Nutritional Deficiency is subtle and can appear in many forms. Have you ever noticed little nuances in your body? These might be things that have just popped up over time, such as little marks on your nails or some bumps on the back of your arms or legs. In most cases, people attribute these things to be meaningless or feel silly for bringing them up to a health professional. They do, however, have a meaning! The body is always trying to tell us what’s going on inside by giving us visual cues on the outside. Let’s dive into some of the most common external cues of nutritional deficiency and what they might mean.
Nails are commonly affected by nutritional deficiency. This includes both the strength and integrity of the nail in addition to the appearance. Brittle nails that split or break easily might indicate that someone is not getting enough biotin in their diet. Biotin is a B vitamin, also known as B7, and plays an integral role in the strength of nails. It aids in the formation as well as the binding together of keratin. Keratin is a protein that is needed for strong nails and hair.
Marks or ridges on the nails can be another indication of a nutritional deficiency. White marks, ridges (often referred to as Beau’s lines), and horizontal rigging may be an indication that someone might be deficient in zinc, B6, or protein. These are especially important to monitor in those following vegan or vegetarian diets. The physical shape of the nail can also be affected. In those with chronic iron deficiency, the nails can become spooned shaped where they curve like a spoon.
The skin is one of the main forms of communication when it comes to knowing what is going on inside by what’s going on outside. As the largest organ in the human body, the skin is composed of layers of tissues. It is used for detoxification as well as absorption. Some common skin conditions that are evidence of an internal imbalance are acne, keratosis pilaris or ‘chicken skin’, psoriasis, and general rashes.
Acne can be evidence of an imbalance of zinc within the body as well as poor glycemic control. Both of these can be mediated by eating a diet rich in whole foods such as whole grains, beans and legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and lean proteins. Diets rich in fiber are excellent for glycemic control. Aim for 8-10 grams of fiber per meal totaling 24-30 grams per day. Men can benefit additionally by reaching higher intakes of fiber, specifically from grains, fruits, and whole grain-based cereals when it comes to the risk reduction for colorectal cancer and adenomas.
Another factor influencing the presence of acne is dairy in the diet. Dairy is inflammatory in nature for most people and the inflammation often manifests as skin issues such as acne. Acne around the mouth and chin can indicate hormonal issues, some of which can also be attributed to the hormones given to dairy cows and the natural hormones in dairy meant for calves to ingest and mature into adult cows. This increases growth hormones that have a positive effect on the presence of acne due to increasing the production of sebum, the oily secretion that can clog pores. Opting for dairy alternatives is a great option for most people.
Follicular keratosis, commonly referred to as ‘chicken skin’ or ‘strawberry skin’ manifests as tiny bumps on the back of the arms and or legs. These bumps are the result of the hyperkeratinization of pores, and the formation of a keratin ‘plug’ over the hair follicle. This might be caused by an essential fatty acid deficiency or a vitamin A deficiency. Eating a diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables will provide natural vitamin A, specifically those that are red, yellow, and orange. Essential fatty acids can be consumed by adding some freshly ground flaxseed on top of meals or into smoothies. Chia seeds are another great option as they boast good amounts of fiber and protein as well. Using extra virgin olive oil in salad dressings is a great option as well. It’s important to note that consuming fried foods and foods containing hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils can lead to an essential fatty acid deficiency, even if you are consuming those good fats. The hydrogenated fats clog up the enzymes needed to metabolize the good fats, therefore the body is taking them in, but is unable to use them.
Dry skin is a common issue and can often be solved with adequate hydration and the consumption of adequate essential fatty acids as well. If a condition such as psoriasis is present, this can be an indication of a variety of imbalances within the body. Psoriasis is characterized as the buildup of skin cells on the surface causing red scaly patches that are often itchy and uncomfortable. This commonly affects the knees, elbows, and scalp, although it can spread anywhere in the body. It has been observed to have a strong genetic link, but diet, lifestyle, and environmental factors can play into this also. Impaired digestion has been seen to influence psoriasis, specifically the poor digestion of proteins. Optimizing digestion is vital for maintaining a healthy body both inside and out.
General and unexplained rashes are typically indicative of leaky gut or intestinal permeability. This means that food particles are getting past the lining of the gastrointestinal lining and into the bloodstream, eliciting an immune reaction by the body that can manifest as a rash. This can also manifest as brain fog, headaches, inflammation in the joints, and more. It is important to remember that not everyone is affected in the same way even if the root cause is the same.
Hair growth and strength is another way for health practitioners to tune into whether or not someone might be experiencing nutritional deficiencies. Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutritional issues when it comes to hair loss. Those who follow vegan and vegetarian diets are at an increased risk for this and should consult a healthcare provider when determining the need for supplementation. Those with malabsorption issues such as celiac disease or those on medications for acid reflux are also at risk for poor absorption due to the change in the acidity of stomach acid.
Another factor in hair health and growth is zinc. Zinc is an essential mineral needed for hundreds of metabolic processes within the human body. It is involved in the transcription and gene expression and the process of hair follicle generation. Zinc is found in many foods, but the ability to absorb and use it is higher in meat than vegetables. Beans and whole grains contain phytates that bind to zinc and make it harder to absorb. This combination puts vegans and vegetarians at an increased risk for zinc deficiency as well. Prolonged high dosing of zinc can deplete another important mineral, selenium. Always consult a healthcare professional before beginning any supplement regimen.
Last but not least, we come to one of the most popular hair, skin, and nail supplements on the market: biotin. Biotin, also known as B7 or Vitamin H to some, has been widely marketed for its effect on growing hair. All B vitamins work in a complex and for most should be taken as such. Think of B vitamins as a family. When one member of the family is absent or lacking, the whole family cannot function as well as if all members were present and contributing. Biotin is important for many functions in the body including the breakdown of proteins and amino acids as well as the proper function of enzymes needed for fatty acid metabolism. Fatty acids are important for the hair, skin, and nails. Biotin deficiency is uncommon and is typically only seen in those with absorption issues such as IBD, those who chronically use antibiotics, those who consume large amounts of raw eggs, and those who consume excess alcohol.
If you are experiencing any of these physical signs of imbalance, we recommend consulting with one of our functional medicine specialists. Not sure what vitamins and minerals you might be deficient in? Contact us to run a full micronutrient panel and see where you might need a supplement of vitamins to get you back to feeling your best! Fight Nutritional Deficiency with us at Specialized Therapy Associates and Fx Med Centers.
Baldwin, H., & Tan, J. (2021). Effects of Diet on Acne and Its Response to Treatment. American Journal of Clinical Dermatology, 22(1), 55–65. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40257-020-00542-y
Basavaraj, K. H., Seemanthini, C., & Rashmi, R. (2010). Diet in Dermatology: Present Perspectives. Indian journal of dermatology, 55(3), 205–210. https://doi.org/10.4103/0019-5154.70662
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