Part I of a two part article on Vitamin and Mineral Deficiency.
Do you eat super-healthy, drink your greens juice, or take daily supplements? If so, you may not actually be absorbing all of the nutrients you need. Vitamin and mineral absorption declines in people over age 50. As I recently found out, you can have vitamin and mineral deficiency even if you eat a healthy diet.
As a holistic health coach I have been eating “healthy” and doing everything “right” for years. So it came as a complete shock to me to find out I have quite a few key nutrient deficiencies. And one mineral is almost non-existent in my body. What?! How can that be? This is part one of two articles. How I found out I was deficient, what might be causing the deficiencies, and what I’m doing about it.
I wanted to share this important information about vitamin and mineral deficiency that everyone needs to know. After-all, if a holistic health coach can be nutrient deficient, anyone can be!
Vitamin and Mineral Deficiency
Let me step back and put the pieces of the puzzle together for you. For the past year or so, I’ve been feeling out of sorts. Nothing specific, just much more blah than my normal upbeat self. I haven’t had as much energy. And even though I’m “living the dream” on my sailboat in Mexico, I haven’t felt all that happy. I have felt like something was missing. I haven’t been laughing as much, or feeling like I was having FUN, even when I was doing “fun” things with friends and family. What was going on? What was wrong with me? I never even considered vitamin and mineral deficiency. After all, I’m a health coach, and I eat super-healthy.
A Stroke of Luck
As some of you know my husband, an otherwise super-healthy guy, had a stroke a year ago (read more about that here.) Thankfully he’s made about a 95% recovery from his stroke. I credit him with being uber-diligent about his physical therapy. He credits his daily dose of Mexican sunshine and the book Stronger After Stroke, with their insight that “your full-time job after having a stroke is to do physical therapy and exercise your brain, 8-hours a day.” It worked for Kirk and he’s been back to doing yoga (“Capitán Crow”!) and Pilates, riding his bicycle, and walking or hiking 5-6 miles a day. I’m so proud of him! But in a roundabout way, his stroke may have been caused by vitamin and mineral deficiency too.
The Puzzle Begins
One morning last month I noticed that Kirk’s balance was off, he was really wobbly on his feet. I was concerned because he hadn’t been that wobbly since just after his stroke. I asked him if he was ok, and he said he felt a bit off balance but though it was just from the head cold he had. Then he went to the computer and seemed to be having difficulty logging on. I saw some confusion in his face, like he wasn’t sure what he was doing. Again I asked him if he was ok or needed help. He just looked at me and then passed out. OMG! Not another stroke?! His medications and pacemaker were supposed to prevent that! Thankfully it was not a stroke…
Hyponatremia: a Mineral Imbalance
Luckily for us there was a big sailboat regatta that day and the docks were abuzz with sailors getting ready to race. I yelled out for someone to call 911 and get an ambulance, and within 15 minutes we were in the ER. There they determined Kirk was suffering from hyponatremia (low sodium.) His electrolytes and particularly his sodium levels were dangerously low. No bueno. But what had caused this mineral imbalance? It was still early morning, not too hot. And he was pretty good about staying hydrated. It was a mystery. They ran a battery of tests to look for the root cause. And they kept him in the hospital for three-days to slowly increase his sodium. When your sodium levels are that low, it can cause edema (swelling) in the brain if they bring the sodium levels back up too quickly.
Blood tests showed his red and white blood cell counts were very low. They also determined that he had a bad stomach bacteria that we didn’t know about. So doctors concluded a perfect storm of head cold combined with stomach bacteria could have caused his electrolytes to plument. But that wouldn’t explain the low blood counts. Further tests determined he had several vitamin, mineral, and hormone deficiencies. They finally released him with a few vitamin and mineral supplements and told us to follow up with a doctor that week. (The nice thing about medical care in Mexico is they don’t push big pharma if its not needed!)
All of this jogged my memory from my physical a few months prior where I also had low white and red blood cell counts, and had been recommended to follow up again in a few months. What was going on with us seemingly “healthy” people who ate a vegetarian/vegan diet for years (Kirk for 45-years and me for 30-years), and regularly practiced yoga, meditation, and pilates?
Testing for Vitamin and Mineral Deficiency
We visited a Holistic MD to see what else we could learn about this puzzle. And boy did we learn a lot. He ran more blood tests and also hair analysis tests. A hair analysis is one way to determine vitamin and mineral deficiency. It looks at the record of what your body has been laying down for the past few months. Where as a blood test shows what vitamins and minerals are currently circulating in your blood. Hair analysis also checks for heavy metal toxins. However it’s not entirely accurate. For example, if you’ve just colored your hair or spent time in a smoke-filled room, your hair will absorb those toxins and they will show up in a hair test. Thankfully I love my naturally gray hair, and we don’t hang around smokers.
Since heavy metals can interfere with vitamin and mineral absorption, we wanted to know if we had any toxins. Sure enough we were both high in arsenic. Arsenic is commonly found in brussels sprouts, rice, wine, and chicken, derived from the soil! And we were also both high in mercury. Since neither of us has any amalgam fillings maybe that came from eating canned salmon? I’ll save the heavy-metals detox for another post and focus on vitamins and minerals for this one.
Between the blood tests and hair analysis tests, we found that we were both quite deficient in several key nutrients, including: minerals, trace minerals, a couple of vitamins, and hormones. Kirk was very low in Vitamin B-9 (folate.) And we were both very low in:
- vitamin B-12
- hydrocortisone (adrenal hormone)
I was also found to have:
- dangerously low levels of cholesterol
- almost zero lithium
- adrenal fatigue (possibly from the stress of having my husband hospitalized twice in one year—hence my lack of energy lately?)
- low stomach acid
What Causes Vitamin and Mineral Deficiency?
The term Bioindividuality means every BODY is different, and each body is different during different times of life. Given that, there are a variety of different causes of nutrient deficiency. In my case, it turns out that low protein levels, mineral deficiency, and adrenal fatigue are all symptoms of having low stomach acid. Low stomach acid can cause a host of other health issues like cancer, so it’s important for me to get a handle on that ASAP. Kirk is also being tested for the MTHFR gene mutation which may be the cause of his low folate. The MTHFR gene mutation has been linked to heart disease, including A-Fib, which is what caused Kirk’s stroke.
Getting Nutrients From Supplements vs. Whole Foods
While I’m a firm believer in getting as much of your nutrition from organic whole foods as possible, these recent health issues has made me change my way of thinking somewhat. In fact, when I first met Kirk I used to call him the “vitamin junkie” because he took so many. I was all about eating whole foods and didn’t take many supplements at all, partly because I have a hard time swallowing pills.
The sad truth is in the past 50-years, much of the world’s soils have become devoid of the minerals that used to nourish us. Minerals are absorbed from the soil into our food and drinking water, and into our bodies. But even if you’re eating organic produce today, there’s a high probability it just doesn’t carry the nutrient load it used to. And then you could have a genetic mutation or digestive disorder that prevents you from properly absorbing the nutrients from what you are eating.
Where a Vegetarian or Vegan Diet Can Let You Down
Although a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle did not cause our vitamin and mineral deficiencies, it likely contributed. And continuing to eat a vegetarian/vegan diet would definitely hinder getting our very low numbers back up quickly. Ironically, I had two acupuncturists and a naturopath in Seattle encourage me to add meat to my diet several years ago, to boost my levels of protein, B-12, and cholesterol. Maybe I should have listened then.
The first recommendation that our holistic doctor gave us was to start adding organic/free-range meat back into our diet. While psychologically this was a big adjustment for us after 30-45 years of not eating meat, medically speaking it made perfect sense to us. It was the quickest way to raise our levels of iron and protein as well as cholesterol, and get more B-12 into our diet. Kirk has been thriving on eating meat again and feels healthier than he has in over 10-years. I’m not yet noticing the improvements that he is, but am sticking with it for now.
We both became vegetarian/vegans for ethical reasons more than health reasons. So it’s ironic that we’re eating meat again for health reasons. As the Blue-Zone regions of the world attest, we still firmly believe in a mostly plant-based diet for optimal health. Like Michael Pollan said, “Eat whole foods, mostly greens, not too much.” And I still believe your plate should be about 75% organic plant based foods, (vegetables, fruits, and whole grains), with the rest being high-quality protein, and healthy fats.
Healthy fats are key to brain health, and are also necessary to absorb fat-soluble vitamins like A, E, D, and K. Luckily we eat a LOT of healthy fats in the form of nuts and seed, avocados, olive oil, coconut milk, and coconut oil. (It’s also worth noting that turmeric is a fat-soluble spice. So to get all of the anti-inflammatory properties out of your turmeric it needs to be consumed with some type of fat, like a spoonful of olive oil or coconut oil.)
With our new-found knowledge of our vitamin and mineral deficiencies, this is the conclusion we’ve come to. Many years of being vegan/vegetarian were likely not supplying us with with the protein, vitamin B-12, and cholesterol we needed. That’s not to say that you can’t get those things being a vegan or vegetarian. But as you age, and as the body has a more difficult time absorbing nutrients, it does make it harder to maintain this diet. At least it did for us. And we are not the first vegan/vegetarians we know to go back to eating meat. So now we are kind of Paleo, eating more fish, and free-range organic chicken and turkey, for now.
Please read Part II: Overcoming Vitamin and Mineral Deficiency. Here I go into more specifics on vitamin and mineral deficiencies, causes, symptoms, and how to ensure you’re not deficient.
Then leave a comment to let us know if you’ve struggled with any of these dietary, vitamin, and mineral deficiencies, and how you dealt with it?
Part I of a two part article on Vitamin and Mineral Deficiency. Read Part II here.