The Devastating Effects of Vitamin Deficiency: A Comprehensive Guide

Vitamin deficiency anemia can have devastating effects on our health if left untreated or undiagnosed for too long. Learn about scurvy, rickets & beriberi & how you can prevent them.

The Devastating Effects of Vitamin Deficiency: A Comprehensive Guide

Vitamin deficiency anemia is a lack of healthy red blood cells caused by lower than normal amounts of vitamin B-12 and folic acid. This can happen if you don't eat enough foods that contain these essential vitamins, or if your body has problems absorbing or processing them. Companies that add vitamins and minerals to their products can give the impression that they are “healthy”, but these added nutrients are there for a reason. For much of human history, diseases caused by nutrient deficiency were the norm, and in some parts of the world, they still persist.

Even in the 20th century, conditions caused by a lack of certain vitamins or minerals were endemic in North America and Europe. Artificially added nutrients may not make a food “healthy”, but they do prevent several debilitating and sometimes deadly diseases of malnutrition. Scurvy is a condition caused by a lack of vitamin C. It didn't become a major problem until the Age of Discovery (which began in the 15th century), when people at sea couldn't access much-needed fresh food for months at a time.

Canned meats and carbohydrates don't contain vitamin C, and unlike most animals, the human body can't create vitamin C on its own. Despite not being able to pinpoint the exact cause of scurvy, in the 18th century, naval doctor James Lind was able to demonstrate, in what is considered the first controlled scientific experiment, that scurvy could be prevented (and cured) by incorporating citrus fruits such as limes and oranges to the diet of sailors. Although their findings were not widely accepted at first, the British Navy eventually began issuing standard rations of lemon juice and, later, of limes, to its sailors, which gave rise to the term “limey” in reference to the British. Nowadays, scurvy is an extremely rare condition, caused almost exclusively by a person who follows a completely varied diet.

In most cases, high levels of oral vitamin C supplements are enough to reverse the condition within weeks, and death from scurvy is almost unheard of. Rickets is a condition in children caused by a lack of vitamin D; in adults, “bone softening” or osteomalacia may be due to the same vitamin deficiency. However, in adults, both conditions take much longer to develop and tend to cause signs that something is wrong before bone deformation occurs, such as extreme bone pain and unexplained muscle weakness. In children, especially those who do not receive or cannot be screened regularly, deformity and weakening due to the deficiency are often only noticed after significant damage has occurred to their developing skeletons. Beriberi is another condition caused by a lack of vitamin B1 (thiamine). This condition is largely limited to Asia, especially in countries where boiled rice is a staple food.

The Sinhalese term “beri-beri” means: “I can't, I can't” and it derives from the inability to perform even the simplest tasks once polyneuritis (inflammation of the nerves) caused by thiamine deficiency has permanently damaged neurons, when the condition has progressed to its terminal stage. Although beriberi was known to exist in countries that ate rice several centuries ago, its prevalence skyrocketed with the introduction of steam-powered rice polishing mills from Europe. The superior flavor of ground white rice led many locals to abandon local (unpolished) brown rice and, in doing so, to abandon their main source of thiamine. From the 1860s to the early 20th century, people whose consumption of plants was limited to polished white rice often suffered from weakness, pain, weight loss, difficulty walking, and emotional disorders. Beriberi became one of the main causes of mortality in the region.

Beriberi is occasionally observed in the modern world but its main cause is chronic alcoholism. The poor diet of some chronic alcoholics combined with decreased absorption of thiamine consumed causes symptoms that are sometimes not diagnosed until it is too late. Recently beriberi was also seen in Haitian prisons when the prison system began buying polished rice imported from the United States and stopped feeding its inmates local brown rice. Pellagra is another condition caused by a lack of vitamin B3 (niacin). First identified and commonly diagnosed in the Asturian Empire (now northern Spain), it was originally called “Asturian leprosy”.

However, it was seen throughout Europe, Middle East and North Africa where a large percentage of dietary energy came from corn and there was no fresh meat available. The area with highest prevalence was northern Italy where Francesco Frapoli from Milan called it “pelle agra” which means “sour skin”.It was initially believed that corn itself or some insect associated with corn was causing pellagra. This belief was reinforced when much of France eliminated corn as a staple food and practically eradicated the disease. Between time corn was introduced to Europe (early 16th century) and late 19th century pellagra was found almost everywhere where poor subsisted on cornmeal and little else. In early 20th century people began to realize that despite subsisting on same amount of corn as poor Europeans poor Mesoamerican natives did not contract disease.

Finally it was discovered that this was because traditional processing of corn in Americas involved “nixtamalization” in which grains were soaked in lime water before being husked. The alkaline solution released niacin that was present in grain but was previously inaccessible. Despite extensive work of Dr Joseph Goldberger in 1910s and 1920s when demonstrating that pellagra was not caused by germ but by dietary deficiency condition occurred at epidemic proportions in rural areas southern United States until 1940s. Nowadays pellagra is more common in poorest regions world especially those where corn remains staple food. Vitamin deficiency anemia can have devastating effects on our health if left untreated or undiagnosed for too long. It's important for us to understand how these deficiencies occur so we can take steps to prevent them from happening in our own lives.

Eating a balanced diet rich in vitamins and minerals is essential for maintaining good health and avoiding these conditions. It's also important for us to be aware that even if we are eating healthy foods with added vitamins and minerals they may not be enough for us if our bodies have difficulty absorbing or processing them properly. If you suspect you may have a vitamin deficiency anemia it's important to speak with your doctor about getting tested so you can get proper treatment.

Elise Ledwig
Elise Ledwig

Professional tv expert. Freelance zombie guru. Proud gamer. Proud bacon fanatic. Proud pop culture practitioner.

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