Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies

Vitamins and minerals, also known as micronutrients, are a critical component of good nutrition. In particular, folate (vitamin B9), iodine, iron, vitamin A, zinc, and other B vitamins including thiamin (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2), niacin (B3), cobalamin (vitamin B12) and pyridoxine (vitamin B6) are important for healthy and productive populations.

Without them, children develop birth defects, blindness and an inability to learn properly, among other long-term disabilities. Each year, more than one million children under five die from vitamin A and zinc deficiencies.1 Vitamin and mineral deficiencies affect up to two billion people.2

FOLATE DEFICIENCY

Folate (vitamin B9) plays a key role in cell multiplication and tissue growth.
Deficiency of folate increases the risk of giving birth to infants with neural tube defects and possibly other birth defects.3 Spina bifida and anencephaly, the two most common neural tube defects, occur when the neural tube does not close properly, exposing the baby’s brain or spinal cord to amniotic fluid. Neural tube defects affect an estimated 300,000 or more newborns each year.4 Folate deficiency can also lead to impaired cognitive function in adults. It tends to be more prevalent in populations that consume a lot of cereals (low in folate) and few leafy greens and fruits (high in folate).5

IODINE DEFICIENCY

Eighteen million children per year are born with impaired mental abilities because of iodine deficiencies.6 Nearly two billion individuals have insufficient iodine in their diets, including one third of all school age children.7 Populations with chronic iodine deficiency showed a reduction in their intelligent quotient (IQ) of 12.5 to 13.5 points.8

Iodine is a mineral essential for human development and growth. Our bodies need iodine to produce the hormones that regulate the thyroid gland. The most commonly known sign of iodine deficiency is goiter, the swelling of the thyroid gland in the neck. Iodine deficiency primarily affects the developing brain. It can also lead to cretinism, the most serious form of mental retardation and associated physical disabilities.

IRON DEFICIENCY

The iron in our blood carries oxygen throughout our body. It is absolutely critical to survival, and our bodies store it in several places. Women need more iron than men. During pregnancy, the growing baby also requires iron that is taken from the mother’s blood and iron stores.

In its more severe stages, iron deficiency causes anemia. Anemia is defined as a low blood haemoglobin concentration. An estimated 40 percent of the world’s population (i.e. more than 2 billion individuals) suffers from anaemia, i.e. low blood haemoglobin.9

Iron deficiency also impairs brain development and increases maternal and child mortality.10 More than 130,000 women and children die each year because of iron deficiency anemia.11

VITAMIN A DEFICIENCY

The body’s immune system needs vitamin A in small amounts to help fight infections. Vitamin A is also important for proper growth and reproduction. Insufficient vitamin A impairs vision. Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of blindness in children. An estimated 250,000 to 500,000 vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year. Half of these children die within a year of becoming blind.12 Vitamin A deficiency also causes night blindness and increases the risk of child deaths, especially from diarrhea and measles, as well as maternal deaths.13

ZINC DEFICIENCY

The human body relies on zinc to perform many functions including healing of wounds, growth and repair of tissue, proper clotting of blood, correct thyroid function, metabolism of proteins, carbohydrates, fats and alcohol, fetal development and sperm production.

The symptoms of severe deficiency include retarded growth, diarrhea, mental disturbances and recurrent infections.14

About 20 percent of the world’s population could be at risk of zinc deficiency.15 The geographical regions most affected include South Asia (in particular, Bangladesh and India), Africa and the western Pacific.16

Zinc supplementation trials conducted over the last few decades in children from developing countries have indicated improved growth rates and reductions in incidences of diarrhea, pneumonia and various infectious diseases.17

VITAMIN B12 DEFICIENCY

Deficiency of Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) causes neurological deterioration, megaloblastic anemia, and possible impaired immune function among other health consequences. In infants and young children it can severely delay their development.18

OTHER B VITAMIN DEFICIENCIES ( thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2) and niacin (B3), pyridoxine (B6) and cobalamin (B12))

Vitamin B deficiencies are highly prevalent in many developing countries, especially where diets are low in animal products, fruits and vegetables, and where cereals are milled prior to consumption. Pregnant and lactating women, infants and children are most at risk of vitamin B deficiencies.19

Severe thiamine deficiency can result in potentially fatal heart failure or peripheral neuropathy.20

Early symptoms of riboflavin deficiency can include weakness, fatigue, mouth pain, burning eyes and itching. More advanced deficiency can cause brain dysfunction.

Niacin deficiency can result in pellagra, which causes skin rashes. Other symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, depression, fatigue and loss of memory.

Symptoms of severe vitamin B6 deficiency include neurological disorders (i.e. epileptic convulsions), skin changes and possibly anaemia.21

  • 1. Investing in the future, a united call to action on vitamin and mineral deficiencies, Global Report 2009. Micronutrient Initiative. ISBN: 978-1-894217-31-6
  • 2. Ibid
  • 3. Guidelines on Food Fortification with Micronutrients, WHO and FAO 2006
  • 4. Ibid
  • 5. Ibid
  • 6. Investing in the future, a united call to action on vitamin and mineral deficiencies, Global Report 2009. Micronutrient Initiative. ISBN: 978-1-894217-31-6
  • 7. www.thelancet.com. Published online August 4, 2008, Iodine Deficiency Orders
  • 8. Ibid
  • 9. Guidelines on Food Fortification with Micronutrients, WHO and FAO 2006
  • 10. Ibid
  • 11. Investing in the future, a united call to action on vitamin and mineral deficiencies, Global Report 2009. Micronutrient Initiative. ISBN: 978-1-894217-31-6
  • 12. Guidelines on Food Fortification with Micronutrients, WHO and FAO 2006
  • 13. Ibid
  • 14. Ibid
  • 15. Ibid
  • 16. Ibid
  • 17. Ibid
  • 18. Ibid
  • 19. Ibid
  • 20. Ibid
  • 21. Ibid
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