General symptoms of nutrient deficiency include tiredness, pale skin, listlessness, gastric upset, changed bowel habits and lack of stamina. Nutritional disorders can affect your mood and mental performance, leading to depression, anxiety, emotional problems, an inability to concentrate and poor memory.
These symptoms could be caused by any of a number of conditions that limit the absorption of nutrients by the body’s digestive system. For example, in pancreatic insufficiency, the pancreas produces too few digestive enzymes, while in Crohn’s disease areas of the gastro-intestinal tract become inflamed and cannot absorb nutrients.
When the digestive tract does not absorb fats properly, the body excretes excessive amounts of fat in the stools (steatorrhoea). Coeliac disease is caused by an intolerance of gluten, which damages the villi, the finger-like extensions on the surface of the intestine; this reduces the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. If the digestive tract becomes infected by bacteria such as Salmonella and Campylobacter and parasites such as Giardia lamblia, it will try to reject these bacteria and in doing so will not absorb nutrients from food.
Nutrient deficiency can also result from structural problems in the digestive system. In some people the opening from the stomach to the small intestine (the pylorus) is narrow, and this interferes with the passage of food. In young babies, this condition (pyloric stenosis) can produce sudden and violent vomiting. (There are many other less serious reasons why a baby may be vomiting) If one of the ducts that carry bile from the liver to the gallbladder or from the gallbladder to the intestine becomes blocked, the bile – which contains salts needed to emulsify fats – is unable to reach the intestine and this interferes with digestion.
Disorders such as diabetes, thyroid disease and lymphoma can also limit the absorption of nutrients. Some drugs – for example, antibiotics and laxatives – also interfere with nutrient absorption during digestion.
Treating Nutritional Disorders
You should always consult a doctor for diagnosis and treatment if you suspect you have a nutritional disorder. Conventional treatment varies widely, but can include the use of drugs such as antibiotics or steroids and surgery. Changes to your diet may also help, depending on the disorder.
Nutritional therapy may effect a cure in mild cases of certain conditions and may alleviate symptoms in more .serious cases. Generally, the earlier a condition is treated, the more successful the therapy.
Risk of Nutrient Deficiency
Certain groups of people may be more at risk of developing nutritional deficiency. These include elderly people, pregnant and nursing women, children and adolescents. Some disorders in pregnancy make it difficult for women to meet the nutritional needs of the fetus.
Children and Adolescents
Children’s nutritional requirements are much greater during phases of rapid growth. Children have small stomachs and can fill up quickly, making it important that children have regular meals which are high energy and nutrient dense. Children can become faddy with food, and may benefit from taking specially formulated multivitamin and multimineral supplements that include Vitamins A, C and D.
Among adolescents, image is often more of a concern than health, and high-sugar, high-fat foods and drinks can replace nutritionally balanced meals. They may also have a significant intake of alcohol and smoke cigarettes. To counter the effects of this they will need antioxidants in their diet and should be encouraged to increase their intake of antioxidant-rich fresh fruit and vegetables. It may also be advisable to take a multivitamin and multimineral supplement.
Research indicates that a significant number of elderly people do not reach the recommended daily allowance for many essential nutrients, particularly, vitamin D. Elderly people may be on medication, which can interfere with the body’s ability to absorb nutrients, or their digestive system may be inefficient. If you care for elderly people, encourage them to take care with their diet and suggest they take a multimineral and multivitamin supplement.
People who drink alcohol every day in amounts well beyond recommended levels may develop pancreatic and liver problems, which lead to poor digestion. The body’s detoxification processes stop working properly. The effects of alcohol include increased urine production, which leads to the loss of water-soluble nutrients such as minerals and some vitamins. Alcohol also affects the body’s metabolism of carbohydrate, fat, protein and sex hormones. Some alcoholics stop eating properly and may suffer from malnutrition for this reason. Taking a multimineral and multivitamin supplement may prevent these problems, but alcoholics should always be encouraged to seek help to overcome their addiction.
Anorexics and Bulimics
People suffering from anorexia and bulimia have an extremely low intake or retention of all nutrients. In addition, prolonged self-inflicted starvation can cause psychological disturbances. Anorexics and bulimics are extremely anxious about choosing food, and this anxiety leads to impaired digestion. Sometimes it may be right for an anorexic to take multivitamin and multimineral supplements, but it is also very important to address the psychological causes of the illness, too.
Pregnant and Breastfeeding Women
Both pregnancy and breastfeeding create an increased need for nutrients, especially protein, essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals. Some nutritionists estimate that your need for vitamin B complex, vitamin C, calcium, zinc and magnesium rises by more than 30 per cent during pregnancy and breastfeeding and that your general food intake needs to increase by around 15-20 per cent.
Your doctor or midwife can give you advice on your diet and whether you would benefit from additional supplements. Nutritious food is essential for the well-being both of the mother and of the fetus.
Nausea caused by changes in hormone levels is usually restricted to the first three months after conception, but in some women it continues throughout pregnancy. Because they feel sick, women eat less – which could mean that they and their baby are not getting enough nutrients. Another threat to fetal nutrition arises if a mother has iron-deficient anaemia.
This condition is caused by low intake or poor absorption of iron and can usually be prevented by consumption of high-iron foods such as dark green vegetables and cocoa. But pregnant women should not eat liver, despite its high iron content, because it also has a high concentration of Vitamin A. Sometimes an iron supplement will be prescribed.
Mothers with a food intolerance may have to limit their diet. Even where no intolerance or allergy exists in the mother, it is possible for an infant to develop an allergy because of diets followed by the mother in pregnancy, or because of allergens contained in the mother’s milk.
Deficiency of folate before conception and during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy has been associated with spina bifida in the fetus. Foods rich in folate include wheatgerm, rice germ, black-eye peas, soya flour, kidney beans, asparagus, lentils, spinach, walnuts, oranges and dark green vegetables, such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts and spinach. Many women are advised to take folic acid supplements for three months before conception and during the first months of pregnancy.