Once again I have been quiet for a bit… and this time it’s just because… well I was too tired. You know the kind of tired that even rest can’t help, and everyone tells you it’s just stress.
But is it just stress? You know sometimes you get some vague symptoms that no one can actually attribute to an illness and you end up wondering what to do with yourself (or what you’re doing wrong…. or both!).
Often the reason for such subtle, yet frustratingly annoying symptoms are nutritional deficiencies. Although not life-threatening (at least in the short-term) these can have a big impact on your life and your health.
So as my struggle and research into the matter continues, I stumbled upon a very interesting (and enlightening) medical article based on a neurologist’s experience and patient observations – you would be surprised to see how one vitamin can completely through your health off course. Let’s look at the key points.
Ever felt out of breath from the smallest physical exertion? Constantly feel tired and suffer from unexplained body aches (especially muscle or bone pains)? Do you feel more pessimistic and blue than usual? Have you started to experience headaches more often than usual? If yes, you may be running low on vitamin D.
This well known micronutrient is typically made on our skin from sun exposure. It is also available in some fortified foods. You may know that it is necessary for good bone health as it works in sync with calcium but the effects of this “vitamin” are far more wide-reaching.
Firstly, vitamin D is not really a vitamin but a hormone (surprise #1). Dr. Gominak, a US-based neurologist, explains that the word “vitamin” is a miss-nomer which leads us to think that vitamin D is something our bodies can’t produce (which is true for all the other vitamins). Yet, ‘D hormone’ as he calls it, is actually:
“a chemical that we make on our skin from sun exposure. It is a hormone like thyroid, estrogen or testosterone. Using the proper word “hormone” reminds us that it affects multiple parts of the body and that it is not “extra”. It is essential to every cell in the body and it is not in the food. It is supplemented in milk but as a cup of milk has only 100 IU of vitamin D you would have to drink 100 cups of milk a day to keep from being D deficient.” – Dr Gominak
Now you see why it has a much wider effect than just making you feel tired and depressed. In his detailed article, Dr. Gominak lists numerous problems that arise from low levels of D hormone. Here’s a few:
- D hormone affects our weight and appetite: our D hormone fluctuates with the seasons; it goes higher in the summer and lower in the winter. So when our D levels are low we sleep longer and store fat for spring. Our metabolic rate also goes down (we hibernate) and as the D level falls the thyroid hormone goes down -we survive the winter by sleeping more hours and using less energy. But there’s more! Surprise #2: the lower D level appears to affect the populations of bacteria in our intestine this not only affects our appetite, but also what we do with the calories we eat.
- Low D disrupts our sleep: Vitamin D appears to affect our sleep cycles through D receptors in the lowest part of the brain called the “brainstem”, where we control the timing and paralysis of sleep. Every moving part of the body must get perfectly paralysed to repair at night. If this process does not happen properly, we end up with sleeping disorders which prevent our bodies from resting and healing at night and this can result in day-time symptoms such as headaches, back pain, memory difficulties and so forth. In the long-run poor sleep causes hypertension, heart disease and stroke.
- Low D causes balance difficulties and pain: poor sleep and secondary deficiencies (see point 6) can result in muscle pain and inflammation, chronic low back pain and joint pains.
- Low D causes infertility, polycystic ovary syndrome and endometriosis: There are vitamin D receptors in the ovaries, the testicles and the fallopian tubes to help match our reproduction to the amount of food available. Low D suppresses ovulation so that our babies will be born when mum has food. “Polycystic ovary” describes an ovary with many eggs that are all trying to mature at once. Because ovulation is inhibited by the low D, the ovaries are stuck at the stage of many eggs trying to mature and cysts develop, leading to abdominal pain, often accompanied by weight gain and acne.
- Low D affects all the blood cells and can cause anaemia, autoimmune disease and cancer: There are D hormone receptors on the red and white blood cells. When the white blood cells don’t have enough D they get confused, they start attacking our body by mistake. All of the autoimmune diseases: multiple sclerosis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and ulcerative colitis, are related to low D hormone. This also affects the white blood cells’ abilities for fight cancer.
- D hormone deficiency can cause other deficiencies: D hormone affects the entire gastrointestinal tract. There are D receptors in our salivary glands, our teeth, our oesophageal sphincter, and the stomach cells that make acid. And here’s surprise #3:
“The D we make on our skin goes to the liver, then into the bile, it keeps the bile acids dissolved, preventing gall stones from forming. Because there are D receptors in the islet cells of the pancreas that make insulin, not enough D may contribute to the development of diabetes. Low vitamin D levels are related to poor stomach emptying as well as bloating and constipation or “irritable bowel”. The irritable bowel may result from losing our “happy, helpful” bacteria in our lower GI tract. They die off when we don’t supply the vitamin D the bacteria also need to survive. Because those same colonic bacteria supply 7/8 of the B vitamins we need on a daily basis, some of my patients have vitamin D deficiency and secondary B vitamin deficiencies. (At least 2 of the B vitamins, B5 and B12, are needed to sleep normally)” – Dr Gominak
If it’s not the D, then it must be the Bs
So as you can see from the above, if it’s not D hormone that is tiring you out, then the second most likely culprit are the B vitamins. Although some of the symptoms are similar, if you are deficient in one of the B vitamins you may experience:
- mental fogginess
- problems with your memory
- mood swings
- lack of motivation
- feelings of apathy
- fatigue and a lack energy
- muscle weakness
- tingling in your extremities
- burning feet (B5 vitamin deficiency)
- skin cracks around the mouth
Of course, this list is not exhaustive and there are other symptoms. The problem with B vitamins is that they are not stored in the body for longer that 2 days. As our small intestines digest food, the friendly bacteria supply our body with the B vitamins we need. Therefore, even with a good diet, if the gastrointestinal flora or microbiome is not in balance we may still not be getting enough vitamins.
In particular, a deficiency in B12 can have serious long term consequences for your health. Such a deficiency can cause irreversible nerve damage – including degeneration of the peripheral nerves (under the skin) and the nerves of the eyes and brain. It can also result in memory decline, depression and dementia.
The Iron Story
Last but not least, iron deficiency is also something you should be on the look out for. Personally, I have suffered from both vitamin D and iron deficiencies and although both are nasty things to have, the iron deficiency is the bigger beast of the two. It was the iron that had me unable to get out of bed.
So if you’ve got iron deficiency you will definitely know it. If you do not have enough iron, your body makes fewer and smaller red blood cells. When your body does not have sufficient iron, many parts of your body are affected. Iron deficiency leads to inadequate supply of oxygen to various parts of the body. This results in symptoms such as: fatigue, difficulty waking up, racing heart, brittle nails, swelling or soreness of the tongue, cracks in the sides of the mouth, an enlarged spleen, and frequent infections.
Although not as serious as D hormone and B12 vitamin deficiencies, iron deficiency can have a very negative effects on your daily life, such as struggling with exercise and difficulties in focusing on the job. As iron deficiency causes fatigue it can result in poor cognitive skills, poor memory and poor performance. Lower IQs are also linked to iron deficiency.
Interestingly, iron deficiency in infants and children can result in poor life outcomes in adulthood. A study of iron-deficient infants from a working class neighbourhood in Costa Rica found that, even after correcting the deficiency, at an average age of 25, 42% of the participants had not completed secondary school and 68% were not currently attending any school.
So it’s just a deficiency, right? Nothing serious you say… Well the facts don’t lie.
Be aware of how your body feels and all of the subtle symptoms. If you are not feeling better after rest and symptoms continue to persist for weeks, see a doctor and get tested.
Self-diagnosis is not the best route, but if you are certain that you know which vitamin you are lacking, take supplements and see if there is improvement after 2 weeks. If you do feel better, continue supplementing for 3 months (to build up your body’s reserves) and then take a break and see if symptoms return. If they do, best to see the doc – there may be other underlying causes to your deficiencies.
Phew… that was a long post! I hope you enjoyed and were as surprised as me to discover such interesting facts about vitamin deficiencies.