Minerals are specific kinds of nutrients that your body needs in order to function properly. A mineral deficiency occurs when your body doesn’t obtain or absorb the required amount of a mineral.
The human body requires different amounts of each mineral to stay healthy. Specific needs are outlined in recommended daily allowances (RDA). The RDA is the average amount that meets the needs of about 97 percent of healthy people. They can be obtained from food, mineral supplements, and food products that have been fortified with extra minerals.
A deficiency often happens slowly over time and can be caused by a number of reasons. An increased need for the mineral, lack of the mineral in the diet, or difficulty absorbing the mineral from food are some of the more common reasons. Mineral deficiencies can lead to a variety of health problems, such as weak bones, fatigue, or a decreased immune system.
There are five main categories of mineral deficiency: calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, and zinc.
Calcium is needed for strong bones and teeth. It also supports proper function of your blood vessels, muscles, nerves, and hormones. Natural sources of calcium include milk, yogurt, cheese, and small fish with bones, beans, and peas. Vegetables such as broccoli, kale, and Chinese cabbage also provide calcium. Some foods are also fortified with the mineral, including tofu, cereals, and juices.
A calcium deficiency produces few obvious symptoms in the short term. That’s because your body carefully regulates the amount of calcium in the blood. Lack of calcium over the long term can lead to decreased bone mineral density called osteopenia. If left untreated that can turn to osteoporosis. This increases the risk of bone fractures, especially in older adults.
Severe calcium deficiency is usually caused by medical problems or treatments, such as medications (like diuretics), surgery to remove the stomach, or kidney failure. Symptoms of a severe deficiency include:
- cramping of the muscles
- tingling in the fingers
- poor appetite
- irregular heart rhythms
More than half of the iron in your body is in red blood cells. Iron is an important part of hemoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen to your tissues. It’s also a part of other proteins and enzymes that keep your body healthy. The best sources of iron are meat, poultry, or fish. Plant-based foods such as beans or lentils are also good sources.
Iron deficiency develops slowly and can cause anemia. It’s considered uncommon in the United States and in people with healthy diets. But, the World Health Organization estimated in a 2008 report that iron deficiency causes approximately half of all anemia cases worldwide.
The symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia include feeling weak and tired. You may be performing poorly at work or school. Children may exhibit signs through slow social and cognitive development.
The body needs magnesium for hundreds of chemical reactions. These include responses that control blood glucose levels and blood pressure. Proper function of muscles and nerves, brain function, energy metabolism, and protein production are also controlled by magnesium. Roughly 60 percent of the body’s magnesium resides in the bones while nearly 40 percent resides in muscle and soft tissue cells. Good sources of magnesium include:
- whole grains
- green leafy vegetables, such as spinach
Magnesium deficiency is uncommon in healthy people. The kidneys can keep magnesium from leaving the body through the urine. Still, certain medications and chronic health conditions like alcoholism may cause magnesium deficiency. Magnesium needs are also highly influenced by the presence of disease. In this situation, the RDA for magnesium may not be sufficient for some individuals.
Early signs of magnesium deficiency include:
- loss of appetite
Magnesium deficiency can lead to the following symptoms if left untreated:
- muscle cramps
- abnormal rhythms of the heart
Potassium is a mineral that functions as an electrolyte. It’s required for muscle contraction, proper heart function, and the transmission of nerve signals. It’s also needed by a few enzymes, including one that helps your body turn carbohydrates into energy. The best sources of potassium are fruits and vegetables, such as bananas, avocado, dark leafy greens, beets, potatoes, and plums. Other good sources include orange juice and nuts.
The most common cause of potassium deficiency is excessive fluid loss. Examples can include extended vomiting, kidney disease, or the use of certain medications such as diuretics.
Symptoms of potassium deficiency include muscle cramping and weakness. Other symptoms show up as constipation, bloating, or abdominal pain caused by paralysis of the intestines. Severe potassium deficiency can cause paralysis of the muscles or irregular heart rhythms that may lead to death.
Zinc plays a role in many aspects of the body’s metabolism. These include:
- protein synthesis
- immune system function
- wound healing
- DNA synthesis
It’s also important for proper growth and development during pregnancy, childhood, and adolescence. Zinc is found in animal products like oysters, red meat, and poultry. Other good sources of zinc include:
- whole grains
- dairy products
Zinc deficiency can cause loss of appetite, taste or smell. Decreased function of the immune system and slowed growth are other symptoms. Severe deficiency can also cause diarrhea, loss of hair, and impotence. It can also prolong the process that your body takes heals wounds.
One major cause of mineral deficiency is simply not getting enough essential minerals from food or supplements. There are different types of diets that might result in this deficiency. A poor diet that relies on junk food, or a diet that lacks adequate fruits and vegetables can be possible causes.
Alternately a very low-calorie diet may produce this deficiency. This includes people in weight-loss programs or with eating disorders. Older adults with poor appetites may also not get enough calories or nutrients in their diet.
Restricted diets may also cause you to have a mineral deficiency. Vegetarians, vegans, and people with food allergies or lactose intolerance might experience mineral deficiency if they fail to manage their diet effectively.
Difficulty with digestion of food or absorption of nutrients can result in mineral deficiency. Potential causes of these difficulties include:
- diseases of the liver, gallbladder, intestine, pancreas, or kidney
- surgery of the digestive tract
- chronic alcoholism
- medications such as antacids, antibiotics, laxatives, and diuretics
Mineral deficiency can also result from an increased need for certain minerals. Women, for instance, may encounter this need during pregnancy, heavy menstruation, and post menopause.
The symptoms of a mineral deficiency depend upon which nutrient the body lacks. Possible symptoms include:
- constipation, bloating, or abdominal pain
- decreased immune system
- irregular heart beat
- loss of appetite
- muscle cramping
- nausea and vomiting
- numbness or tingling in the extremities
- poor concentration
- slow social or mental development in children
- weakness or tiredness
You may display one or more of these symptoms, and the severity may vary. Some symptoms may be so minor that they go unnoticed and undiagnosed.
Contact your healthcare provider if you experience prolonged fatigue, weakness, or poor concentration. The symptoms may be a sign of a mineral deficiency or another health condition.
Your healthcare provider may use one or more of the following diagnostic tools to determine if you have a mineral deficiency:
- medical history, including symptoms and family history of diseases
- physical exam
- review of your diet and eating habits
- routine blood tests, such as complete blood count (CBC) and a measurement of electrolytes (minerals) in the blood
- other tests to identify other underlying conditions
The treatment for a mineral deficiency depends upon the type and the severity of the deficiency. Underlying conditions are also a factor. Your doctor may order further tests to identify the amount of damage before deciding on a treatment plan. This can include treatment for other diseases or a change in medication.
A change in eating habits may help if you have a minor mineral deficiency. People with anemia due to a lack of iron in the diet, may be asked to eat more meat, poultry, eggs, and iron-fortified cereals.
You may be referred to a registered dietitian if your deficiency is more severe. They will help you modify your eating habits. This will include guidelines on how to eat a well-balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. The dietitian may also ask you to keep a food diary to track what foods you are eating and your progress.
Certain mineral deficiencies cannot be treated with diet alone. You may be required to take a multivitamin or mineral supplement. These may be taken alone or with other supplements that help the body absorb or use the mineral. Vitamin D, for example, is usually taken along with calcium.
Your healthcare provider will decide how much and how often you should take supplements. It’s important to follow your provider’s instructions because excessive intake of certain supplements can be harmful.
Hospitalization may be required in very severe cases of mineral deficiency. Minerals and other nutrients can be administered intravenously. Treatment may be required one or more times a day for several days. This type of treatment can side effects including fever or chills, swelling of the hands or feet, or changes in heartbeat. Your healthcare provider will administer additional blood tests to determine whether treatment was successful.