By Faye M Smith
Common nutrient deficiency signs include dark circles, flushed cheeks, and cracked lips. And while these symptoms can be easily ignored or put down to something else, they could be an indicator that you’re missing out on vital vitamins.
A diet lacking in certain nutrients can have a big impact on your health, especially over time. Nutrient deficiencies are linked to an increased risk of dementia, depression, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity and, even if you think you eat well, you could still be at risk. “Nutrient deficiencies can be common, even if women are eating a nutrient-dense diet,” says registered nutrition consultant Jenna Hope.
But there is good news as there are some common visual clues to look out for, which can help you turn things around–all you need to do is look in the mirror. “It can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months for deficiencies to show, so tuning in to your body can help you to identify when something is wrong,” says Jenna.
11 common visual nutrient deficiency signs—and how to fix them
Here are the most common visual nutrient deficiency signs, what they mean, and the easy tweaks you can make to your diet.
1. Dark circles
Instantly aging under-eye circles are one of the most common nutrient deficiency signs and are easy to look out for. “While dark circles could be indicative of tiredness and dehydration, it could also be a micronutrient deficiency, such as iron, vitamins B12, E, or K,” says Jenna.
How to fix it: It’s time to stop relying on foundation when it comes to dark circles and eat more red meat, nuts, dried fruit and whole grains instead. Plus, consider switching to organic meat – one US study found that some organic buys contain higher levels of iron than non-organic ones. Avocado is a great source of vitamin E, while both kale and spinach contain vitamin K.
A flaky scalp could be telling you something about your health, not just the shampoo you're using. “Dandruff may indicate that you’re low in the mineral selenium, and also vitamin B6,” says clinical nutritionist Suzie Sawyer. “This is often caused by an overgrowth of yeast. So selenium deficiency can also make you more prone to fungal infections generally, such as thick, discolored nails and thrush.”
How to fix it: Snack on selenium-rich foods, such as Brazil nuts (three a day) and sunflower seeds. Brown rice is a great source of selenium. Not only are sachet varieties ready in minutes, but microwaving can help preserve nutrients.
3. Dry eyes
Never simply put eye problems down to being tired - it's one of the lesser-known nutrient deficiency signs to look out for. “If you’re experiencing dry eyes, then it can help to increase your vitamin D intake,” says consultant oculoplastic surgeon Dr. Elizabeth Hawkes. Eyes may also feel gritty and sore, plus vision can become blurred.
How to fix it: ‘‘The most bioavailable form of vitamin D – that is to say, the one that’s most efficiently absorbed – is likely to be from animal foods,” says Dr. Carrie Ruxton. “It’s not about how fast it’s absorbed, but the percentage absorbed. Try oily fish such as mackerel, tuna or salmon, as well as eggs.” Plus, look for “super” mushrooms in the supermarket, which are fortified with vitamin D. If symptoms persist, consult your optician for further advice.
4. Pale skin
“This can be a sign of low iron status,” says Jenna. Your tongue and lower eyelids may also look pale. See a medical professional, who will arrange blood tests, especially if you also feel tired all the time or have other symptoms that concern you, such as palpitations or breathlessness. “Heavy periods, particularly in the run-up to the menopause, can also play a part,” says Dr Ruxton.
How to fix it: Eat more iron-rich foods, such as red meat, to help turn this common nutrient deficiency sign around. Vegetable sources of iron include green leafy vegetables, dried fruits, fortified breakfast cereals, and wholegrain foods. The iron will be absorbed better if you have a glass of vitamin C-rich orange juice at the same time. And avoid having tea or coffee after a meal, as they contain phenols that impede iron absorption.
5. Red cheeks
Flushed, red cheeks, that don’t just happen after drinking wine or exercise shouldn’t be ignored. “This symptom is commonly a sign of selenium and magnesium deficiencies,” says Dr. Shirin Lakhani.
How to fix it: Often overlooked, magnesium is vital for normal nerve and muscle function. The benefits of magnesium are almost endless and have also been shown to reduce water retention, improve mood and other PMS-related symptoms. Boost your intake with dark chocolate and bananas. Women need around 270mg of magnesium a day, which equals around 50g of pumpkin seeds.
6. Cracked heels
Cracked heels could mean you’re lacking omega-3 essential fatty acids. “These polyunsaturated fats help produce the skin's natural oil barrier,” explains Dr. Lakhani. “If you're not getting enough EFAs in your diet, your skin may be dry, inflamed, and prone to whiteheads and blackheads too.” Eczema and acne are also a sign you may be deficient.
How to fix it: “Oily fish is the best way to get omega-3 into the diet,” says Jenna. “These include salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies, herring, walnuts, seaweed, and flaxseeds.” And keep olive oil in a cool, dark place to avoid nutrient depletion.
7. Bleeding gums
Bleeding gums and fatigue are easy-to-spot nutrient deficiency signs. “This is rare, though, so always seek advice from a dental specialist,’’ says Jenna.
How to fix it: Women need around 40mg a day, for healthy tissue (skin, cartilage, bones, and blood vessels). Great food sources include citrus fruit, acerola cherry juice, red sweet peppers, blackcurrants, watercress, broccoli, and tomatoes. Watch out, though – the amount of vitamin C tends to deplete in vegetables that aren’t as fresh, so choose frozen to help retain the freshness if you're not eating them immediately.
8. Sore lips
Forget lip balm, dry and cracked lips may actually indicate you are short of vitamin B2. “A dry mouth with cracks around the corners of lips and an inflamed tongue are classic signs,” says Suzi. Other symptoms that may indicate a lack of other B vitamins include irritability, skin issues, sleep problems, and diarrhea.
How to fix it: “B vitamins are water-soluble, so they’re easily excreted,” says Suzie. “You also use more vitamin B when you’re stressed, so you need to replenish supplies regularly.” Good sources include meat, dairy, green veg, pulses (such as beans and lentils), wheatgerm and wholegrain cereals, nuts, seeds, and fruit. But avoid tea, coffee, and alcohol as they all deplete B vitamins.
9. Slow-healing wounds
If wounds are taking a long time to heal it may signal a zinc deficiency. You may also notice rough skin and reduced appetite and taste.
How to fix it: You need 7mg of zinc per day to help make new cells and enzymes, and process carbs, fat, and protein in food. Go for meat, shellfish, dairy, and cereals if you think you might be deficient. For slow-healing wounds, you should also seek further medical advice.
10. Hair loss
A common cause of thinning hair can be down to poor diet. “Vitamin B12 can impact the health of the red blood cells, which carry oxygen to your tissues, while an iron deficiency means that the body does not produce enough essential protein for the hair cells,” explains Dr. Lakhani.
How to fix it: It may take anything from three to six months to notice an improvement in texture and volume, but eat 5-10 (80g) portions of fruit and veg every day, have oily fish twice a week and opt for avocados, nuts and seeds, which are especially beneficial for healthy hair. Steaming vegetables instead of boiling can help retain nutrients, especially B vitamins.
11. Discoloured nails
“Hands can reveal a significant amount about your general health,” says Dr. Judith Holmes. White marks on nails could indicate a mild zinc deficiency, while pale nails may mean you are short of iron–they may become thin and concave, too. “Vitamin B12 deficiency can cause a brown-grey discoloration of the nails," says Dr. Holmes. While brittle nails can signal a lack of calcium.
How to fix it: Having healthy nails is easier than you may think. Opt for foods rich in calcium, such as green leafy vegetables, milk, and cheese.
Is it better to get nutrients from food or supplements?
If you’ve found you have a nutrient deficiency, a supplement may seem like an easier solution to changing your diet. However, you should always try to increase your dietary intake of vitamins and nutrients first.
“You don’t need supplements if you have a healthy, balanced diet,” says Dr. Ruxton, “but the reality is that at times our diet isn’t balanced, particularly for women at certain ages or stages in their lives.” This is why menopause supplements can be particularly useful.
If you’re considering a supplement, it’s best to take one multivitamin rather than lots of individual ones to avoid “doubling up”, as some might be fortified with others (eg, a vitamin C supplement with added iron). “You should notice a difference within the first month,” adds Jenna.
If you are concerned about your diet or nutrient deficiency, speak with a doctor or nutritionist for further advice.
Faye M Smith is an award-winning journalist with over 15 years experience in the magazine industry. Her continued work in the area of natural health won her the coveted title of theHealth Food Manufacturers’ Association (HFMA) Journalist of the Year Award 2021.
Currently Acting Health Editor across several brands including woman&home, Woman and Woman’s Own, Faye specialises in writing about mental health, the menopause, and sex and relationships. In fact, having previously been the go-to sex columnist for Now magazine, there isn't much she won't discuss when it comes to women's health. This makes her the best person to review must-buy sex toys, describe how to have a mind-blowing orgasm or explain how to navigate sex in the shower without it ending in a medical emergency.
While not anti-gym, Faye’s fitness routine is more focussed on finding inner balance rather than burning excess calories. An advocate of mindfulness, she loves power breathing, yoga and plenty of walking in nearby woodlands rather than a sweaty HIIT class. Follow her @fayetuned
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