It is tough to ensure that we have the adequate levels of the essential nutrients, regardless of how balanced our diets are.
"A balanced diet still doesn’t guarantee that every individual will get all the essential vitamins and minerals they need to protect against chronic health problems,” says dietitian Mira llic, RD, LD.
There are two possible reasons why we tend to not have enough: Either we do not consume enough of the correct vitamin-dense foods or our genetic makeup makes us poor metabolisers of certain vitamins. Having a vitamin deficiency means that our bodies have not absorbed sufficient amounts of the vitamin required for normal functioning.
Here are five ways vitamin deficiencies can affect us:
1. Poor Immune Function
It has been well established that vitamins are important elements of our immune system. Vitamin A affects the adaptive immune response, which is the immunity we gain after a vaccine or after being exposed to a pathogen. More specifically, retinoic acid (a vitamin A metabolite) induces the responses of T-cells, white blood cells that are key to immunoregulation and the maintenance of immune memory. Having low levels of vitamin A leads to defects in T-cell activity, contributing to immune dysregulation.
Vitamin C also plays a role in the adaptive immune response, as well as the innate immune response. Low levels have led to impaired immunity and higher susceptibility to infection. They impair the ability of phagocytes to migrate to sites of infection, preventing them from engulfing the pathogen and destroying it.
2. Increased Risk of Cancer
Research has highlighted that deficiencies of vitamin B12, B6 and B9 (folate) can cause DNA damage, which can lead to an increased risk of cancer. Reduced intake of these vitamins leads to deoxyuracil, a chemical compound that prevents base pairing, resulting in the breaking of DNA which can promote the formation of tumours.
Vitamin C also plays a role in cancer development. A study of patients with advanced cancer found that vitamin C deficiency was found in all of them. The lower the levels of vitamin C in the body, the shorter the survival.
3. Increased Risk of Cardiovascular Disease
Even in the healthiest of Western diets, vitamin K is not consumed in sufficient amounts. This is not a positive sign seeing that a systematic review found that higher dietary intake of vitamin K was associated with a moderately lower risk of coronary heart disease.
Researchers have attributed this to the presence of proteins in the heart and blood vessels that depend on vitamin K. With low levels, the endothelium of blood vessels are transformed into osteoblast-like cells (bone-like cells). This calcification of the blood vessels increases the risk of stroke and blood clots. Fortunately, a clinical study shows that with vitamin K supplementation, there is improvement in arterial elasticity, preventing any potential negative health impacts.
4. Increased Risk of Cognitive Decline
The brain is one of the most metabolically active organs, so a vitamin deficiency can lead to harmful consequences on cognitive function. As discovered in our Vitamin D spotlight, vitamin D has a plethora of functions. Cognitive function has also been added to that ever-growing list. There is evidence of vitamin D’s neuroprotective effects, including clearing amyloid plaques, proteins that play a central role in Alzheimer’s. Additionally, epidemiological studies note an association between low levels of the sunshine vitamin and dementia in Europe and the United States.
Inadequate levels of vitamin E also contribute to poor cognitive functioning. This vitamin protects cells from damage associated with oxidative stress, which the brain is at high risk for. Oxidative stress is a major risk factor for neurodegeneration, which is strengthened by studies showing that high levels of vitamin E are associated with higher cognitive performance.
5. Altered DNA Methylation Levels
We often think of our DNA as being immutable after we are born. That’s only partly true. Our DNA can “change” in our later life thanks to epigenetics. Epigenetics refers to modifications that alter how a gene is expressed. It does not mean that the actual code has changed. And, usually, it is a result of our lifestyle choices.
One way our lifestyle can modify how a gene is expressed is through DNA methylation, which is when a methyl group (CH3) is added to an area of DNA. Most DNA methylation is essential for normal development. But, when it reaches abnormal levels, it can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, nervous disorders and obesity.
During the DNA methylation process, cyclical chemical reactions take place inside cells. Here, nutrients such as vitamin B12, folate and vitamin B6 play a significant role as co-factors or methyl acceptors. Not having adequate amounts of these vitamins can increase the risk of the aforementioned health issues. Data has shown that vitamin B levels are inversely associated with rectal cancer risk and that is that can increase prostate cancer risk by three-fold.
Putting it all together
Vitamins come into play in almost every bodily function. We need to ensure that our diet is made effective by personalising it to our own DNA and lifestyle, ensuring that we get the nutrients we need to reach our health goals.
Interested in finding out if you have the genes that make it harder for you to absorb vitamins? Find out more about our genetic tests at Nell.