We might not think about them much, but humble little nutrients can make a big impact on our health. Following a healthy diet is a huge first step. But sometimes we need to do a little tweaking to get the nutrients we need to really thrive.
So let’s run down the most common nutrient deficiencies around. You’ll learn the tell-tale signs and exactly what to do to avoid them and get back on track.
Why You Can Eat Healthy and Still End Up Nutrient Deficient
Even if you eat a healthy Paleo diet, you can still end up with nutrient deficiencies.
Getting your diet on point will take you a long way. But it’s not the only thing that affects your nutrient intake and your body’s ability to absorb them.
Some things, despite our best intentions, are outside our control.
Soil quality is a major issue. After decades of intense agricultural methods, most soil today is less nutrient-dense than it used to be (1). When buying groceries, you also have to think about transport, storage time, and processing. All of that can further degrade the nutrients that end up on your plate.
Other factors can affect your ability to absorb nutrients as well. Did you know that for many nutrients, the older you get, the more susceptible you are for deficiency? It’s true (2). Lifestyle and other health conditions (like digestive problems) can limit your ability to absorb the nutrients you need.
Good news: there are plenty of solutions available!
The Most Common Nutrient Deficiencies
While it’s technically possible to be lacking in any nutrient, some deficiencies are much more common than others. The list below focuses on those culprits – even if you’re following a healthy Paleo diet.
We’ll touch on why each nutrient is so important. Then we’ll dive into deficiency symptoms and which foods can fix them. Once you know how to spot the warning signs, it’s simply a matter of making a few tweaks to get the nutrients you need.
Vitamin D deficiency is extremely common. Over one billion people around the world aren’t getting enough (3). Despite this epidemic, government health organizations have been reluctant to declare a health energy or warn the public.
Why It’s Important
Vitamin D, also called the “Sun Vitamin,” is a fat-soluble vitamin in a family of compounds that includes vitamins D-1, D-2, and D-3. It affects as many 200 genes in the body (4)!
Between 50 and 90 percent of the vitamin D in your blood is produced in response to sunlight exposure (5). Working indoors and hardly seeing the sun can lead to problems. Those with darker skin are at a greater risk because more pigmentation results in less vitamin D production (6). So are those over 50, who are more likely to become deficient as their skin thins and their intestines have a harder time absorbing the nutrient (7).
This vitamin plays a role in practically every aspect of your health. It’s involved in regulating calcium absorption, maintaining a strong immune system, developing strong bones and teeth, and even fighting depression and promoting weight loss (8).
Symptoms of Vitamin D Deficiency
- You have chronic fatigue. Researchers at Newcastle University found a link between vitamin D and mitochondrial activity within the cells. Increased intake improved muscle function and energy levels (9).
- You sweat excessively. This is one of the first signs doctors look out for in newborns, adults, and everyone in between. If your head sweats more than the rest of your body, that’s a red flag of possible deficiency. Why this happens remains unclear; some researchers suggest “spinal sympathetic over-activity” (10).
- You feel depressed. The hormone serotonin, which affects your mood, increases with exposure to bright light. People with lower levels of vitamin D are multiple times more likely to be depressed than those who have healthy amounts (11).
Natural Sources of Vitamin D
- Sunlight. Making sure you get some sunlight exposure every day is the best step you can take to eliminate deficiency. Shoot for 15 to 20 minutes around noon without sunscreen. Uncover a good portion of your legs, arms, and/or back for maximum benefits.
- Fatty fish. Fatty fish like salmon, swordfish, tuna, and sardines are the best dietary sources of vitamin D you can eat (12).
- Beef liver. Another nutritional powerhouse.
- Eggs. The yolks in eggs also contain a decent amount of vitamin D.
Recommended Daily Amounts of Vitamin D
Plenty of questions remain as to just how much vitamin D we need for optimal health.
The Food and Nutrition Board set recommended daily allowances (RDAs) between 400 and 800 IUs daily. But these are strictly dietary allowances, and RDAs are the bare minimum we need to not experience adverse effects (13).
Just last year, researchers from UC San Diego and Creighton University challenged the guidelines, claiming that they underestimate the need for vitamin D by a factor of ten (14). These researchers support an RDA (again, a minimum amount) of around 7,000 IU/day from all sources.
The Environmental Working Group reported that around 94 percent of American adults (over 18 years old) have dietary intakes below the average vitamin E requirement for that population (15). And although the data is more limited in developing countries, research there suggests the problem is significant in those areas as well (16).
Why It’s Important
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin that plays a crucial role as an antioxidant – it prevents free radical damage. This results in reduced risk of heart disease, an improved metabolism and immune system, more stamina and vitality, and even protection against eye problems (like cataracts) (17).
Symptoms of Vitamin E Deficiency
- You get sick all the time. If you’re eating well and sleeping enough, but still getting sick, you might be vitamin E deficient. Inadequate vitamin E can impair T-cell activity, an important part of your immune system (18).
- You’re anemic. Believe it or not, vitamin E deficiency can cause a form of anemia that ruptures red blood cells (19). Multiple animal studies and human clinical trials found vitamin E effective in treating anemic patients (20).
- You have neurological issues. Severe vitamin E deficiency can lead to impaired coordination and balance, injury to the sensory nerves, and even damage to the retina of the eye (21).
Natural Sources of Vitamin E
Vitamin E is fat-soluble, which means it’s absorbed in lipids. If you just eat a lot of vitamin E-rich foods without any fats, your body isn’t able to absorb it properly. Fortunately, many vitamin E-rich foods are naturally fatty. Here are some of the best:
- Sunflower seeds. These are an awesome Paleo snack, and they’re absolutely loaded with vitamin E. Just one ounce contains 37 percent of your recommended daily intake (22).
- Nuts. Almonds are the second-highest vitamin E source per serving, and hazelnuts are great as well.
- Leafy greens. Vitamin E-rich sources include spinach, Swiss chard, turnip greens, and mustard greens.
Recommended Daily Amounts of Vitamin E
The National Institute of Health recommends 15 milligrams of vitamin E daily for everyone 14 and older, 15 milligrams for pregnant women, and 19 milligrams for women who are breastfeeding (23). With that said, multiple times that amount have been taken to treat specific health conditions without serious side effects. Talk to your doctor if you’re considering doing the same.
Magnesium hasn’t been studied as often as other minerals like calcium, but more recent research has revealed just how important it is for our health.
Unfortunately, a study published in the journal Nutrition Review found that almost half of the U.S. population – 48 percent – consumed less than the required magnesium amount (24)! Chronically low magnesium intake has been linked to everything from type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis to asthma and metabolic syndrome.
Why It’s Important
There’s a good reason why magnesium is the fourth most common mineral in the body. You need it for more than 600 different biochemical reactions!
These reactions cover a huge range of essential processes, including protein synthesis, regulating muscle movements, converting food into energy (metabolism), regulating the heartbeat, and even creating and repairing genetic material (25).
Over half of the total magnesium is stored in our bones, while the rest is mostly located in cells of organs and tissue (26).
Symptoms of Magnesium Deficiency
- You have trouble sleeping. Magnesium is relaxing. Upping your intake has been shown to improve the sleep efficiency, time, and quality among insomniacs (27).
- You have muscle spasms and cramps. Because magnesium is closely connected with muscle control, a deficiency can cause tightness, pain, and spasms. Increasing your intake can help (28).
- You have high blood pressure and can’t figure out why. If you have hypertension but feel like you’re doing everything right, magnesium deficiency might be to blame. A meta-analysis of 20 studies found that increasing magnesium led to dose-dependent reductions in blood pressure (29).
- You feel anxious or depressed. More research needs to be done here, but some exciting studies have explored magnesium’s potential to treat depression and alleviate stress (30).
Natural Sources of Magnesium
- Nuts. Nuts are some of the best Paleo magnesium sources around. Just one ounce of roasted almonds contains 20 percent of your recommended intake (31). Cashews are almost just as helpful.
- Spinach. Just half a cup of spinach contains around 20 percent of your recommended daily magnesium intake.
Recommended Daily Amounts of Magnesium
The National Institute of Health recommends around 300 milligrams of magnesium for adult women daily and around 400 milligrams for men (32). But remember: those are bare minimums. Dr. Carolyn Dean, MD, recommends more (around 700 milligrams a day) to better reflect the typical diets of our ancestors (33).
Why It’s Important
Calcium is important for many different reasons. One that stands out right away is how it helps maintain strong teeth and bones. It can also help prevent obesity through the parathyroid hormone, as well as protect your heart muscles, prevent kidney stones, and even decrease blood pressure (36).
Many people drink milk for the calcium without realizing just how inflammatory and insulinogenic it is. Fortunately for us Paleos who avoid dairy products, we have better options.
Symptoms of Calcium Deficiency
- You have muscle aches and cramps. Without enough calcium, your nerves can become extremely sensitive to sodium, which causes them to fire too often and cause cramping and pain (37).
- You have poor bone density or osteoporosis. The calcium in bones acts as a reserve supply to meet the body’s needs in cases of calcium deficiency. That explains why, if you’re deficient long enough, you end up with brittle bones (38).
- You have tooth decay. Because teeth consist of mostly calcified tissue, giving them enough calcium is critical. Upping your calcium intake can actually decrease the demineralization of tooth enamel (39).
Natural Sources of Calcium
- Leafy green vegetables. The vast majority of our calcium intake on a dairy-free Paleo diet will come from spinach, kale, collard greens, turnip greens, Chinese cabbage (bok choy), and broccoli.
- Seafood. Canned seafood, like salmon and sardines, are other surprisingly good calcium sources. Just make sure to get the versions with the bones! Seaweed is another good option too.
- Water. If you like mineral water, you’re in luck; it’s a significant calcium source. Even a cup of tap water contains around 12 milligrams of calcium (40).
Recommended Daily Amounts of Calcium
The National Institute of Medicine (NIH) recommends at least 1,000 milligrams of calcium daily for anyone 18 and older (41). This increases to 1,200 milligrams for females over 50, and everyone over 70 years old. These guidelines, however, assume that we are only absorbing 300 to 400 milligrams of calcium. Dietary sources usually have much better absorption than supplements (42).
Iodine deficiency is one of the most common in the world, affecting about one in three of the global population (43). Some countries, including the United States, have been iodizing salt for decades to help avoid this issue (44). Iodine deficiency isn’t nearly as common in western countries as in the rest of the world. But understanding this deficiency and how to prevent it is still important for Paleo dieters.
Why It’s Important
Iodine is most commonly known to promote a healthy thyroid because it helps produce key hormones responsible for controlling the body’s base metabolic rate. It also stabilizes energy levels by helping the body use calories efficiently, forms healthy nails, hair, and teeth, and strengthens the immune system, among many other things (45).
Symptoms of Iodine Deficiency
- You feel anxious or depressed. When the thyroid doesn’t get enough iodine, hormones are disrupted, and that can cause depression, anxiety, and other emotional issues.
- You have thyroid problems. Feelings of fatigue and sluggishness, sudden weight gain, dry skin, hair loss, and constipation are the hallmarks of hypothyroidism. The domino effect could all start with insufficient iodine levels (46).
- Goiter. If the iodine deficiency is severe, the thyroid gets progressively larger and you end up with a swollen neck. This can lead to trouble breathing.
Natural Sources of Iodine
- Seaweed. There’s a reason why the Japanese iodine intake is among the highest in the world (47). Just a single gram contains up to 1,989 percent of your recommended daily intake! (48)
- Seafood. Cod, shrimp, and tuna are all great choices to up your iodine intake.
- Eggs. Just one egg contains 16 percent of the daily recommended amount.
- Iodized salt. It only takes about half a teaspoon of iodized salt to reach your recommended daily amount. Remember, moderation is key here.
Recommended Daily Amounts of Iodine
The National Institute of Health recommends 150 micrograms a day of iodine for anyone over the age of 18. This increases to 250 micrograms for women who are pregnant (49). Some alternative health practitioners recommend several times this amount, but most of us don’t need to worry about drastically upping our iodine intake. Iodine supplements might be warranted if you have a thyroid issue, but talk to your doctor first!
Get the Nutrients You Need to Thrive
Following a healthy Paleo diet minimizes your risk of nutrient deficiencies. But some of us might need to make a few tweaks to get everything dialed in just right.
Watch out for the warning signs above, especially if you fall within high-risk groups. Some symptoms might seem subtle, especially if you’ve lived with them for years. Visit your doctor and get tested if you have any doubts.
Watch the video below!
Have you ever dealt with nutrient deficiencies on the Paleo diet? If so, how did you handle them? Leave a comment below and let us know!
(Read This Next: Vitamin K12: The Powerful Nutrient Missing From Your Diet)