This section describes widely recognized symptoms of nutrient deficiency, excess, and toxicity in each major body system. When first embarking on the study of nutrition it is often tempting to diagnose nutrient deficiencies or excesses based on observation of a single symptom. Before you do so, you should be aware of the following:

  1. Dietary deficiencies rarely occur in isolation; if you're deficient in one nutrient, you're likely to be deficient in another. For example, a diet low in protein is also often low in iron, zinc, thiamin and vitamin B6. Under typical circumstances it is very difficult to choose a diet based on whole foods that is deficient in a single nutrient.

  2. A definitive diagnosis is very rarely made based on observation of a single symptom. Many different nutrient deficiencies cause similar symptoms. For instance, deficiencies of B1, B6, and potassium are all associated with mental confusion, as is lead toxicity; but these are not the only causes of mental confusion. Lack of sleep, drug use, brain injury, and organic brain disease would all need to be ruled out before you could point to a deficiency or excess of any one nutrient.

  3. Isolated symptoms of toxicity have become more common than are isolated symptoms of nutrient deficiency. This is due to the widespread availability and use of supplements, many of which are rich in a single nutrient.

It is very important to keep these points in mind when reviewing the following chart. This chart can provide you with clues for recognizing problems in your own diet, but it should not replace a visit to your doctor if your symptoms are severe.

TISSUE/ORGAN SYMPTOM POSSIBLE NUTRITIONAL DEFICIENCY OR TOXICITY
Hair (on head) Depigmentation of hair Protein deficiency
Flag sign: Stripes of depigmented hair Transient, reoccurring protein deficiency
Hair loss Biotin deficiency; vitamin A toxicity
Dry, Brittle hair Iodine deficiency
Hair (body) Profuse, long body hair (lanugo) Anorexia
Eyes Night blindness Vitamin A or zinc deficiency
Xeropthalmia Advanced vitamin A deficiency
Macular degeneration Age + lack of xantheine, an antioxidant from the carotene family commonly found in pumpkin, summer squash, and dark green vegetables.
Retinal degeneration Excess blood sugar (common in poorly regulated diabetes)
Dark under-eye circles May indicate iron deficiency
Yellow "whites" Jaundice from liver disease; excessive beta-carotene intake
Mouth Bleeding gums Vitamin C deficiency
Loose teeth Advanced vitamin C deficiency (scurvy)
Cracked lips + swollen, dark red tongue Riboflavin (Vit B2) deficiency
Swollen dark red tongue Biotin deficiency
Throat Goiter Iiodine deficiency; autoimmune induced loss of thyroid function (hypothyroiditis)
Cardiovascular Hypertension Excess sodium; lack of calcium & potassium; excess body weight & poor physical conditioning; also genetic causes
Atherosclerosis (blocked circulation) High fat (especially saturated) diet often accompanied by obesity
Poor circulation Capillary damage due to poorly regulated diabetes
Heart attack See atherosclerosis; potassium deficiency or toxicity are also remote possibilities
Stroke See hypertension, atherosclerosis
Respiratory Asthma A genetically increased requirement for vitamins E & C; may accompany food allergies; exacerbated by sulfites (food preservatives)
Cancer Possible deficiency of antioxidants & phytochemicals found in produce; exposure to environmental toxins, including those found in some foods; genetic component with some cancers, e.g. colon and ovarian
Liver Failure Alcohol toxicity; poisonous foods & herbs, e.g. some mushrooms; excess use of supplements such as vitamins A, D, B6, and niacin
Fatty Early stages of alcoholism
Gallstones High fat diet + obesity, especially in overweight women of reproductive age
Kidneys Damage Exposure to environmental toxins, including those in some foods; excess nutrients such as fluoride
Failure Hyperglycemia due to poorly regulated diabetes; high protein diets
Stones Excess calcium
Pancreas Pancreatitis Alcoholism
Autoimmune damage (insulin dependent diabetes) Elevated blood glucose
Cystic fibrosis Nutrient deficiencies due to lack of digestive enzymes
Gastrointestinal tract Constipation Lack of dietary fiber
Colon cancer Lack of dietary fiber; antioxidant deficiency; genetic predisposition
Diarrhea Deficiency of nutrients used to build intestinal lining, including protein, zinc, vitamin A, and B-complex vitamins
Urogenital tract Recurrent bladder infections May indicate lack of sufficient nutrients to build up a good lining
Excess urination Microbial infection; diabetes; excess caffeine consumption
Insufficient urination Dehydration
Unusually colored urine Illness; excess intake of supplements such as vitamin C, riboflavin or carotinoid antioxidants
Prostate cancer Insufficient intake of the antioxidant luetein (the red pigment in tomatoes)
Hypogonadism Zinc deficiency in childhood
Skeleton Bowed legs, protruding breastbone (rickets) Vitamin D deficiency during childhood
Frequent fractures (osteomalacia) Loss of calcium from bones due to adult vitamin D deficiency
Pre-osteoporosis (osteopenia) Weakened bones caused by lack of calcium during teen and adult years
Osteoporosis Brittle calcium-deficient bones caused by poor diet and age-related hormone changes
Hypercalcification Vitamin A toxicity
Stunted growth Starvation, protein deficiency
Dwarfism Possible zinc deficiency
Skin Pellegra (dry, black skin) Niacin (vitamin B3) deficiency
Dry, scaly skin Essential fatty acid, vitamin E, or biotin deficiency
Greasy, scaly Riboflavin (B2) deficiency
Dry, stays peaked when pinched Dehydration (water deficiency or electrolyte imbalance)
Unusual skin rash Excess supplement use; vitamin B6 deficiency
Soft tissues Wasting Anorexia nervosa; involuntary starvation; thiamin deficiency
Delayed wound healing Vitamins C, A or zinc deficiency
Calcification Vitamin D toxicity
Neurological system Numbness in extremities Vitamin B6 toxicity; vitamin B1 deficiency (Beriberi)
Persistent tremors Alcoholism
Mental confusion Starvation; deficiency of vitamin B6 or B1 (Beriberi), iron, and potassium; profound niacin deficiency; lead toxicity; must rule out brain injury or disease
Red Blood Cell Indexes (Anemias) Hemolytic anemia Vitamin E deficiency
Hemorraghic anemia Vitamin K deficiency
Macrocytic anemia Folate deficiency
Microcytic anemia Iron deficiency; zinc or vitamin B6 deficiency
Pernicious anemia Vitamin B12 deficiency; dietary or genetic causes
Lack of clot formation Vitamin K deficiency; vitamin E toxicity
Blood Chemistry Hyperglycemia (diabetes) Elevated blood glucose
Poor glucose clearance Noninsulin dependent diabetes: chromium deficiency; excess body weight; genetics
Hypoglycemia Low blood glucose; a symptom, not a disease. Two types: reactive, which is caused by skipping meals or starvation, and spontaneous, which is caused by over-production of insulin following a meal; may indicate a pancreatic tumor.
Hypercholestremia High fat diet + obesity; genetics
Hyperlipidemia High fat diet + obesity; genetics
Electrolyte imbalances Dehydration due to disease, heat exhaustion, overexertion, insufficient fluid intake, or excess use of diuretics, emetics or laxatives
Anemias See Red Blood Cell Indexes


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