You are what you're not eating

Originally Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2013, 9:39 am
Last Updated: Feb. 18, 2013, 1:51 pm
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By Dawn Klingensmith

At one time, sailors aboard ships with no access to fresh fruit often came down with swollen gums and spotty skin – all early signs of scurvy, a potentially lethal disease caused by vitamin C deficiency.
More recently, you may have heard someone say brittle hair or nails is a sign you are lacking something in your diet.
It still holds true that skin, hair, nail and mouth problems can be outward signs of vitamin and mineral deficiencies. However, in the U.S. and other developed countries, "with the exception of iron, few people have true deficiencies that bring on outward symptoms because our food is fortified," said dietician Lauren Graf of Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.
Dr. Tony Nakhla said another exception is vitamin D, which the body produces naturally in response to direct sunlight. Sunblock, which many use religiously to guard against skin cancer, prevents this process from occurring.
Since the 1920s, nutrients have been added to staples like bread, milk and cereal to help Americans meet our daily recommended allowance for vitamins and minerals. Still, people's intake of certain vitamins and minerals can be suboptimal, Graf said.
But will those shortages show up on their outward appearance?
"Deficiency of either vitamin A or beta-carotene can lead to excessive formation of keratin, a skin protein that can clog the pores to produce a goose-bump effect usually most obvious on the back of the upper arm," said Dr. Michael T. Murray, a naturopathic physician and co-author of "The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine" (Atria, Third Edition, 2012).
Sore or bleeding gums can point to a vitamin C deficiency, "lifeless" hair to a lack of essential fatty acids ("good" fats) and dry, scaly skin to a biotin deficiency, he added.
Brittle or streaked nails are associated with several vitamin and mineral deficiencies, including iron, but that does not mean a person's first stop should be the supplement aisle. "The first thing they need to do is be seen by their dermatologist because the more common cause of these symptoms is nail fungus, which needs to be ruled out or treated," said Nakhla, author of "The Skin Commandments" (Reedy Press, 2011).
Other potential causes or underlying problems could be thyroid disease, renal failure and lung cancer.
Lank hair, scraggly nails and dull skin may indeed be signs of a poor diet, but not necessarily in terms of deficiencies. "People over-associate nail, skin and hair problems with nutritional deficiencies but they are more likely caused by an excess of bad things in processed foods" such as trans fats and additives, Graf said.
The two most concerning deficiencies in America, iron and vitamin D, don't have telltale outward signs.
"A lot of people associate iron deficiency with being tired, weak, fatigued and pale. All of these are symptoms," Graf said, "but it can also cause rapid heart rate and shortness of breath, which people may not realize."
Chronic fatigue and recurrent infections may signal a vitamin D deficiency, but the only way to diagnose it is with a blood test.
While most supplements won't hurt, "many won't help, and in some cases a vitamin excess can be just as bad as a deficiency, or worse," Graf said. "The answer is seldom so simple as popping a pill."
Vitamin D supplements can increase inflammation, while iron overload is especially hard on older adults.
Bottom line: "There's no way to look in the mirror and say, 'I have a vitamin deficiency,'" Nakhla said.
If you suspect you do, see your physician.


Local events heading

  Today is Saturday, April 19, the 109th day of 2014. There are 256 days left in the year.

1864 -- 150 years ago: Miss McCorkindale has opened millinery rooms over Gimbel's dry goods store, where she offers a choice lot of millinery goods, which she will manufacture to order.
1889 -- 125 years ago: The little South Park Presbyterian chapel celebrated it first Easter decorated with flowers for an afternoon worship service attended by a large congregation.
1914 -- 100 years ago: The Wennerberg Chorus of Augustana College has returned from a 2,000-mile tour in the Eastern states and Illinois.
1939 -- 75 years ago: Col. Charles Lindbergh has stated that he is convinced that Germany's air force is equal to the combined sky fleets of her potential European foes.
1964 -- 50 years ago: Small gas motors may be permitted on boats in the lake to be built in Loud Thunder Forest Preserve. The prospect was discussed yesterday at a meeting of the Rock Island County Forest Preserve Commission.
1989 -- 25 years ago: The annual Dispatch/Rock Island Argus Spelling Bee continues to be a family tradition. Ed Lee, an eighth-grader at John Deere Junior High School, Moline, is the 1989 spelling bee champion from among 49 top spellers in Rock Island, Henry and Mercer counties. He advances to the competition in Washington, D.C. Runnerup was Ed's sister, Susan.

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