Are you a woman who thinks a balanced diet would protect you against nutrient deficiencies? Just eat the rainbow and you’re fine, right? But the truth is that even with the best diet which — let’s be honest — most of us haven’t achieved, it’s possible for women to be nutrient-deficient.
Given the health risks that nutrient deficiencies can pose—from heart disease to cancer, and just about everything in between—it’s important to understand nutrient deficiency symptoms. The sooner you recognize them, the sooner you can address them.
In this article, we’ll talk about some of the most common nutrient deficiencies. But first, let’s dig in and see what exactly a nutrient deficiency is.
What’s the definition of nutrient deficiency?
Nutrient deficiencies occur when a person either doesn’t consume or doesn’t absorb enough of a certain nutrient—a vitamin, mineral, or fatty acid, for instance. Most doctors look to established recommended ranges for both intake and blood levels of different nutrients when identifying deficiencies. However, not everyone agrees that these numbers tell the whole story.
Did you know? Nutrition-focused healthcare providers will often point out that you don’t need to reach the level of full-blown deficiency in order to have a problem with your nutrition.
Look at it this way: The established levels are there to ensure people get the bare minimum of each nutrient. But for optimized nutrition, the ideal nutrient levels—both in the diet and in the blood—may be higher.
Warning signs of nutrient deficiency in women
Most nutrient deficiencies have an associated set of symptoms, and they can oftentimes overlap, according to Michelle Simon, Ph.D., ND. (1) Simon is president and CEO of the Institute for Natural Medicine (INM) (2), a nonprofit focused on educating the public about naturopathic medicine. One of the more common first signs of nutrient deficiency, she says, is fatigue. If you notice a sudden drop in energy levels, take it as a sign that your nutrient levels may need attention.
In addition to an overall lack of nutrient intake, certain factors—like special diets, medications, and lifestyle issues—may put a woman at higher risk for nutrient deficiencies.
Stress-related nutrient deficiencies
Stress—especially when it’s acute because of life or relationship issues, chronic pain, or an illness—can have a serious impact on nutrient levels.
According to Simon, who in addition to heading up INM also sees women in her role as medical director for Healthwise Integrative Medicine (3) in Seattle, attributes this to a few things.
- Chronic stress changes glucose metabolism, insulin sensitivity, and other appetite-related processes. The result? Mood changes and altered food preferences. Your appetite may increase or decrease, or you may develop cravings or aversions—all of which can mess with your nutrient intake.
- The hormone cortisol is released in greater amounts during stressful periods. Cortisol is linked to higher intake of saturated fat. In people with diabetes, increased cortisol may amp up the sweet tooth. (4)
- Stress can cause a drop in nutrients like magnesium, B vitamins, and antioxidants. That, in turn, hampers the immune system and reduces resistance to infection.
- Stress can get in the way of our ability to absorb the nutrients we eat.
Vegetarian and vegan nutrient deficiencies
Diets that eliminate entire categories of foods—like vegetarian and vegan diets—are prone to nutrient deficiencies if not planned well. Here are some common nutrient deficiencies in vegetarians and vegans:
- B12 is only found in animal products, so vegetarians and especially vegans need to supplement.
- Calcium is a mineral that’s prevalent in dairy products, but it can also be found in dark leafy greens, fortified soy products, and tofu made with calcium sulfate.
- Iron is another mineral found in animal products. Vegan sources include legumes, grains, nuts and seeds, and dark leafy greens.
Celiac nutrient deficiencies
Celiac disease damages the small intestine, making it unable to absorb nutrients from food. This can lead to a number of nutrient deficiencies in people with celiac disease, including deficiencies in minerals like iron, calcium, magnesium, and zinc, some B vitamins, and vitamin D. (5) A caveat to celiac sufferers looking to add supplements to make up for these shortfalls: Many dietary supplements contain gluten, so you’ll need to seek out ones that are gluten-free.
Four common nutrient deficiencies in women
As you can see, nutrient deficiencies depend a lot on individual circumstances. But there are certain common nutrient deficiencies in women that you should keep an eye out for.
1. Vitamin D
Potential risks of vitamin D deficiency: (9)
- Bone density loss and, in turn, osteoporosis and fractures
- High blood pressure
- Autoimmune conditions
Ideal levels of vitamin D: This is a matter of great debate. A generally accepted minimum blood level is 20 ng/ml, but others recommend a much higher level—especially in women nearing menopause. (10) Sources of vitamin D: Vitamin D is known as the “sunshine vitamin” because your body makes it when your skin is exposed to UVB rays. During darker months or if you avoid UV exposure because of skin health concerns, it’s a good idea to supplement with extra vitamin D.
Signs of magnesium deficiency: “Chronically tight muscles, tics or spasms, blood sugar imbalances, nausea and sleep difficulty,” says Simon. “Magnesium is an essential mineral to balance the nervous system and maintain stress resilience.”
Potential risks of magnesium deficiency: (11)
- High blood pressure
- Cardiovascular disease
- Type 2 diabetes
Ideal levels of magnesium: Normal blood levels are between 0.75 and 0.95 mmol/L. (11) Sources of magnesium: Magnesium is found in leafy green vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains
3. Vitamin B12
Signs of vitamin B12 deficiency: According to Simon, signs of vitamin B12 deficiency include fatigue, weakness, dizziness, or pinprick sensations in the hands or feet.
Potential risks of vitamin B12 deficiency: (12)
- Paranoia and delusions
- Memory loss
- Loss of taste and smell
Ideal levels of vitamin B12: 160 to 950 pg/mL, or 118 to 701 pmol/L. (13) Sources of vitamin B12: Animal products like fish, meat, eggs, and dairy products are rich sources of B12.
Signs of iron deficiency: Iron deficiency can lead to anemia, meaning your body can’t produce hemoglobin (the part of the blood cells that helps them deliver oxygen throughout the body). According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia may include fatigue, weakness, pale skin, chest pain, fast heartbeat or shortness of breath, headache, dizziness, cold hands and feet, a swollen or sore tongue, brittle nails, strange food cravings, and appetite loss. (14)
- Heart problems, including enlarged heart or heart failure
- Pregnancy problems, including premature birth and low-birth-weight babies
- Increased infection risk
Ideal levels of iron: 10 to 30 umol/L of iron and 20 to 200 ug/L of ferritin. Sources of iron: According to a study based on data from the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey Rolling Programme (NDNS-RP), one in four women are not getting enough iron in their diets. (16) To increase the intake of iron, look for foods like lean meat, seafood, nuts, beans, vegetables, and fortified grain products. (17)
Does nutrient deficiency signal a bigger problem?
Sometimes nutrient deficiencies are just a matter of a diet in need of a boost, or maybe a time of extra stress. But they can also signal something more serious going on.
Simon points to vitamin B12 deficiency as an example. “A deficiency in vitamin B12 can be a sign of something called pernicious anemia, which is the loss of the stomach cells that make intrinsic factor. This can be caused by the destruction of those cells by the body’s own immune system. Left untreated this can result in permanent damage to nerves and organs and raises the risk of stomach cancer.”
Another example that Simon highlights: “Low magnesium can be a sign of celiac disease, diabetes, and more unusually something called Hungry Bone Syndrome where bone loss is accelerated, usually related to a parathyroid hormone imbalance.”
How to test for nutrient deficiencies
Given the potential risks—and the underlying messages deficiencies can be sending—it’s always important to investigate any potential nutrient deficits. Simon’s advice is to make an appointment with a healthcare provider trained in clinical nutrition. Naturopathic doctors are an obvious choice since they have such a deep understanding of nutrition.
“As naturopathic doctors, we receive 144 hours of clinical nutrition training and additional rigorous training to understand the biochemical pathways which utilize nutrients,” says Simon. “Working with a trained healthcare provider can accelerate the discovery of the underlying issue and facilitate a targeted treatment plan.”
So if you’re a woman cognizant of her health and wellness, think beyond the rainbow, and take the first step toward proactively understanding and fixing your common nutrient deficiencies. Together, we can make them uncommon!