10 signs which may reveal a nutritional deficiency

A glance in the mirror can reveal tell-tale signs that you may be deficient in certain essential vitamins and nutrients. 

Eating a balanced diet is vital to give you energy – and specific nutrients are responsible for healthy skin, hair, nails and gums. 

Our guide to what symptoms to look for when it comes to nutritional shortfalls, will give you a steer on where to top up your diet. But you may need to consult a dietician or doctor to ensure you get the right prescription to correct a deficiency, so you can look as well as feel at your best. 

1. Premature greying hair

Vitamin D can boost your bone health and mood, but what you may not realise, is that low levels of this nutrient can also cause our hair to turn grey early too. A recent study found that low vitamin D levels were associated with premature greying that can begin as early as childhood. It’s hard to get enough sunshine to help your skin produce vitamin D, so you need to ensure you eat plenty of eggs, fish and fortified dairy products, along with a vitamin D3 supplement. 

Copper is also an essential trace mineral when it comes to vibrant hair, as it helps you create melatonin, one of the pigments that gives your hair its colour. Low copper levels, or an underlying medical issue that prevents you from metabolising copper properly, can turn your hair grey. Try snacking on almonds or hazelnuts. 

2. Cracked lips and a sore mouth

Frequently cracked and sore lips that no amount of lip balm seems to touch, might be a sign you have a riboflavin (vitamin B2) deficiency. A lack of this nutrient can manifest as red painful lips, an inflamed mouth with ulcers or a sore throat. Sometimes you the tongue becomes swollen too. If left untreated it can become more serious causing nerve damage with tingling in toes and fingers. You can boost your levels with your diet, by including spinach, eating soft cheeses like goats, camembert and feta. And oily fish like salmon and mackerel. 

3. Spots and acne 

If you’re lacking omega-3 fatty acids, which have powerful anti-inflammatory properties, you might find that you have more spots, and persistent acne that doesn’t seem to shift. This is because omega-3s play a role in maintaining your skin’s lipid barrier as well. When working well, your skin’s natural oils have antimicrobial qualities that prevent bacteria from entering, but if there’s a deficiency in omega 3s skin pores can become infected. Foods rich in these fatty acids include chia seeds, walnuts, seafood such as oysters, clams and squid, soya beans and tofu. 

4. Slow to heal wounds

When we are children, cuts and scrapes heal fast. As adults this may take a bit longer, but if wounds don’t seem to be mending, it could be you’re not getting enough protein in your diet.   This is because protein is needed for building and repairing tissue. Lean meat is an obvious source of protein, but other good sources include lentils, tofu, beans, low-fat yoghurts and eggs. 

Vitamin C is also necessary to help wounds heal, such as strawberries, red peppers and grapefruit. 

5. Bleeding gums 

A little blood when you brush your teeth is usually a sign of inflamed gums and that you need to be more attentive with your brushing and flossing. But if you already do this, it could be you have vitamin K deficiency. The major role of this vitamin is to help blood clot. The best source of vitamin K can be found in dark, leafy green vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, kale or cabbage .

6. A pale face

A dull complexion, which is noticeably more transparent looking around the eyelids and inside the mouth, may be an indication that you’re low on iron. The paleness is a result of having less red blood cells and the ones you have, have literally shrunk. Women are more at risk of anaemia than men due to losing blood during menstruation too. Surprisingly, shellfish has more of this mineral than a 3oz serving of beef, so try some oysters or clams. And if you’re going for a veggie option like cooked beans or spinach, pair them with vitamin C rich foods, like tomatoes or a glass of orange juice to help your body absorb the iron. 

7. Brittle nails 

If your nails seem to be dry and break easily, and you suffer from painful loose skin around the fingernails – called hangnails, it could be you’re lacking a nutrient called biotin. Biotin (also known as vitamin H) encourages nail growth and is used in the core of the nail, where the nail is embedded in the finger. One study found that biotin supplementation boosted nail thickness by as much as 25 percent. Include foods in your diet, like cow or goat’s milk, eggs, tomatoes, chard, romaine lettuce, almonds, cauliflower, cucumber, raspberries, strawberries, halibut, oats and walnuts. 

8. Dry, parched skin

Is the skin on your face looking wrinklier? Or perhaps you’ve got dry patches, or flaky, scaly skin. We’re all looking a little wind-whipped in the winter months, but this could be due to a lack of omega-3s fatty acids, without which your skin loses too much moisture and becomes dehydrated. Omega-3s help make-up the skin’s lipid barrier, the layer of oils that keeps germs and toxins out and essential moisture in.  You can avoid this by topping up on foods such as fatty fish, such as salmon and sardines, along with walnuts, flaxseed and chia seeds.

9. Misshapen or discoloured nails 

You can feel self-conscious if your hands are sporting whitened or ridged nails, or they may even grow concave and spoon-like. These misshapen nails can be caused by an iron deficiency, as this mineral is essential for the growth of healthy nails, amongst other metabolic functions. While having a biotin deficiency will put you more at risk of fungal infections that can cause ridging and discolouration. Nails that are a brownish colour, may indicate a deficiency in vitamin B-12.  Vitamin B-12 (cobalamin) is made by bacteria in the gut, but this can often leak out as we age. To top it up, eat animal products such as liver, fish – like mackerel and tuna, cheese, eggs and fortified cereals and tofu. 

10. Thinning hair 

Protein and vitamin C deficiencies can cause unwanted hair loss. To promote strong hair that doesn’t break easily, you need to eat lots of vitamin C to build collagen, this makes for strong hair follicles, while eating protein supplies amino acids for the collagen.  Plenty of vegetables and fruit, along with lentils and chicken will help. While some studies show the nutrient biotin helps boost healthy hair growth as well as nails. 

Read more

Inflammation of the oil-producing glands of the skin, leading to spots that may be pus-filled on the face and sometimes the upper body. It classically affects adolescents although it can occur at any age. Full medical glossary
An abbreviation for antidiuretic hormone. Full medical glossary
An organic compound that is the basic building block of all proteins. Full medical glossary
A reduced level of haemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood. Anaemia causes tiredness, breathlessness and abnormally pale skin. Full medical glossary
Any drug that suppresses inflammation Full medical glossary
A group of organisms too small to be seen with the naked eye, which are usually made up of just a single cell. Full medical glossary
A fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. Full medical glossary
The basic unit of all living organisms. Full medical glossary
Blood that has coagulated, that is, has moved from a liquid to a solid state. Full medical glossary
One of the three main food constituents (with carbohydrate and protein), and the main form in which energy is stored in the body. Full medical glossary
Invasion by organisms that may be harmful, for example bacteria or parasites. Full medical glossary
An element present in haemoglobin in the red cells. Full medical glossary
A large abdominal organ that has many important roles including the production of bile and clotting factors, detoxification, and the metabolism of proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Full medical glossary
The shedding of the lining of the uterus (period), as part of the female reproductive cycle. Full medical glossary
Relating to metabolism. Full medical glossary
Bundle of fibres that carries information in the form of electrical impulses. Full medical glossary
Essential fatty acids that may help protect against heart disease and dementia. Full medical glossary

An eating disorder characterised by extreme or excessive preoccupation with eating food believed to be healthy.

Full medical glossary
Compounds that form the structure of muscles and other tissues in the body, as well as comprising enzymes and hormones. Full medical glossary
A tube placed inside a tubular structure in the body, to keep it patent, that is, open. Full medical glossary
Relating to injury or concern. Full medical glossary
A group of cells with a similar structure and a specialised function. Full medical glossary
A substance poisonous to the body. Full medical glossary
Any abnormal break in the epithelium, the outer layer of cells covering the open surfaces of the body. Full medical glossary
Essential substances that cannot be produced by the body and so must be acquired from the diet. Full medical glossary