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How To Avoid and Treat Vitamin Deficiency

Ideally, we want to prevent vitamin deficiency in the first place, but this is not always possible - the way we live our lives and the quality of our food can make this tough sometimes.

However, there are many simple strategies for safeguarding ourselves against some of the most common vitamin deficiencies, as well as tackling them if they do occur.

We are all different, and our nutritional requirements can vary greatly, but there are some key nutrients that people commonly lack. 

When a mild depletion in these core nutrients can lead to undesirable health impacts. 

This is especially true for active people who like to perform at a high level, as nutrient inadequacies can really hamper performance and training goals. 

Here we explore what can help.

What are the most common nutrient deficiencies?

Luckily in the western world, we tend to do pretty well at meeting our macronutrient requirements.  That being said - for very active individuals supplementary protein can serve a  purpose, as we discuss here

For most people, the risk of deficiency is more commonly associated with micronutrients -  whilst we may need these in smaller amounts than our macros,  it is all too easy to fall short. 

It is also important to note that it is not just true deficiencies we want to avoid - but also not having sub-optimal levels of core nutrients too.  Many nutrients work together as a team so if one is lacking then the others can struggle to do their job too.

Below are some of the most common nutrient deficiencies.

Iron

Up to 40% of pregnant women are deficient in this key mineral, and many vegans and younger females often fall short too (1).

As less than ideal iron stores can have serious ramifications for our energy and vitality it is important to keep an eye on our intake - especially if we have heavy periods and or avoid eating red meat.

How to get more: Aside from eating quality red meat around once a week, other dietary options include red kidney beans, chickpeas, spinach, and dried apricots. Including Vitamin C-rich foods at the same time can also help with absorption.  However, for young plant-based women, supplements can be essential - you can either take iron independently or as part of a comprehensive multimineral - just make sure you get tested if you suspect anemia as you may need extra.

Vitamin B12

You can run low on this key Vitamin f if you eat an exclusively plant-based diet.  With potentially serious ramifications on nervous system health it is important we don’t go without - and you will also need adequate Vitamin B12 intake to support your energy levels too, so if you are active it is another one to watch (2).

You can easily get enough Vitamin B12 from animal-based products so if you consume these regularly you are unlikely to go without - however, do note that if you take medicines such as proton pump inhibitors for acid reflux type issues this may impair your B12 absorption.

How to get enough:  Outside of eating animal products such as meat and dairy, make sure that B12 is included as part of your vegan-friendly supplement regime, either as part of a well-balanced multivit or independently as a sublingual (under the tongue) spray for better nutrient uptake.

Calcium

Calcium depletion is a more common occurrence in recent years, as many of us have started to cut down on or entirely avoid dairy - instead opting for plant-based alternatives.  This can be beneficial to gut and planet health alike, however, it does mean we have reduced a key source of calcium from our daily diets. 

Dairy is by no means the only source of calcium - you can find it easily enough in other plant-based options, however, some of us fail to get adequate amounts.  Another reason for diminishing calcium levels is our poor Vitamin D status - we require this vitamin to support our calcium absorption too.

How to get enough:  If you go dairy-free opt for calcium-fortified milk alternatives and stock up on dark leafy greens. If you eat fish then tinned sardines are another good option. If you are heading towards menopause and worried about bone density then prioritize your vitamin D intake and perhaps consider a calcium-containing bone formula to maximize your intake.

Vitamin D

Beyond strong bones and teeth, Vitamin D modulates immunity and inflammation and can even impact our mood via serotonin regulation (3). Sadly, a lot of us fall short, and this can predispose us to exercise disrupting infections, as well as impaired calcium uptake and weakened bone density.

Even when the suns shining we are often indoors, or play it extra safe and avoid any form of skin sun exposure. Whilst sun safety is paramount - we can really benefit from 30 mins of unprotected sun exposure to our arms or legs every day when possible.  Of course, in the northern hemisphere, we simply don’t get enough sunshine hours during the winter months to get our needs met.

How to get enough: Aim to supplement around 3000 - 4000 IU of the D3 format from October - March, and it’s no bad thing if your daily multi vit contains a small amount too to keep you going year-round.  We can also maximize our dietary intake via consuming egg yolks, liver, and oily fish. Finally don’t fear your 20-30 minutes of unprotected sunshine.

Magnesium

Magnesium is known as nature’s tranquilizer - it has a unique ability to downregulate our stress response, but in addition to reducing tension and improving sleep, magnesium is also a key fatigue-fighting electrolyte that can improve our physical performance and ward off low energy and muscle cramping post-exercise (4). 

The ironic thing about magnesium intake is that, as our stress and activity levels go up - the more we need but also, the more the body uses up, therefore we can benefit from an additional boose in these instances.  Many people become deficient in magnesium even if they eat food sources high in this magic mineral, as soil nutrient depletion levels have led to reduced magnesium levels in fruit and veg.

How to get enough - pack your diet with magnesium-rich nuts and seeds, dark green leafy veg, and 85% dark chocolate.  You can also bathe in Epsom salts, which can reduce muscle aches post work out as well as increasing your intake transdermally. Finally, add in a supplement in times of stress or intensive exercise, just stick to around the 400mg intake to avoid digestive distress - the citrate form of magnesium also acts as a laxative. 

The bottom line

  • Even with a good diet, sub-optimal nutrient intake is common, and this can impair our ability to meet our health and fitness goals
  • In addition to a healthy diet - we can focus on the nutrients commonly lacking in our modern diets, such as Calcium, Iron, Vitamin B12 and Magnesium
  • Focus on a quality multivitamin/ mineral to meet your key needs and then add in specific supplements if you have extra needs ie - as a vegan, a heavy exerciser, or a chronic stress sufferer. 

    Bibliography:
  1. https://www.who.int/health-topics/anaemia#:~:text=Anaemia%20is%20a%20serious%20global,pregnant%20women%20worldwide%20are%20anaemic.&text=Anaemia%20can%20cause%20a%20range,%2C%20weakness%2C%20dizziness%20and%20drowsiness.
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6884369/
  3. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0165032719333713?dgcid=rss_sd_all#:~:text=Vitamin%20D%20and%20its%20receptors,regulation%20and%20function%20of%20oxytocin.
  4. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0208454#:~:text=In%20turn%2C%20low%20serum%20magnesium,magnesium%20depletion%20%5B4%2C%206%5D
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