In New Zealand the depletion of certain minerals in our soils and our environmental conditions can contribute to a number of vitamin and mineral deficiencies that often go unnoticed until persistent symptoms develop. These vitamins and minerals play a vital part in keeping the body functioning at optimal levels and ensuring good health and wellbeing. If these minerals are lacking the body struggles to compensate for the missing pieces, resulting in disease and health disorders.
To help people understand and recognise the signs and symptoms of vitamin and mineral deficiencies we have compiled this comprehensive guide to the 4 most common vitamin and mineral deficiencies in New Zealand. Read on to find out everything you need to know about;
Iron is an essential mineral used by the body to form red blood cells and proteins, it is important for both brain function and the immune system. Iron cannot be produced by the body so must be absorbed regularly from foods in order to maintain optimum levels.
The majority of the iron found in the body is used in the production of red blood cells (haemoglobin), and muscle cells (myoglobin). Haemoglobin transfers oxygen around the body from the lungs (via the blood), myoglobin carries oxygen to the muscles. Without iron, haemoglobin and myoglobin cannot form; this leaves the body with in a lack of oxygen.
Iron is also needed by the immune system to help fight infections, optimal brain function and growth and development in children.
Too much or too little iron can make you unwell, so how much iron do you need every day? Each person’s iron needs depend on a variety of factors, including age, gender and lifestyle choices. According to the NZ Nutrition Foundation the Recommended Daily Intakes (RDI) for iron are;
It is important to note pregnant and breastfeeding women will have higher than normal iron requirements along with those giving blood (According to the NZ Blood Service an additional 2–2.5mg of iron is needed each day for approximately 3 months afterwards to replace iron stores lost in blood donation). These figures are given as a general guide only, please see you doctor for more specific information.
In New Zealand a blood test is the best way to find out if you are in fact low in iron. Doctors will often test for Ferritin levels as this is a good indicator of how much iron is stored in the body (Ferritin is a protein that binds itself to iron molecules).
A Full Blood Count (FBC) is also used as an indicator for iron deficiency, as it measures the quality and quantity of red blood cells (along with white blood cells and platelets).
Without a healthy amount of red blood cells your entire body won’t be getting enough oxygen, known as iron deficiency anaemia, this condition leads to fatigue and exhaustion and can affect everything from your brain function through to the ability of your immune system to fight off infections.
During pregnancy insufficient iron levels can lead to complications for your baby and its development. Severe iron deficiency can also cause irregular shaped finger nails (a condition known as Koilonychias).
Once the body’s iron stores have been depleted the symptoms of iron deficiency anaemia gradually become more apparent, common signs and symptoms of iron deficiency include.
Iron deficiency can be caused by several factors; the most common reason is inadequate absorption of iron due to issues with the gut (such as celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease). Another common reason is simply not eating enough foods containing iron. Anyone with a diet low in iron-rich foods such as red meat, pulses and green leafy vegetables can become iron deficient over time.
Children and adolescents and pregnant and breast feeding women are at a greater risk of iron deficiency due to an increased need for iron. Those who regularly take part in intense exercise (marathon running etc.) are also susceptible to reduced iron levels as this type of exercise can destroy red blood cells.
Loss of iron through blood loss during menstruation is also a factor for women, and sometimes iron deficiencies can be a sign of a serious underlying illness (internal bleeding from ulcers etc.). It is important to see your doctor to fully investigate a suspected iron deficiency.
Iron can be sourced from a variety of different foods; here are our top 10 types of foods to look out for when seeking to increase iron levels.
Foods rich in Vitamin C enhance the absorption of iron during a meal, these include; citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruit, lemons etc.), kiwifruit, leafy green vegetables (spinach, silver beet etc.) and broccoli.
Meat eaten in the same meal as vegetables will increase the amount of iron that can be absorbed from the vegetables.
Beta-Carotene, a carotenoid that enables the body to produce vitamin A, also enhances the absorption of iron, it is found naturally in foods such as; apricots, beets and beet greens, carrots, collard greens, corn, red grapes, oranges, peaches, prunes, red peppers, spinach, sweet potatoes and tomatoes.
Just as there are some things that enhance the body’s absorption of iron, there are also things that can reduce the amount of iron your body can absorb, these include;
Generally iron supplements will be prescribed by your doctor for the treatment of iron deficiency along with a focus on eating a more iron rich diet. Supplements are usually in tablet or liquid form. Supplements should only be consumed on the advice of a health care professional who can advise you on the correct dosage and supplementation product.
Iron supplements may need to be taken for some months to replenish the body’s iron stores. Be aware some iron supplements may have side effects including things like constipation, black stools and taste disturbances.
Always see your doctor if an iron deficiency is suspected for proper diagnosis and treatment recommendation.
Vitamin D is unlike other essential vitamins, in that your body can make its own simply from exposure sunlight or more specifically Ultraviolet B (UVB).
The main role of vitamin D is to manage calcium levels in your blood, bones and gut, as well as aiding communication within the body’s cells. This means vitamin D is very important for bone health as in order to absorb calcium and phosphorus which are essential for developing the structure and strength of your bones, a good supply of vitamin D is required.
The vitamin D that your body gets from sunlight, foods or supplements is processed in the liver resulting in a substance called 25(OH)D. This chemical is then deployed all around the body to where it is needed.
The kidneys are used to turn it into a hormone called activated vitamin D or calcitriol. This activated vitamin D is now in a useable form; your body uses it to maintain and manage the amount of calcium in your blood, bones and gut and to help cells in the body communicate properly.
Vitamin D helps the body with a number of broad functions including in the immune system, cardiovascular function, brain development, muscle function and in the respiratory system.
According to the NZ Nutrition Foundation the recommended daily intakes (RDI) for Vitamin D are;
For most people in New Zealand it is easy to get enough Vitamin D as our bodies produce it whenever our skin is exposed to sunlight, however lack of Vitamin D does affect many people without them even realising. Lack of Vitamin D can affect mood, your immune system and bone density.
One of vitamin D’s most important roles is keeping your immune system strong so you’re able to fight off viruses and bacteria that cause illness. Vitamin D directly interacts with the cells that are responsible for fighting off infections.
A lack of vitamin D has also been linked to conditions such as excessive fatigue, asthma, Alzheimer’s, type-II diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, and autoimmune diseases.
Severe vitamin D deficiency in children has been known to cause a condition called Rickets resulting in soft and brittle bones. In Adults a similar condition called Osteomalacia can occur.
Think you may have a vitamin D deficiency? Here are 8 common signs and symptoms.
The most accurate way to measure how much vitamin D is in your body is the 25-Hydroxy Vitamin D blood test. “A level of 20 nanograms/milliliter to 50 ng/mL is considered adequate for healthy people. A level less than 12 ng/mL indicates vitamin D deficiency” (www.WebMD.com).
If you suspect you may be deficient in vitamin D, I t is important to talk to your GP and discuss your options.
With such lovely sunny weather here in New Zealand, how can we be lacking in vitamin D? Surprisingly there are a number of simple reasons, here are the top 10.
Limited amounts of vitamin D are found in oily fish, such as canned tuna and salmon, eggs, lean meat and dairy products. There are also margarines, milks and yoghurts fortified with vitamin D available in New Zealand.
A quick check of the ingredients will indicate whether or not vitamin D has been added.
Because the symptoms of a vitamin D deficiency often go unnoticed or are difficult to isolate, if there is a suspected deficiency it is important to speak to your doctor and get a blood test. The good news is a vitamin D deficiency is usually pretty easy to fix.
A person’s skin tone has a large effect on the amount of sun exposure a person will require. Lighter skin tones including very fair or pale skin will require much less exposure than darker toned skin. Where 15 minutes in the middle of the day would suffice for a fair skinned person, very dark brown skin might take up to 2 hours.
The amount of time required in the sun heavily relies on the time of year and time of day as well as the amount of skin you are exposing to the sun.
According to the NZ Nutrition Foundation being outdoors for short periods of time before 11am and after 4pm during the summer months should allow enough sunlight to be absorbed to meet your vitamin D needs.
In winter, longer periods are required and you are looking at around 30 minutes per day. Those in the lower South Island and West Coast areas will need even more.
Exposing your skin to the sun for too long can be dangerous, if your skin starts to burn there is an increased risk of skin cancer. Moderate but frequent sun exposure is recommended. Please note this information is given as a guide only, it is best to discuss sensible levels of skin exposure with a medical professional.
B12 (also called Cobalamin) is one of eight B vitamins used in the metabolism of cells in the human body. B12 is important for a healthy nervous system, and plays a supporting role in the production of DNA, red blood cells and maintaining energy levels.
One of the most structurally complicated vitamins, B12 occurs naturally in meats and animal products such as milk and eggs. Vegetable dietary sources of B12 are rare; it has been reported that certain kinds of seaweed, algae, and some mushrooms do contain some B12 but studies have indicated this plant form of B12 does not perform reliably once consumed.
Vitamin B12 is used for a number of processes throughout the body but its main role is to regulate the nervous system and assist in red blood cell formation. A protein called the ‘Intrinsic Factor’ binds to vitamin B12 in the stomach and enables the body to absorb it into your blood and cells thereafter.
Any excess B12 is stored in the liver for future use, these supplies will vary from person to person but can last for several years.
According to the US and New Zealand recommendations it is advised that 2.4 micrograms of B12 is consumed per day for adults (This rises to 2.8 micrograms for nursing mothers). It is estimated only 50% of B12 consumed is actually absorbed, these figures allow for those circumstances. See below for more detailed information on how much vitamin B12 you need each day to continue to maintain healthy levels.
Excessively high levels of B12 can be indicate the presence of liver disease, certain types of leukaemia, or diabetes. Normal ranges can vary from source to source so it is important to discuss appropriate B12 levels with your doctor.
A lack of the all-important Intrinsic Factor means the body is unable to absorb B12 which can lead to a deficiency. B12 deficiency can also be caused by lifestyle or medical dietary restrictions, in particular vegan and vegetarian diets.
If left untreated vitamin B12 deficiency can result in psychological conditions such as dementia, paranoia, depression, and behavioural changes, along with nerve damage, memory and vision loss.
The signs of a B12 deficiency can develop slowly over time, these are the top 8 signs and symptoms to look out for when you suspect a vitamin B12 deficiency.
There are two main ways to test your B12 levels in New Zealand. You doctor can order a blood test or you can take a urine test. These tests are designed to test for your overall vitamin B12 levels, methylmalonic acid (MMA), homocysteine and holotranscobalamin (holoTC).
Vitamin B12 is mainly found in animal products, especially meat and dairy products, here are 10 foods that contain good amounts of vitamin B12.
If a Vitamin B12 deficiency is suspected it is import to see your doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment advice. If B12 supplementation is advised this is usually in the form of tablets or liquid that you can swallow, chew or drink, sometimes injections may be an option. Both of these methods are proven to be equally effective in raising B12 levels.
If complications such as Pernicious Anaemia or gut absorption issues are present, the most common treatment is vitamin B12 injections.
Magnesium is an essential macro-mineral vital to hundreds of functions within the human body. As the fourth most abundant element in the body magnesium is needed in significantly large amounts.
Magnesium can be found in nature in several different forms including Magnesium Chloride (found naturally in the sea), Magnesium Carbonate (an insoluble rock salt) and as the central element of chlorophyll in plant matter.
Upon entering the body, magnesium is broken down into an ionic form and released to be used in over 300 enzyme systems used to regulate a wide range of important chemical reactions and processes throughout the body. These include energy and nerve functions, DNA and RNA creation and repair, bone development, muscle function and blood glucose control.
It is thought that roughly 50-60% of the body’s magnesium is found within the bones, with the remainder found in the tissues, a very small amount is found in the blood. Excess magnesium is excreted in urine or can result in loose bowel movements.
According to the Ministry of Health the following are the recommended daily intakes for magnesium.
Pregnant and lactating mothers will have higher needs, it is best to check with your GP for their recommendations. Please note; RDI values are set as the minimum amount to prevent deficiency, they are not intended as a guide for optimal health.
A prolonged magnesium deficiency can result in changes in the biochemical pathways within the body and can increase the risk of illness over time. Several diseases and disorders have been linked to low levels of magnesium including;
While it is difficult to pinpoint a magnesium deficiency the following symptoms are commonly associated with low levels of magnesium indicating further investigation is advised.
In New Zealand a blood test is the most common way to find out if you have low magnesium levels. This is commonly called a “Magnesium Blood Test”.
In some occasions a blood test might not be the best way to determine magnesium levels; stress for example can draw magnesium out of your cells and into your blood causing inaccurate results. It is possible to combine the blood test with urine testing or to do a Red Blood Cell Magnesium Test which measure the magnesium carried in the red blood cells. Be sure to talk with your doctor so you understand the test you are taking.
Magnesium is present in a wide range of foods, both animal and plant based. Here are our top 10 foods that are good sources of magnesium.
Magnesium deficiency can be due to several factors, including problems with the gut and absorption (Celiac or Crohn’s Disease etc.), genetic disorders involving the inability to absorb magnesium efficiently, Type 2 Diabetes, and things like increased excretion of magnesium due to stress (the creation of the hormone adrenaline) and alcoholism.
Magnesium levels can also be depleted by excess calcium, increased stress, caffeine, excessive alcohol, too much processed foods and fizzy drinks and some medications including diuretics and hypertensive drugs.
Magnesium deficiencies can be treated by increasing the foods containing good levels of magnesium, topical magnesium sprays or creams or taking by magnesium supplements. Magnesium supplements are available in a variety of forms, including magnesium oxide, citrate, and chloride.
It is important to note high doses of zinc can interfere with absorption of magnesium. Too much magnesium is rare but can occur when taking magnesium supplements at high doses or if pre-existing medical conditions are present such as kidney damage.
Zinc is an essential trace element (meaning that your body can’t produce or store it) and it is used across a wide range functions within the body. It helps stimulate the activity of over a 300 different enzymes that aid in metabolism, digestion, nerve function and many other processes.
Zinc is perhaps most important for a healthy immune system, making genetic material, wound healing and promoting healthy growth and development during childhood.
Along with other minerals such as Selenium and Iodine, Zinc is a mineral that New Zealand soils are particularly low in. When the soil is low in a mineral this means the vegetables and food that we grow from the soil are also going to be lacking in this mineral – meaning we often do not get enough even when eating plenty of fruits and vegetables.
Second only to iron, Zinc is the most abundantly distributed trace element in the body. This means a zinc deficiency can have widespread health effects that are ongoing.
Zinc deficiency can be due to a number of underlying conditions such as diabetes and liver disease, but more commonly it is due to insufficient dietary intake. 8 of the more common signs and symptoms of zinc deficiency are.
For recommended daily intakes of zinc adjusted for age see below (According to the NZ Nutrition Foundation). Always keep in mind that individual needs may vary and too much zinc can be just as harmful as not enough.
Zinc is naturally found in a wide variety of both plant and animal foods. The best sources of zinc are beans, animal meats, nuts, fish, whole grain cereals, and dairy products. Zinc is also found added to some breakfast cereals and other fortified foods. Here are the top 10 food sources of zinc.
Most people get enough zinc from the foods they eat. However, some people are more likely to have trouble getting enough zinc from dietary sources alone, such as;
Short answer – Yes. When you take too much zinc for a long time, sometimes problems such as low copper levels, lower immunity, and low levels of HDL the ‘good’ cholesterol eventuate. Signs of excess zinc intake are.
A visit to your doctor will help identify a suspected zinc deficiency, they will need to test your blood plasma in order to get an accurate indication of zinc levels in the body. Sometimes a urine test of hair analysis is also used to provide a more complete picture.
As zinc is only present in small amounts in the body’s cells it is possible these test do not give an accurate result. Your doctor will often complete a full health history, with particular focus on diet.
Usually treatment for zinc deficiency will begin with making changes to your diet. Supplements may also be a good short-term option for those struggling with dietary intake. Zinc is found in many multivitamin supplements, but be aware using zinc supplements can have an effect on some arthritis medications, antibiotics and diuretics.
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