5 everyday vitamins we lack
If we want to understand why we modern humans struggle to keep our vitamin levels in check, we need look no further than the highly popular Western diet. We are no longer just eating a diet rich in natural foods such as meats, fish, eggs, nuts, vegetables, healthy oils, and so on. Sure, we are eating lots of those foods still, but it’s the “what else” we are eating that is unfortunately making up the majority of our diet, and that “what else” includes grains, sugars, and processed foods. Those wreak havoc on our bodies and our proper nutritional balance.
Vitamin deficiency affects tens-of-millions of people around the world to a very significant degree, and most people are unaware that many of the problems they are facing are in fact down to those vitamin deficiencies. Symptoms and serious medical conditions can include fatigue, weakness, irregular heartbeat, mood imbalance, anaemia, nerve damage and much more.
While there are many potential vitamin deficiencies and imbalances to contend with, let’s take a look at five of the most common ones:
Essential to the function of the body, because without it our bodies are unable to make vital red blood cells. Despite its importance, a staggering 25% of the world’s population have an iron deficiency, due primarily to a lack of iron-rich foods in our diet.
Common symptoms of iron deficiency include a paling of the skin, shortness of breath, dizzy spells, and a general feeling of fatigue. The worst consequence of a lack of iron, however, is anaemia, which occurs when the quantity of red blood cells is decreased to the point where our blood becomes less effective at carrying oxygen throughout the body. Cases of anaemia are worryingly common the world over, present in around 30% of the global population.
When it comes to getting more iron in our diet, the answer is simple: stock up on iron-rich foods. That basically means everything our Paleo ancestors ate in abundance – beef, pork, poultry, fish, beans and leafy vegetables such as spinach.
This is a particular deficiency that we in the UAE know all about. Yes, despite living in one of the world’s most sun-drenched regions, almost 80% of us here in the UAE are vitamin D deficient. Why? One main reasons is, ironically, that we don’t get enough sun. Or rather we don’t “take in” enough sun.
Around 90% of our vitamin D intake typically comes from direct exposure to UV rays, and out here in the UAE – due to a combination of the heat, social modesty and indoor working – many of us simply don’t catch enough rays.
The symptoms of vitamin D deficiency range from the serious, such as muscle weakness, bone and joint pain and fatigue; to the rather severe, including an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and some cancers.
But if our lifestyles dictate that we can’t get the amount of sunlight that our bodies need, then what can we do? Well, if sensible sun exposure is really not an option then supplements are the answer, as it is impossible to get the amount of vitamin D you need from food alone. Personally, I would recommend taking vitamin D3 in a dose of 5000 IU/day.
I am a big fan of magnesium. It is absolutely essential for maintaining good bone and teeth structure, and it plays a pivotal role in hundreds of enzyme reactions throughout the body. However, in the UAE we are particularly prone to magnesium deficiency because our high in sugar and grain and processed food diet affects the body’s ability to absorb this basic nutrient.
As for the problems caused by a lack of magnesium, there are plenty: fatigue, weakness, loss of appetite, headaches, hypertension, heart disease and diabetes. The good news is there are plenty of ways to keep our magnesium levels topped up. Supplements are widely available from pharmacies and health food shops, while foods such as leafy greens, nuts (especially those almonds), seaweed, and pumpkin seeds are fantastic in terms of their magnesium content.
Although traditionally prevalent among vegans, vitamin B12 deficiency is now becoming more and more commonplace among us carnivores. Figures for B12 deficiency vary wildly around the world – anywhere from 25% all the way up to 86% among children, 21-41% among adolescents, and 11-90% among the elderly.
Vitamin B12 is somewhat of a strange case in that every single cell in our bodies needs it to function, but we are unable to produce it naturally and, therefore, must get it solely from outside sources. As well as aiding the production of DNA and forming neurotransmitters in the brain, vitamin B12 helps us to maintain healthy nerve and blood cells.
The most common symptoms of a deficiency of this particular vitamin include numbness in the extremities, along with fatigue, inflammation, muscle weakness and even memory loss. What’s more, just like a lack of iron, a vitamin B12 deficiency can also lead to anaemia.
As for where we can get our vitamin B12 intake, if you’re a meat-eater then you’re in luck, because just one portion (around three ounces) of shellfish can contain as much as 1,400% of the recommended daily intake, while a six-ounce steak provides up to 150%. For the vegetarians out there, vitamin B12 shots are readily available from your physician, while tablet and capsule supplements can be bought over the counter.
I have seen many patients in my clinics over the years who are completely unaware of the need for iodine as part of a healthy diet. It is perhaps unsurprising then that iodine deficiency is one of the most common in the world, affecting up to 40% of the population .
I really cannot stress enough just how important iodine is to a healthy body. It is the essential mineral for thyroid function, meaning it has a direct impact on our body’s ability to regulate energy levels, mood, temperature, metabolism and a litany of other vital functions.
Many countries – including the UAE – responded to the need for more iodine in our diets by adding it to our table salt. However, the white table salt in use in most homes is in itself not healthy, and even if you switch to a healthy type of salt, such as Himalayan salt, it’s still not going to be a sufficient source of iodine.
In nature, iodine is most commonly found in soil and the sea. and there are some easy ways to top up for those in the know. Just one gram of seaweed – or kelp – for example, is thought to contain anywhere from 460-1,000% of our recommended daily intake of iodine, while as little as three ounces of cod can account for around 60%. For those that don’t fancy tucking into seaweed every day, once again, iodine supplements are readily available (12.5 mg of iodine per day is a good dose).
Keeping track of your vitamin levels
The easiest way to stay on top of your vitamin levels is to eat a diet rich in all of the vital nutrients that our bodies need – and so as always that Paleo-type diet is your best friend. Making sure you’re taking in a good mix of lean meats, fish, fruits, leafy vegetables, natural fats, and seeds will put you well on your way to maintaining healthy levels of most of the vitamins listed above.
For vegetarians, you can get lots of nutrients from those veggies and other non-meat sources, but do be aware that you are likely going to require more supplements than the meat-eaters when it comes to balancing the body’s nutrition levels.
And to stress again for all of us, some vitamins are a bit trickier to come by given the way we live our lives today, and in those cases supplements are a perfectly healthy and encouraged solution. A word of warning, however: in some cases having too much of a particular vitamin can cause as much of an issue as having too little.
So using that point to lead into my final word for this week, I will note that flying blindly is not a good idea. Make sure you test yourselves at least once a year to check your body’s key nutritional levels so that any imbalances can be dealt with via the proper course of treatment. I always carry out nutritional testing as part of my standard health screening programs with all of my clients, and only with those results am I able to advise accordingly.
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The opinions in the column are by Dr Graham Simpson, and are not necessarily those held by Esquire or Hearst International. Dr Simpson is Chief Medical Officer and Founder of Intelligent Health, a preventive medical centre located in Jumeirah, Dubai. He graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand Medical School in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is board certified in Internal Medicine and Emergency Medicine. As a founding member of the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA) Dr Simpson is also a licensed homeopath.