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Everything you need to know about vitamin deficiencies

Vitamins are substances that occur in many foods and are required in small amounts for normal metabolic functioning of the body.  They cannot be synthesised by the body; most people should get all the nutrients they require by having a varied and balanced diet.  Deficiencies usually result because of poor nutrition, strict diets, medical conditions, or increased needs such as in pregnancy.

The difference between vitamins

Fat-soluble vitamins, A, D, E and K are stored in the fatty tissue in the body and in the liver.   They can be stored for longer in the body than water-soluble vitamins.

Water-soluble vitamins are less readily stored and therefore deficiencies can occur more rapidly.  In illness or stress, an elevation of the metabolic rate may increase the turnover of vitamins, particularly the water-soluble group. This is because vitamins are cofactors in a number of metabolic pathways, and so additional supplementation may be required in such circumstances.

Many people will buy and consume a multitude of vitamins, without really knowing their deficiencies or requirements. Current UK guidelines advise people should take a vitamin D supplement during the winter. Woman who are trying to conceive or are in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy should take folic acid. Vitamins A, C and D supplements are recommended for children aged 6 months to 5 years.

A useful way to find out if you are deficient is to ask your Doctors to do a simple blood test and recommend supplements for deficiencies.

Vitamin D

The major role of Vitamin D is in calcium and phosphate metabolism to maintain healthy bones. Vitamin D is produced when your skin is exposed to the sun and therefore called the sunshine vitamin. However safe exposure to the sun rarely produces enough, especially through the winter months and supplementation may be required. 

 Epidemiological studies have shown that Vitamin D deficiency is closely associated with common chronic diseases such as bone metabolic disorders, tumours, cardiovascular diseases, and diabetes. Vitamin D deficiency is also a risk factor for neuropsychiatric disorders and autoimmune diseases and as a deficiency is highly prevalent in the world. 

Symptoms of Vitamin D deficiency can be subtle; fatigue, poor immune system causing an increased susceptibility to infections, bone pain and muscle weakness. Diagnosis is by a simple blood test and the correct amount of vitamin D can be prescribed.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 has many roles in the body.  It helps the body make DNA and keeps the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy. Vitamin B12 is found naturally in animal products, including meat, eggs and milk products. Vitamin B12 is not found in plant food, but fortified cereals and plant-based milks where B12 has been added may be alternative sources for vegetarians and vegans.  

Vitamin B12 deficiency can cause tiredness, lethargy, mouth ulcers and a decline in mental abilities, such as memory and concentration and has been linked to dementia.  Vitamin B12 supplements can be oral or via injection and it is best to seek medical attention to see which form is best for you. 

Pernicious anaemia is a common cause of Vitamin B12 deficiency in the UK. It is an autoimmune condition where the stomach cells are unable to produce an essential protein called intrinsic factor. Without the intrinsic factor, the body is unable to absorb B12 through the digestive tract. 

Folic acid

Folic acid is required for the production of healthy red blood cells and in pregnant woman supports the development of a healthy baby.

Folic acid deficiency can cause anaemia, leading to fatigue, lack of energy, pale skin, headaches, ringing in your ears. Folic acid is found in green leafy vegetable, asparagus, broccoli, brown rice, chickpeas and peas.

Vitamins are essential micronutrients required for many roles in the body, if you are concerned about deficiencies or symptoms, a simple blood test can help make a diagnosis and the correct treatment and advice can be offered.

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