Peeling nails, a twitching eyelid, flaky skin: These seemingly random symptoms are easy to brush off, but if they're persistent, they could be signs of a vitamin or nutrient deficiency.
"Stay in tune with your body, and if you notice something unusual, don't ignore it," says Jerlyn Jones, RDN, LD, Atlanta-based owner of The Lifestyle Dietitian LLC and spokesperson for the American Academy of Dietetics and Nutrition. "If a vitamin deficiency is causing the issue, the sooner you address it, the more easily it can be remedied through changes to your diet or a dietary supplement."
Here, we look at six tipoffs that your system might be out of whack — plus, easy meal tweaks and tips to get back on track.
1. Your Joints Feel Stiff
The Possible Culprit: An achy bod can indicate that you're low on the sunshine vitamin. "Vitamin D helps you absorb calcium, which is one of the main building blocks of bones," Jones says. "If you don't get enough of it, either through food or sunlight, it can lead to bone density loss and soreness."
The Fix: So, how to get more of this nutrient? "You can eat foods rich in D, like salmon and egg yolks," Jones says, "but it's difficult to get adequate amounts through diet alone."
The easiest way to boost your D levels is by spending time in the sun. Indeed, vitamin D produced in the skin through sunlight may last at least twice as long in the body compared to ingesting the vitamin, according to a review published in the April-June 2012 issue of the Journal of Pharmacology & Pharmacotherapeutics. But sun exposure can also up your risk for skin cancer. Using sunscreen can limit the amount of D you get, but it's worth it to prevent this deadly disease, according to Yale Medicine.
If you're African-American, you're more susceptible to vitamin D deficiency because higher levels of melanin in your skin block absorption. The review mentioned above reports that it takes people with dark skin three to five times as long in the sun to make the equivalent amount of vitamin D as someone with light skin. People who live in cold climates are also at greater risk, since they may not get adequate sun exposure. "In these cases, you will most likely need a supplement," Jones says.
But be cautious about DIY-ing your supplements — the Vitamin D Council warns that too much vitamin D can lead to toxicity, so it's smarter to see your MD. "Get your vitamin D status checked every four to six months," Jones says. "If it's too low, your doctor will probably write you a prescription."
2. Your Nails Are Peeling
The Possible Culprit: Brittle tips are typically due to an external factor — like picking at your polish, frequently using hand sanitizer or wearing acrylic nails. But if both your toenails and fingernails are prone to breakage, you might be low on iron. "Iron deficiency results in limited oxygen to organs, muscles and tissue," Jones says. "One potential side effect of that reduced oxygen flow is peeling and brittle nails."
The Fix: Incorporate plenty of high-iron foods into meals. The no-brainer is meat, but if you follow a plant-based diet, leafy greens, baked potatoes with the skin on and broccoli are also great sources. For pescatarians: Try shrimp, scallops, clams and sardines.
Pro tip: "Consuming iron-rich foods along with vitamin C can boost absorption," Jones says. "For example, when you're sautéing spinach, throw in red peppers or tomatoes."
Another tip: Cook with cast iron. In a classic July 1986 study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, researchers tested 20 foods cooked in either cast iron or glass-ceramic cookware, and found that cast-iron pots and pans significantly increased the iron content of 90 percent of the fare — particularly acidic foods with a high moisture content cooked for long periods of time, like applesauce and tomato sauce. More recently, a small study of 27 preschoolers published December 2013 in the Journal of Indian Pediatrics found that cooking snacks in cast iron increased iron content by 16 percent; the children had 7.9 percent higher hemoglobin levels after four months of consumption.
A few weeks after making these changes, check your nails. If they're still weak, have your MD test your iron levels. "In cases of severe deficiency, your physician might give you an iron pill — drink it with orange juice for optimal results," Jones says.
3. One of Your Eyes Is Twitching
The Possible Culprit: The technical term is myopenia, and there are a variety of causes, from fatigue and stress to consuming too much caffeine and alcohol, according to the Mayo Clinic. But your lids might also spasm if you're low on magnesium. And according to a March 2012 study in Nutrition Reviews, out of the Center for Magnesium Education and Research, 48 percent of Americans are magnesium deficient. The good news? It's relatively easy to up your intake.
The Fix: "Nuts and seeds — particularly pumpkin seeds — are high in magnesium," Jones says. "Sprinkle some on your oatmeal or salad, or mix half a cup into a smoothie."
Also, look for fortified breakfast cereal (it has added nutrients, including magnesium), and stick to either whole grains or white rice and bread that says "enriched" on the package.
4. You’ve Been Feeling Out of It Lately
The Possible Culprit: Even though you're getting plenty of shuteye and aren't fighting a cold, you're dragging. Your muscles are weak and you have to force yourself out of bed in the morning; you have trouble staying on task and have been in a blah mood. What gives?
The Fix: Jones suggests infusing your diet with B12 power foods like whole grains, liver and seafood such as salmon, tuna, clams and trout. "B12 deficiency is relatively common in vegans and vegetarians, since it comes mostly from animal protein," she points out. "If you don't eat meat, ask your doctor to test your levels. You might have to take a multivitamin or supplement.
5. You Bruise Easily
The Possible Culprit: Maybe you bump into your desk and find a gnarly black-and-blue on your thigh the next morning. Perhaps you get a nosebleed for no apparent reason. Or maybe your periods have been heavier than usual or your gums have been bleeding when you floss.
Insufficient vitamin K could be to blame. "Vitamin K is a coagulator that helps your blood clot properly," says Heidi Moretti, RD, a clinical dietitian and nutrition researcher. "If your levels are low, it can lead to excessive bleeding and bruising."
The Fix: K is found in fermented foods like sauerkraut and aged cheese, as well as greens. If eating more of those foods doesn't do the trick, "try a high-quality vitamin K2 supplement that's natural rather than synthetic," Moretti says. (Scan the label, and if you see any ingredients that begin with the prefix "dl," it's a factory-made.)
6. Your Skin Is Super Dry
And the skin benefits don't stop there: According to the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University, fatty acid consumption results in greater UV protection, fewer wrinkles, plumper skin and a more even complexion.
The Fix: Whip up a breakfast rich in omega-3s by stirring walnuts, chia seeds and flax meal into your cereal or oatmeal. Bite into a piece of avocado toast or crack open a can of sardines with lunch. When you're out to dinner, order the salmon instead of chicken. "Get as many fatty acids as you can through food alone," says Melissa Halas-Liang, RD, spokesperson for the California Dietetic Association. "If you still think you might be lacking, make an appointment with a registered dietician to discuss a supplement."
While any of the above symptoms could indicate a vitamin or mineral deficiency, they could also be caused by something more serious. It's always best to make an appointment with your doctor to rule out any medical conditions.
- Yale Medicine: "Vitamin D Myths 'D'-bunked"
- Journal of Pharmocology & Pharmacotherapeutics: "Vitamin D: The 'sunshine' vitamin"
- Vitamin D Council: "Am I Getting Too Much Vitamin D?"
- Journal of the American Dietetic Association: "Iron content of food cooked in iron utensils."
- Journal of Indian Pediatrics: "Beneficial effect of iron pot cooking on iron status."
- Nutrition Reviews: "Suboptimal magnesium status in the United States: are the health consequences underestimated?"
- Mayo Clinic: "Eye twitching"
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Vitamin B12 Deficiency Anemia"
- Current Medicinal Chemistry: "The Effects of Vitamin B in Depression"
- National Institutes of Health: "Omega-3 Fatty Acids"
- Marine Drugs: "Cosmetic and Therapeutic Applications of Fish Oil’s Fatty Acids on the Skin"
- Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University: "Essential Fatty Acids and Skin Health"