Nutritional deficiencies usually occur secondary to a primary condition (e.g., irritable bowel disease, cancer, pregnancy), and progress over time from a state of nutritional inadequacy to a state of serious illness or even death. The development of a nutrient deficiency usually goes through the following stages:
- Negative balance
- Decline in tissue stores
- Loss of function
- Signs and symptoms of deficiency
- Organ failure
- Possible death
So, how do we get to a state of negative balance?
The cause of any nutritional deficiency can be boiled down to one (or more) of five causes:
- Inadequate intake
- Poor absorption
- Increased requirement
- Altered metabolism
- Losses greater than gains
There are a variety of reasons for each of the above causes. For example, an underlying gluten-sensitive disease of the intestines would contribute to a nutrient deficient state due to poor absorption. Other reasons of a nutrient deficient state include:
- Inadequate intake – poor food choices, not consuming enough food, feeding or swallowing difficulties
- Poor absorption – inflammatory bowel disease, excess alcohol intake, Celiac disease
- Increased requirement – growth, pregnancy and lactation, recovery states
- Altered metabolism – excess alcohol intake, environmental pollution, genetic variations, disease processes, drugs
- Increased losses – renal disease, poorly controlled diabetes, burns, chronic diarrhea
As you can see, a nutrient deficient state can develop for reasons other than just poor intake.
It is worth mentioning that mild nutrient deficiencies are much more prevalent than severe ones. This means that patients often feel something is wrong before a physician is able to observe signs of nutrient deficiency. Naturopathic physicians rely on lab values, but also the patients experience (or symptoms) in order to create a viable treatment plan; therefore, mild deficiencies can be treated before they turn into severe ones.
Current research is now moving toward the diagnosis and treatment of marginal nutrient deficiencies of single or multiple nutrients. This is important because nutrient deficiencies are quite prevalent and play a role in many disease processes. For example, studies have found severe population deficiencies of vitamin K1 in the United States leading to a decline in bone health. Other nutrient deficiencies play a roll in depression, diabetes, cancer, etc. Nutrient deficiencies are the most common cause of a depressed immune system.
In order to correct a potential nutrient deficiency, talk to your naturopathic physician. First off they will want to find out why the deficiency is occurring (*remember: inadequate intake, poor absorption, increased requirement, altered metabolism, increased losses) in order to treat the underlying cause of the deficiency. This will likely include a series of lab tests, but also an in-depth look at the patients’ symptoms. Treatment may include supplementation, dietary counselling, acupuncture, botanical medicine, etc. Treatment plans are often tailored to each individual’s needs and reasons for nutritional deficiencies. The best way to avoid a nutrient deficiency is to make sure you are eating a balanced, nutrient-rich diet.