake from discretionary foods, which are low in nutrients and high in sugar, fat and salt. At the same time, the AIHW estimates that fewer than 1 in 10 Australian adults meet the recommended daily targets for vegetable consumption.
Nutritional requirements also change throughout the course of one’s life, from childhood to adulthood. They vary based on gender, body composition, lifestyle requirements such as exercise and activity levels, pregnancy and breastfeeding, genetic polymorphisms, medication use, individual health requirements and disease and illness states.
Fruits, vegetables, protein, quality fats and unprocessed carbohydrates are all essential sources of the micronutrients our bodies need to function properly, so an inadequate intake of these macronutrients can make it hard to obtain the right amount of vitamins and minerals. Not only is nutrient intake essential, but optimal digestion, metabolism and absorption are also required to ensure the necessary substrates are provided.
Conditions that can cause malabsorption despite adequate dietary intake of nutrients include:
- Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency, a condition where the pancreas doesn’t produce enough digestive enzymes to break down food and absorb nutrients.
- Inflammatory Bowel Diseases, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, which make it difficult for nutrients to be absorbed through the small intestine due to chronic inflammation.
Common symptoms of nutritional deficiencies
Nutrients support all processes in the body, from digestion, to cell repair, to nerve signalling. As a result, nutritional deficiencies can cause a wide range of symptoms. In their early stages, nutritional deficiencies may not cause any symptoms, or they may be very mild, however over time symptoms can become more noticeable.
Depending on the specific nutritional deficiency, and its severity, symptoms can include:
- Low energy & Fatigue
- Digestive issues, such as constipation and diarrhoea
- Weakened immunity
- Hair loss
- Brittle nails
- Skin changes, such as acne or dry skin
- Neurological issues, such as tingling in the hands or feet, or muscle twitching
- Irregular heart beat
- Wounds being slow to heal
- Increased sensitivity to the cold.
As many of these symptoms can be caused by a wide range of conditions, it’s important to speak with your health practitioner or clinical nutritionist.
Six common nutritional deficiencies
The reality of the average Western diet is that whilst food accessibility and availability aren’t an overt issue for most populations, a range of nutritional deficiencies is still experienced. The main factors contributing to this includes poor food choices and behaviours, including predominantly processed foods and the convenience of fast-food options over home-cooked meals. Poor quality and quantity of key food groups, along with compromised digestion, greater metabolic losses and consequently increased dietary requirement - all lead to insufficient nutrient intake.
According to the Australian Health Survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, nearly one-quarter of all Australians had a Vitamin D deficiency in 2011-12, and 1 in 5 women of childbearing age had an iodine deficiency.
Below we discuss six of the most common nutritional deficiencies.
Iron is an essential mineral that is used in red blood cells to produce haemoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen from the lungs to other tissues in the body. Because the body doesn’t produce iron, humans need to obtain iron through their diet. There are two forms of dietary iron:
- Heme iron, which is found in animal products, is readily absorbed by the body.
- Non-heme iron, which is commonly found in both plant and animal foods, is less readily absorbed by the body.
Despite the importance of iron, iron deficiency is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies, affecting up to 25 per cent of people worldwide, with young children and menstruating premenopausal women at the highest risk. There are three main causes of iron deficiency:
- Inadequate consumption of iron-rich foods, such as red meat, fish, lean white meat, dark leafy greens and beans.
- Conditions that make it difficult for your body to absorb iron, such as coeliac disease.
- Blood loss, through menstruation, internal bleeding, or other causes such as donating blood too frequently.
Iron deficiency can cause a range of symptoms, including:
- Feeling tired and weak
- Memory problems and trouble concentrating
- Finding aerobic exercise difficult
- More frequent infections
- Decreased libido
- Symptoms associated with iron-deficiency anaemia include paleness, dry skin, decreased resistance to cold temperatures, headaches and brittle nails
It is recommended to first consult a healthcare practitioner to conduct a thorough screening and evaluate the overall iron levels in the body. Typical treatments for iron deficiency include:
- Eating foods high in iron including grass-fed red meats, organ meat, poultry and eggs
- Taking iron supplements of highly bioavailable forms in appropriate individual doses
- Intravenous iron infusions, for severe cases.
Vitamin D Deficiency
Unlike iron, Vitamin D is produced by the human body, when cholesterol in the skin is exposed to sunlight. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin and is essential for proper immune system, muscle and nerve function along with promoting mood balance. Importantly, Vitamin D also helps the body to absorb calcium, which is essential for strong bones. There is also emerging evidence of a link between Vitamin D deficiency and diseases including autoimmune conditions such as multiple sclerosis and type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, bone disorders and male and female infertility challenges.
Vitamin D deficiencies can occur in anyone, regardless of geographical locations, however deficiencies are more common in people who live further from the equator. For instance, people living in Tasmania have higher rates of Vitamin D deficiency than people living in other areas of Australia, with as many as two-thirds of all Tasmanians having a Vitamin D deficiency in winter.
The degree to which we absorb Vitamin D is also based on UVB levels, time of day and length of exposure, time of year and even different skin types. We also must take into account the steps happening within our body to convert Vitamin D to its most active form - Vitamin D3. The liver and kidneys are key organs in this process, along with having adequate levels of other nutrients and co-factors, particularly Calcium and Magnesium.
To enhance your Vitamin D levels, it is advisable to limit your sun exposure to a maximum of 20 minutes daily and take appropriate sun safety measures after that. You can also optimise your Vitamin D intake through a balanced diet and personalized supplementation. Some of the best dietary sources of Vitamin D are oily fish (like wild-caught salmon, mackerel, sardines, and tuna), cod liver oil, egg yolks, and raw dairy.
There is some debate regarding the adequate level of serum Vitamin D, but from a clinical perspective, the Endocrine Society asserts that a serum vitamin D concentration of over 75 nmol/L is crucial for optimal vitamin D impact on calcium, bone, and muscle metabolism.
Iodine is an essential mineral required for thyroid hormone production and proper growth, metabolism, and development throughout life. Iodine is not something the body produces; therefore, it must be supplied through a healthy balanced diet. Dietary sources of iodine include seaweed (nori, dulse, kelp), seafood, eggs, and oysters
In modern times, Australia has become one of the most iodine-deficient nations in the world.
One of the earliest clinical symptoms of iodine deficiency is low circulating thyroid hormone and thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) leading to subsequent hypothyroidism.
Other symptoms and health implications of iodine deficiency include:
- Thyroid nodule formation (such as a goitre)
- Anovulation and infertility
- Poor memory and cognitive function
- Fibrocystic breasts
- Resistant weight gain
- Hair loss
- Body temperature changes, prone to feeling cold
- Puffiness of the face, swelling neck region
- Gestational hypertension
- Intellectual and cognitive impairments in infants and children born to iodine-deficient mothers
Over time the iodine content of foods has been affected by agricultural factors such as climate change and soil quality. Beyond this, reductions in seafood and seaweed consumption, increased consumption of processed foods, and changes to dairy processing have also impacted Australia’s intake of iodine.
An iodine deficiency is not the only factor when it comes to impaired thyroid function, as a whole host of other key nutrients and minerals are needed including tyrosine, Vitamin A and selenium. In addition to evaluating lifestyle habits, it is important to consider environmental factors like fluoride and chlorine that may impact iodine absorption in the body.
Therefore, it's crucial to consult a qualified healthcare practitioner to test your individual iodine status. Knowing whether you have a deficiency or not is vital, as excessive iodine intake through food or supplements can lead to complications and worsen conditions like hyperthyroidism and autoimmune thyroid disease.
Vitamin B12 Deficiency
The body needs Vitamin B12 to manufacture red blood cells, maintain energy production, and support neurotransmitter and nerve function. While it is naturally found in animal products, many vegetarians and vegans suffer from low Vitamin B12 as it is not found in plants in sufficient quantities. The main causes of Vitamin B12 deficiency mostly are inadequate intake, inborn errors of metabolism and malabsorption, particularly with ageing and gastrointestinal dysfunction.
Common signs and symptoms of Vitamin B12 deficiency include poor memory recall, brain fog, shortness of breath, anxiety and numbness in the extremities. B12 deficiency is also associated with megaloblastic anaemia and elevated homocysteine levels. Depending on the severity of the deficiency, treatment may include Vitamin B12 injections, dietary supplements, or diet modifications to include more animal products such as shellfish, liver, red meat and dairy.
Calcium is one of the most abundant minerals in the body and is most commonly associated with supporting strong bones and teeth. However, it also helps to regulate nerve functions and muscle contractions, supports normal heart rhythms and plays an important role in blood clotting. Most calcium is stored in our bones, with only a tiny percentage stored in the blood. If the body detects a lack of calcium intake, it will release some of the calcium stored in our bones into the bloodstream. Osteoporosis, which causes soft and brittle bones, is, therefore, the most common symptom of calcium deficiency.
Calcium is readily available in a range of foods, including dairy products, boned fish (such as sardines), almonds, firm tofu, seaweed and kelp, and dark green vegetables (like broccoli, spinach and kale), making dietary changes the best option for boosting calcium levels.
Magnesium plays a role in more than 300 enzyme systems in the body, being one of the most abundant electrolytes within the cells. Magnesium is essential for supporting a wide range of biochemical reactions, including protein synthesis, blood glucose control, muscle and nerve function, energy production and blood pressure regulation.
Whilst magnesium is commonly found in the diet in whole grains, nuts & seeds, beans, and leafy greens, a number of variables and factors impact its overall absorption. It has also been suggested that roughly 30-40% of magnesium is absorbed from foods, and this is in consideration of optimal stomach acid and digestive capacity.
Magnesium deficiency may be difficult to recognise in otherwise healthy people, as the body typically limits the amount that is excreted through the kidneys. It is also challenging to assess Magnesium levels via a single biomarker, as Magnesium blood levels are strongly regulated. Accordingly, people most at risk of magnesium deficiency include people with certain medical conditions, people suffering from chronic alcoholism and people taking medications that can affect magnesium levels. Environmental factors such as chronic stress states, decreased dietary intake, food processing, low protein and high saturated fat diets and other nutritional deficiencies such as Vitamin D, Vitamin B6 and selenium can all impact Magnesium absorption and maintain optimal levels.
Because it underpins a wide range of functions, untreated magnesium deficiency can contribute to the development of a wide range of conditions, including type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, and osteoporosis. In people with severe magnesium deficiencies, symptoms typically include irregular heartbeat, muscle cramps, numbness, tingling, fatigue, and migraines.
Magnesium deficiencies are typically treated with magnesium supplements in bioavailable forms and individualised dietary changes.
Natural therapy-based treatments for nutritional deficiencies
Because most nutritional deficiencies are caused by an inadequate diet, many can be successfully treated through a combination of diet changes, and supplements. However, it is always important to speak to a health practitioner or trained nutritionist, as some nutritional deficiencies can be a signal of an underlying problem.
A clinical nutritionist is a specifically qualified healthcare professional who can provide personalised clinical advice on diet, lifestyle, and nutritional supplementation within a clinical setting. They can work with you to identify the underlying causes of your nutritional deficiency and design a treatment plan to successfully resolve the issue, through a combination of diet and lifestyle modifications, and nutrient supplements. You can find a list of ANTA-certified nutritionists near you here.
In addition to consulting a clinical nutritionist, it can be helpful to consider whether stress is contributing to your nutritional deficiency. Under-eating and over-eating are common coping mechanisms for managing chronic stress that can easily throw nutrition levels out of balance. Finding a way to handle stress, through natural techniques such as aromatherapy, myotherapy or even Oriental Chinese massage can help alleviate stress, and improve overall health and energy levels.
- WHO, 2023, Nutrition
- AIHW, 2022, Food and Nutrition
- Cleveland Clinic, 2022, Malnutrition
- ABS, 2013, Australian Health Survey: Biomedical Results for Nutrients
- Healthline, 2019, 7 Nutrient Deficiencies That Are Incredibly Common
- Cancer Council Tasmania, 2012, Vitamin D in Tasmania
NIH, 2022, Magnesium
- J Prev Med Hyg. 2022, Main Nutritional Deficiencies