Certain symptoms -- fatigue, tingling toes, depression -- may be due to a nutritional deficiency.
karandaev via Getty Images

Fighting back feelings of fatigue, irritability, or depression?

Before you diagnose yourself with a chronic condition, take a look at your diet. Sometimes, common medical symptoms can signal a nutritional deficiency.

In the United States, 1 in 10 people have at least one nutritional deficiency, says Christine Pfeiffer, PhD, a research chemist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Center for Environmental Health. That figure, based on nutrition indicators in blood and urine tests, comes from theCDC’s latest nutrition report, published in 2012.

While the survey doesn't capture all nutrients, Dr. Pfeiffer says, it does include many, and it gives a snapshot of what we might be missing, nutrient-wise.

Here, the eight nutrients you're most likely to be deficient in, and ways to make up the deficits.

Vitamin B6

More than 10 percent of those surveyed had low levels of vitamin B6, the most common vitamin deficiency in the CDC's report. Your body needs vitamin B6 formore than 100 different enzyme reactions in the body, and it's needed during pregnancy for normal fetal brain development. If you are low on vitamin B6, you may:

  • Have a higher risk of colon and other cancers
  • Notice itchy rashes or cracks at the corners of your mouth
  • Feel depressed. Adults ages 19 to 50 should get 1.3 milligrams (mg) a day, says Sonya Angelone, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Angelone's motto: Try getting essential nutrients from food before you take supplements. "B6 is found in tuna, salmon, chicken, turkey, and ground beef," she says, in addition to fortified cereals.


Nearly 10 percent of women of childbearing age were found to be lacking in iron, the survey found, and some children were, too. Iron is crucial for growth and development, and helps your body make hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen to all parts of the body.

If you are lacking in iron, you usually won't notice symptoms right away, since your body will draw iron from stores in your body. But when your iron level gets really low, iron deficiency anemia can set in, and you may feel tired or feel like you can't stay warm.

Adult women of childbearing age need 18 mg of iron a day, and men and older women need 8 mg. Iron is abundant in lean meat, seafood and poultry, as well as in fortified cereals, some beans, nuts, and some dried fruits. A half cup of cooked fresh spinach has about 3 mg but consider adding a squeeze of lemon juice, or other citrus fruit, to help increase the absorption of iron from plant sources.

"Iron is tricky, because you have to look at why people are deficient,"Angelone says. The underlying reason may be gastrointestinal bleeding, for instance, or simply not eating enough iron-rich food. In addition to eating more iron-rich food, ''Make spinach salad with tomatoes," Angelone suggests. The acidity from the tomatoes will help the iron from the spinach get absorbed, she says.

Vitamin D

About 8 percent of those surveyed had a vitamin D deficiency, putting their bone health at risk. D is also crucial for muscles to move properly and nerves to carry messages from the brain to the body. Vitamin D also helps the immune system fight off bugs.

If your vitamin D drops too low, you can develop fragile, achy bones, and be at risk of fractures. Ask your doctor about how much D is best for you, and whether you need a supplement.

"There's not a lot of vitamin D in foods," Angelone says. Exposure to sunlight produces D, but wearing sunscreen, which protects against skin cancer, blocks that production.

Exactly how much you need is a topic of debate among experts. Adults 19 to 70 are told by the Food and Nutrition Board, a national group of experts, to get 600 international units (IU) per day; older adults 800. But some experts think that's way too low, Angelone says. (The upper safe limit recommended for adults is 4,000 IU a day.) A 3 ounce (oz) piece of halibut has about 200 IUs. Milk is fortified with vitamin D, and has 100 IU per cup.

Vitamin C

About 6 percent of those surveyed had low levels of vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, which helps the body combat damaging substances known as free radicals. The vitamin also helps wounds heal and boosts the immune system.

Vitamin C deficiency is less common than other nutritional deficiencies, but if you have it, you may:

  • Develop inflamed gums
  • Have joint pain
  • Experience poor wound healing

The amount of vitamin C you need daily depends on your age, with adult men needing 90 mg of vitamin C and women 75 mg. The vitamin is plentiful in orange juice, red peppers, kiwi, baked potatoes, and strawberries. A glass of orange juice can have about 70 mg. "Vitamin C is pretty easy to get from your diet," Angelone says.

Vitamin B12

About 2 percent of those surveyed in the CDC report had a deficiency in B12, which Angelone says becomes much more common as people age. Vitamin B12 helps keep the nerves and blood cells healthy, among other roles. If you're low on B12, you may feel tired or weak, experience numbness, and have a tingling in your hands and feet.

Less Common Deficiencies: Vitamin A, Vitamin E, FolateHow much you need depends on your age; teens and adults need 2.4 micrograms (mcg) daily. You can get vitamin B12 from animal foods, such as beef liver, clams, and poultry, and from fortified cereal and other foods. For example, a cup of Raisin Bran has 1.18 mcg of vitamin B12.

Only about 1 percent of those surveyed had deficiencies in folate and vitamins A and E.

Vitamin A helps you maintain your vision, boosts your immune system, and helps your heart, lungs, and kidneys work properly. For those ages 4 and older, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suggests getting 5,000 IU of vitamin A from foods. A half cup of cooked kale has 177 percent of the vitamin A you need per day. It's also found in organ meats, salmon, cantaloupe, apricots, and dairy. While a true deficiency in A is rare, in young children and pregnant women, if the levels drop too low, an eye problem can develop that makes it difficult to see in low light.

Vitamin E helps protect the cells from damage by air pollution and other environmental insults and keeps the immune system strong. Adults need 15 mcg or about 22 IU, the amount found in about 2 oz of almonds. Because of the high caloric amount in 2 oz of almonds — it’s about 330 calories — dietitians usually recommend you aim for a 1 oz serving at a time. Vitamin E is found in vegetable oils, nuts, spinach, broccoli, and fortified cereals, among other foods. Most people don't get the recommended amount of vitamin E, but they also don’t typically show signs of a deficiency. However, you may experience vision loss or a loss of feeling in your limbs if your vitamin E levels get too low.

Folate deficiencies have declined greatly, says Pfeiffer. "We have less than 1 percent deficiency in folate, compared to 20 to 30 percent in 1998." Folate, a B vitamin, helps the body's cells divide. It's crucial during pregnancy to prevent neural tube defects such as spina bifida. A primary reason for the decline is an FDA mandate in 1998 to fortify cereal and grain products with folic acid. Folic acid is also found naturally in vegetables, nuts, beans, and orange juice.

Adults need 400 mcg of folate, especially women of childbearing age. Looking for an easy way to fill up on folate? The CDC has a list of cereals that provide 100 percent of your daily folate needs.

The bottom line on nutritional deficiencies: If you notice any of the symptoms mentioned above, ask your doctor if you should be checked for a nutrient deficiency.

8 Nutrients You May Be Lacking was originally published on Everyday Health.

Also on HuffPost:


Foods With Healthy Fats

Popular in the Community


HuffPost Shopping’s Best Finds