Top Micronutrient Deficiencies Aging You More Quickly

Article at-a-glance:

  • Refined grains, added sugar and starchy vegetables, account for 42% of the average American’s calories, while whole grains and fruit make up just 9%. 
  • This creates micronutrient deficiencies, which damage mitochondria, create breaks in DNA and cause depression, fatigue, muscle cramps, hair loss, osteoporosis, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and more.
  • But you can prevent and reverse the trend through diet and healthy supplementation.

by Dr. John Neustadt

Health isn’t complicated. When you feed your body nutrient-dense food, it provides the raw materials for you to feel and look fantastic. Your body works better and you feel better. But too often we’re stuffing our faces full of processed, nutrient-poor food that feeding your diseases instead of fueling your health. The Standard American Diet (SAD) is the poster child for such a calorie-rich, nutrient-poor diet. 

The human body needs both macronutrients and micronutrients. These categories of nutrients are differentiated based on the amount our bodies require. As the names imply, we need more macronutrients than micronutrients. Macronutrients include carbohydrates, proteins and fats. And we typically consume those in gram amounts. In fact, if you take your body weight (in pounds) and divide it by two, that’s approximately the minimum number of grams of protein the average adult needs per day. 

Unfortunately, most people get trapped into thinking only about macronutrients. They focus on the amount of carbs, fats and protein they’re eating. They miss the importance of micronutrients. What happens is that they end up focused on the quantity of the food they’re eating instead of food quality. 

Micronutrients we need in smaller amounts; typically, in microgram or milligram amounts. Micronutrients include vitamins, minerals and other plants nutrients like flavonoids. There are 40 essential minerals, vitamins, and other nutrients.1 

When you see the word “essential,” it’s important to know what it means. Yes, it means that we need them. But what most people don’t understand is that in nutrition the word “essential” means your body can’t make the nutrient. It must get it from food or dietary supplements. Don’t add it to the body and in short order you’ll become deficient. 

Despite needing only small amounts of each micronutrient, most Americans still aren’t consuming enough to reach recommended daily doses. Micronutrient-deficient diets lead to micronutrient deficiencies. And they’re deadly.

Eminent researchers Bruce Ames, PhD at UC Berkeley showed that deficiencies in micronutrients such as selenium, zinc and copper create breaks in DNA and let free radicals go unchecked.2 Shockingly, he noted that these DNA strand breaks were similar to what’s observed when someone is exposed to radiation. DNA damage can lead to cancer and other chronic illness. 

Your Pantry and Your Plate

People’s pantries, refrigerators and plates more and more are being filled with pre-packaged foods. Today, the average American’s diet is full of processed foods––food that looks quite opposite from what our ancestors ate. 

Love eating pastries in the morning, hosting pizza night and ordering take out over white rice? You’re not alone. A 2019 study published in the journal JAMA found that low quality carbohydrates, which include refined grains, added sugar and starchy vegetables, account for 42% of the average American’s calories, while whole grains and fruit make up just 9%.3
Essentially, people who eat this way are full, malnourished and starving their bodies of what they’re lacking most—micronutrients. 

Processed foods are almost completely stripped of their nutrients. Refining flour removes more than 80% of B vitamins, 85% of magnesium and 60% of the calcium from what was in the whole wheat.4 And while produce is one of the best sources of micronutrients, even the fruits and vegetables sold in the U.S. today are lower in vitamins and minerals than in the past.

In 1999, studies showed that vegetables grown in the US had significantly smaller amounts of six important nutrients than vegetables grown in 1950. This is because industrialized farming operations favor high out-put crops over nutrient-dense yields.5 This tradeoff creates a food system that is calorie-rich but nutrient-poor, and Americans are suffering the consequences. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most common nutrient deficiencies are vitamin B6, iron (in women ages 12 to 49), and vitamin D.6 Nearly 74% of the US population does not meet the daily requirement for vitamin D. In addition, 31% of Americans aren’t getting enough vitamin C and 52% consume less than the average requirement of magnesium.7 

Iron is used for more than 100 biochemical processes. Iron deficiency creates anemia, depression, hair loss, fatigue, shortness of breath and a whole host of other problems. Not having enough iron can cause more than a dozen symptoms.8 

Though severe vitamin E deficiency is rare, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Dietary Supplements reports that most Americans aren’t getting enough of this essential nutrient, either. Around 66% consume less than the daily recommended amount of vitamin E.9,10 Habitually eating foods that are high in calories but poor in nutrients can create micronutrient deficiencies that damage the DNA and prevent the body from doing its job.

This is because nutrient-rich food provides the raw materials for the chemical reactions that run our bodies. Biochemical reactions take place in the cells of all living things. Without them, our bodies can’t function. Simply put, biochemistry refers to the way in which the body uses vitamins, minerals, amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), fats and phytonutrients to perform the operations that keep us alive and healthy. 

If the body doesn’t get enough of certain nutrients, these chemical reactions are interrupted. We get sick and fatigued and we age faster. Take magnesium, for example. The body uses magnesium in more than 300 biochemical reactions. Magnesium acts as an anti-inflammatory and is necessary for normal nerve and muscle function. It keeps the immune system healthy and the heartbeat steadfast, and helps regulate blood sugar. The body also needs magnesium for energy and protein production and to create and repair both DNA and RNA. When your body doesn’t have enough magnesium, things go awry. 

Researches have linked low levels of magnesium to a number of chronic diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, type-2 diabetes, hypertension, stroke, migraine headaches and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).11 A 2015 study estimated that as much as 60% of chronically ill patients were magnesium deficient.12 Additional symptoms of low magnesium can include depression, fatigue, headaches, premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and muscle cramps.13

Deficiencies Age Cells Faster

Your body requires around 40 micronutrients to function harmoniously. A deficiency of any of these vitamins or minerals puts stress on the body. Deficiencies in eight in particular–– folic acid, Vitamin B12, Vitamin B6, niacin, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, iron, or zinc––have a radiation-like effect on DNA, causing breaks or lesions in strands of DNA. Micronutrient deficiencies also damage mitochondria, which is linked to dozens of diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, dementia, Parkinson Disease and cancer. 

Dr. Bruce Ames, PhD, one of the world’s foremost biochemist and a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, proved that this type of damage makes cells age faster and puts people at a higher risk for cancer and other chronic illnesses.14 Iron deficiency, for example, breaks DNA, causing brain and immune dysfunction. Another 2015 study found that people with long term iron deficiency anemia were much more likely to develop cancer.15 

The CDC lists iron as the second most common nutrient missing from the American diet, after vitamin B6, but it’s easy to work iron-rich foods into your meals.16 Red meat and seafood are good sources of highly bioavailable iron, the kind the body can most easily absorb. Oysters and white beans both pack 8 mg of iron per serving and dark chocolate has about 7 mg, while lentils, spinach and tofu all contain 3 mg of iron per serving.17 

People are also commonly deficient in the micronutrient zinc. A zinc deficiency breaks down chromosomes and presents a lot of the same issues as an iron deficiency. The damage causes neuro-sensory disorders, severe immune dysfunction and cancer. Zinc is also an antioxidant and works as an anti-inflammatory, meaning its presence makes cells age more slowly.18 Eating oysters aren’t just good for iron, the bivalves are also packed with zinc. Oysters contain more zinc per serving than any other food, though beans and nuts are also good sources of the mineral and may be easier to work into your diet.19 

Selenium, another micronutrient, helps enzymes fight off free radicals. Dr. Ames found that selenium deficiency causes DNA oxidation, which leads to neurological issues, memory loss and prostate cancer. The good news is that it’s actually quite easy to get selenium from foods sold in the US. How much selenium a food contains is largely based on the soil in which it’s grown. Since most Americans eat food that is grown all over the country, the vast majority are bound to eat at least some food that comes from selenium-rich areas.20 Protein-rich foods including nuts, seafood, and meat are usually the best sources of the mineral, but you can also get it through sea salt, eggs, yeast, bread, mushrooms, giblets, garlic, asparagus, and kohlrabi.21 

The body uses magnesium in mitochondrial metabolism. And as noted in the section above, magnesium deficiency can cause a slew of chronic illnesses including kidney failure.22 A single ounce of almonds and a half-cup of spinach both provide 20% of your daily value of magnesium, while cashews aren’t far behind, at 19%. Black beans, edamame, peanut butter, brown rice and avocados are also good sources of magnesium.23 

Low Antioxidants Speed Aging

Your body relies on a balance between free radicals and antioxidants to properly do its job. When the two are out of balance, there are not enough antioxidants to keep free radicals in check, leaving them to damage DNA, fatty tissue and proteins. This creates oxidative stress. Researcher have linked this type of DNA damage to low levels of antioxidants and a higher number of DNA lesions that cannot be repaired. An overabundance of free radicals also triggers the aging process in cells. Ultimately, the damage they cause shortens your life by accelerating aging and launching disease. Oxidative stress has been linked to cancer, diabetes, hardening of the blood vessels, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative diseases including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.24

However, you can prevent oxidative stress. The antioxidants found in whole foods, especially produce, protect your DNA from oxidative stress. Although which foods you eat on a regular basis has the largest impact on your health, you can also supplement nutrient-dense foods with dietary supplements, especially those that contain selenium, vitamin C and vitamin E.

Selenium and vitamins C and E are particularly important in combating oxidative stress. Vitamin E, for example, stimulates the immune system and prevents cancer cells from forming. It also protects the body’s saturated fatty acids from oxidation and plays a role in repairing DNA, protecting it from genetic mutations. Vitamin C accelerates the detoxification of liver enzymes and like vitamin E, prevents cancer cells from forming by blocking carcinogenic compounds in the body.25 

Selenium is present in 25 different proteins in the body, the reason it’s associated with so many physiological processes.26 A 2016 metanalysis of 69 studies that included more than 360,000 participants found that people who had higher blood levels of selenium were less likely to develop breast, lung, colon and prostate cancers.28 

Reverse the Trend

Eating whole foods, which are rich in vitamins, minerals and other nutrients is the best way to combat micronutrient deficiencies, including selenium and vitamins E and C. 

More than six decades of research backs the Mediterranean Dietary pattern’s ability to reduce the risk of obesity and a range of chronic illnesses including diabetes, cancer, death from cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer disease. As the name suggests, the dietary lifestyle is not a temporary diet, but the way you should eat long term. It emphasizes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds, beans, lean proteins such as fish and chicken and a generous amount of olive oil. On the other hand, red meat, sweets and wine should only be consumed occasionally. 

Make sure your diet is full of fiber-rich whole fruits and vegetables, which make you feel full longer, regulate blood sugar and promote healthy gut bacteria. These foods also prevent heart attack and stroke. A study conducted at the Cleveland Clinic found that a plant diet was able not only to prevent, but reverse cardiovascular disease.28 

To know your levels of some micronutrients, you can ask your doctor to order tests. Or to save time and money, order your tests directly through NBI. These include tests for an iron panel, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and folic acid, We supply the doctor’s order. Your lab requisition form is ready within seconds of checking out. You then simply take the lab test order form into one of our more than 2,000 testing centers around the country for your blood draw. Results are ready within days by email (if you opt-in to receiving results by email) or simply by logging into your NBI account to view them. 

Finally, even if you are eating right, a high-quality multivitamin and dietary supplement like NBI’s Supreme Multivitamin ensures you’re supplementing your diet with healthy amounts of highly absorbable micronutrients. 

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2Ames BN. DNA damage from micronutrient deficiencies is likely to be a major cause of cancer. Mutation research. 2001;475(1-2):7-20. [Article]

3Shan Z, Rehm CD, Rogers G, et al. Trends in Dietary Carbohydrate, Protein, and Fat Intake and Diet Quality Among US Adults, 1999-2016. JAMA. 2019;322(12):1178–1187. [Article]

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9National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin E Fact Sheet for Professionals. 2019 July 10. [Web Page]

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