Minerals are specific kinds of nutrients that the body needs in order to function properly. A mineral deficiency occurs when the body doesn’t obtain the required amount of a mineral.
To stay healthy, the body requires different amounts of each mineral. Specific needs are outlined in the recommended daily allowances (RDA). 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. It can be caused by an increased need for the mineral, lack of the mineral in the diet, or difficulty absorbing the mineral from food. Mineral deficiencies can lead to a variety of health problems, such as weak bones, fatigue, or a decreased immune system.
There are five main types of mineral deficiency: calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, and zinc.
Calcium is needed for strong bones and teeth. It also supports proper function of blood vessels, muscles, nerves, and hormones. Natural sources of calcium include milk, yogurt, and cheese, along with some vegetables like broccoli, kale, and Chinese cabbage. Some foods are also fortified with calcium, including tofu, cereals, and juices.
A calcium deficiency produces few obvious symptoms in the short term because the body carefully regulates the amount of calcium in the blood. Over the long term, though, lack of calcium can lead to decreased bone mineral density (osteopenia) and, if untreated, 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, numbness, tingling in the fingers, fatigue, poor appetite, and irregular heart rhythms.
More than half of the iron in the body is in red blood cells, where it is part of hemoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen to the the tissues. Iron is also a part of other proteins and enzymes that keep the body healthy. The best sources of iron are animal foods like meats, poultry, or fish, and plant foods such as beans or lentils.
According to the World Health Organization, nearly 80 percent of the world’s population suffers from iron deficiency (NIH). This condition develops slowly and can cause anemia.
The symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia include feeling weak and tired, performing poorly at work or school, and slow social and cognitive development in children.
The body needs magnesium for hundreds of chemical reactions. These include reactions that control blood glucose levels, blood pressure, proper functioning of muscles and nerves, and protein production. Good sources of magnesium include legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and green leafy vegetables like spinach.
Magnesium deficiency is uncommon in healthy people. This is because the kidneys can keep magnesium from leaving the body through the urine. However, certain medications and chronic health conditions like alcoholism may cause magnesium deficiency.
Early signs include fatigue, weakness, loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting. If left untreated magnesium deficiency can lead to numbness, tingling, muscle cramps, seizures, or abnormal rhythms of the heart.
Potassium is required for muscle contraction, proper heart function, and the transmission of nerve signals. It is also needed by a few enzymes, including one that helps the body turn carbohydrates into energy. The best sources of potassium are fruits like bananas, potatoes, plums, and orange juice, as well as vegetables.
The most common cause of potassium deficiency is excessive loss. This is caused by extended vomiting, kidney disease, or the use of certain medications like diuretics.
Symptoms of potassium deficiency include muscle cramping and weakness, and 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, and DNA synthesis. It is also important for proper growth and development during pregnancy, childhood, and adolescence. Zinc is found in animal products like oysters, red meat, and poultry. Beans, nuts, whole grains, and dairy products are also good sources of zinc.
Zinc deficiency can cause loss of appetite, decreased function of the immune system. and slowed growth. Severe deficiency can also cause diarrhea, loss of hair, impotence, and slow down healing of wounds.
Not getting enough essential minerals from food or supplements, caused by:
- poor diets, such as those high in junk foods and lacking in fruits and vegetables
- very low-calorie diets, common with weight loss programs, eating disorders, and older adults with poor appetite
- restricted diets, as seen with vegetarians, vegans, and people with food allergies or lactose intolerance
Difficulty digesting food or absorbing the nutrients due to:
- diseases of the liver, gallbladder, intestine, pancreas, or kidney
- surgery of the digestive tract
- chronic alcoholism
- medications such as antacids, antibiotics, laxatives, and diuretics
Increased need for certain minerals, as occurs during:
- excessive blood loss, such as heavy menstruation
The symptoms of a mineral deficiency depend upon which nutrient the body lacks. They 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 for each person. Some symptoms may be so minor that they go undiagnosed.
If you experience prolonged fatigue, weakness, or poor concentration, contact your healthcare provider. The symptoms may be a sign of a mineral deficiency or another health condition.
Your doctor may perform any of the following 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, as well as the underlying condition. 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.
For a minor mineral deficiency, a change in eating habits can help a patient obtain enough of a particular mineral from food. For example, 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.
In more severe cases, patients may be referred to a registered dietician who will help modify eating habits. This will include learning how to eat a well-balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. The dietician may also ask you to keep a food diary to track what foods you are eating and your progress.
Some mineral deficiencies cannot be treated with diet alone, but may require you 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—for example, vitamin D is usually taken along with calcium. Your doctor will decide how much and how often you should take the supplements. It is important to listen to your doctor’s advice, because in some cases, taking too much of a mineral supplement can be harmful.
In very severe cases of mineral deficiency, hospitalization may be required so that minerals and other nutrients can be administered intravenously. This treatment may happen one or more times a day for several days. This type of treatment can cause other side effects, such as fever or chills, swelling of the hands or feet, or changes in heartbeat. Additional blood tests will be done to determine whether the treatment was successful.