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
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
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,
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
- 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
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.