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The well-known adage “we are what we eat” is so true when we think about our daily needs for vitamins and minerals. Typically, when we sit down for a meal, we might be thinking about how hungry we are or how good it tastes, not realizing that we are also consuming micronutrients to meet our daily needs. Micronutrients, better known as vitamins and minerals, are crucial components of healthy growth and development, disease prevention, and aging. Yet many people are not meeting their daily needs and are at risk of nutrient deficiencies. 

In a national survey, 76% of the population did not consume the recommended daily intake of fruit, and 87% ate too few vegetables (Moore & Thompson, 2015).). Adding to this picture of potential deficiency, in a 2017 study, it was reported that 31% of the population was at risk of vitamin deficiency or anemia, with 23% at risk of one vitamin deficiency or anemia, 6.3% of two, and 1.7% of three to five (Bird et al., 2017). Lastly, another study pointed to one-third of the population deriving 45% of their energy from energy-dense and nutrient-poor (EDNP) foods such as pizza, high-fat, high-sugar processed foods, and alcohol (Kant, 2000). In summary, micronutrients are essential; a lack of which can lead to chronic health conditions (Drake, 2018). Additionally, a diet may be calorically adequate or even excessive and still lack important micronutrients. 

By looking at the function of specific vitamins and minerals, along with signs of nutrient deficiencies, we can better address our overall health goals.

Essential Micronutrients

white bowl of salad greens: a good source of iron for nutrient deficiencies

Iron 

An essential mineral, iron carries oxygen to our red blood cells and has a function in removing carbon dioxide. In Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda, nourished and healthy blood is considered a key to overall good health. Both of these traditions describe blood deficiency similarly to the Western view of iron deficiency with signs such as fatigue, pale skin, brittle nails, dizziness, or fast heartbeat (Iron deficiency anemia, n.d.). Another key consideration is that dietary choices can impact iron levels, particularly for those who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet (Waldmann et al., 2004). The good news is iron deficiency can be an easy deficiency to turn around (Graham, n.d.). To help increase iron absorption, combining vitamin C with iron-rich foods and herbs can help improve their absorption (Hallberg et al., 1989). 

Some examples of foods that are good sources of iron are red meat, shellfish, beans, dark leafy greens, raisins, apricots, peas, and iron-fortified foods (Iron deficiency anemia, n.d.) Herbs with generally high mineral and iron content include nettle, alfalfa, yellow dock, oatstraw or oat tops, dandelion, and dang qui (Tierra & Tierra, 2017). 

Learn more about nourishing blood from TCM and Ayurvedic perspectives here.

mushrooms in a hand: a good source of vitamin D for nutrient deficiencies

Vitamin D

Fat-soluble vitamin D is an important building block in helping to maintain healthy bones, enhance immune function, and regulate muscle contraction and nerve communication between the body and brain (Office of Dietary Supplements, 2021). The signs of vitamin D deficiency can be subtle to separate from other conditions, for example, fatigue, bone

pain, or muscle spasms (Cleveland Clinic, 2019). Exposure to the ultraviolet rays from sunlight, a source of vitamin D, for 10-15 minutes a few times a week is sufficient to maintain healthy levels although this depends on the time of year, time of day, geographic location,  air pollution levels, and melanin content of the skin (Cleveland Clinic, 2019). Recent studies indicate that those with darker skin synthesize less vitamin D from sunlight, and aging diminishes our ability to absorb ultraviolet rays (Chen et al., 2007). Furthermore, some medications and medical conditions can also contribute to a deficiency (Cleveland Clinic, 2019).  A simple blood test can quickly determine vitamin D levels. 

How much vitamin D do we need daily? Our daily requirement for vitamin D depends on our age and body size. It is recommended that adults between the ages of 19 and 70 obtain a daily dose of 600 IU (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2015). Verification of potential vitamin D deficiency can be identified through a simple routine blood test.

Mushrooms are a rich source of vitamin D2 when exposed to ultraviolet radiation or sunlight, and when consumed can increase and maintain blood healthy levels of vitamin D (Keegan et al., 2013). Portobello, morel, button, white, and shiitake mushrooms all contain ergosterol, a vitamin D precursor. 

Consuming healthy fats at each meal can assist absorption of all fat-soluble vitamins, including vitamin D (Dawson-Hughes et al., 2014). Many foods in the United States are enriched with vitamin D, including milk, cereals, margarine, and orange juice (Office of Dietary Supplements, 2021). Oily or fatty fish, as well as fish oil, are some of the best food sources of vitamin D (Cleveland Clinic, 2019). 

Not having enough vitamin D is a common nutrient deficiency. Learn more in Lifestyle and Nutrition Tips for a Vitamin D Deficiency.

sunflower seeds in a brown bowl

Calcium 

A primary mineral, calcium, is required for building and maintaining strong bones.  It is also essential for nerve messaging, muscle movement, release of hormones and enzymes, and supporting blood clotting (Bailey et al., 2010). Based on a survey from 2009-2012 of adults 19 years and older, 37.7% of those who did not consume a daily multivitamin did not meet the estimated average requirement (EAR) for calcium, and 19.6 of adults who did consume a multivitamin fell short (Blumberg et al., 2017).  

Signs pointing to potential calcium deficiency include muscle aches, cramps, tingling in the hands and feet, fatigue, and insomnia (Barhum, 2020). Focusing on calcium-rich food such as dairy products, sardines, salmon, dark greens including broccoli, soybeans, molasses, figs, and many nuts and seeds including sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, almonds, and brazil nuts help boost your daily calcium intake (Haas & Levin, 2006).  Herbs that are high in calcium include nettle, chickweed, red clover, raspberry leaf, and oatstraw (Weed, 2002). Lastly, when vitamin D is combined with calcium it helps its absorption to maintain normal bone mineralization (Office of Dietary Supplements, 2021).

You can read how to incorporate some of these mineral-rich herbs into a nutritious tea here.

hawthorne berries: a good source of vitamin C for nutrient deficiencies

Vitamin C

A vital water-soluble micronutrient, vitamin C is essential for the growth and repair of connective tissues, bolsters the immune system, reduces damage to and hardening of blood vessels (Mt. Sinai, n.d.; Vitamin C, n.d.). Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant, with compounds that protect our bodies against free radical damage from aging and disease (Mt. Sinai, n.d.; Vitamin C, n.d.). Vitamin C plays a part in protecting our body against various chronic illnesses, including heart disease, macular degeneration, cancer, and osteoarthritis (Mount Sinai, n.d.)

Several lifestyle choices can influence our vitamin C levels, including smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke, prolonged illness, regular use of alcohol, or limited intake of fresh fruits and vegetables (Vitamin C, n.d.). Although vitamin C deficiency is rare, signs of deficiency include bleeding gums, slow-healing wounds, and easy bruising (Vitamin C, n.d.). Lastly, it is essential to review medications that can interact with vitamin C, for example, aspirin, oral estrogens, and acetaminophen.

Many quality foods contain vitamin C, including green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, tomatoes, red and green peppers, broccoli, and strawberries. Herbs, too, have high vitamin C levels, with standouts including amla, pine needles, rose hips, elderberries, hawthorn berries, and cayenne (Tierra & Tierra, 2017). 

You can read more about the importance of vitamin C here.

Micronutrient-Rich Herbal Recipes 

Nourishing Blood Tonic

Cooking high mineral-rich herbs together with blackstrap molasses creates a tasty and deeply nourishing tonic to incorporate into your daily regimen. All herbs in this herb-infused molasses recipe are dried.

Ingredients

½ cup rose hips (Rosa spp.) fruit
1/2 cup dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) root
1/2 cup alfalfa (Medicago sativa) leaf
1/2 cup yellow dock (Rumex crispus) root
1/2 cup nettle (Urtica dioica) leaf
1/2 cup raspberry (Rubus idaeus) leaf
1/2 tablespoon kelp (Laminaria ochroleuca) powder
1 cinnamon (Cinnamomum spp.) stick
1 teaspoon orange (Citrus x sinensis) peel
1 quart blackstrap molasses 

Directions

  • Combine the blackstrap molasses and herbs in a large saucepan, stirring well to coat. 
  • Bring to a simmer for one hour, then remove from heat.
  • Let sit overnight in a cool place, then repeat by simmering for another hour. 
  • Remove from the heat and let cool.
  • Strain and bottle.
  • Adding 25% ethanol alcohol per volume creates a shelf-stable syrup, otherwise store in the refrigerator. 

Dosage

  • As a tonic, take 1 tablespoon/day. 
  • If iron deficient, take 1 tablespoon, 3x/day. 
  • For children, 1-3 teaspoons/day. 

Stinging Nettle Chips

Although more delicate than kale chips, nettle provides an abundant source of minerals such as calcium, iron, and vitamin A (Rutto et al., 2013). Drying stinging nettles deactivates its sting, but when working with fresh nettles, wear gloves

Ingredients

1 cup tahini
½ cup sunflower seeds
¼ cup pine nuts
2 cloves garlic
¼ cup sesame seeds
1 teaspoon smoked paprika (Capsicum annuum) powder
½ teaspoon ginger (Zingiber officinale) powder
2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
Juice of one lemon
2 teaspoons Himalayan salt
½ tsp of black pepper (Piper nigrum) ground
¼ cup fresh nettles (Urtica dioica), or 2 tablespoons of dried nettles
½ cup of boiling water
6 cups stinging nettle leaves, rinsed and dried 

Directions

  • Prepare nettle infusion: combine 2 tablespoons of dried nettle leaves or ¼ cup of fresh nettles in a heat-safe canning jar. Fill with ½ boiling water.  Cover and let sit for a minimum of 10 minutes, strain, and use as directed.
  • Combine all ingredients except nettles and nettle infusion into a food processor.  Add ¼ cup of nettle infusion and blend until the consistency is somewhere between a paste and salad dressing, adding more nettle infusion as needed.  
  • Place nettles into a large bowl. Using gloves, pour the blender contents over the nettles.  Wearing gloves, massage the paste into the leaves until well coated.  
  • Fill food dryer trays with the coated nettle leaves, pressing down to flatten, and set the temperature to 115 degrees Fahrenheit for 8-10 hours or until dried.  

dried nettle on a screen, in a basket, and in a jar for nutrient deficiencies recipes

Nettle Gomasio

Gomasio, a delicious seasoning, made its claim to fame in the U.S. as part of the macrobiotic diet movement and is thought to be a healthier alternative to ordinary salt. Sesame seeds provide a rich source of iron, calcium, and B vitamins.

Ingredients

2 cups nettle chips (from above recipe)
1/2 cup unhulled sesame seeds, toasted
¼ cup nutritional yeast
1 tablespoon powdered kelp (Laminaria ochroleuca) powder
2 teaspoons rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus) leaf
1 tablespoon coriander (Coriandrum sativum) seed
1 cup Himalayan pink salt

Directions

  • Dry roast the sesame seeds by gently warming them in a pan over medium heat, tossing or continually stirring, until brown, then move to a bowl.
  • Combine the coriander seed and pine nuts in the same pan and dry roast until slightly brown, then combine in a bowl with sesame seeds.
  • Combine the remaining ingredients into the bowl and stir together until well mixed.
  • Place ingredients in a food processor or other type of grinder.  Process until ground to a coarse meal and store in a glass jar.

How to use: Sprinkle on soups, pizza, rice, cooked vegetables, or anything else you can think of where you would normally salt.

See more recipes featuring nettles here. 

herb pills to help nutrient deficiencies

Handmade Calcium and Vitamin C pills

Packed with herbs high in calcium and vitamin C, these homemade pills help supply essential daily micronutrients.  You can view a short video on making rolled herb pills, also known as pastilles, here

Ingredients

1 tablespoon rose (Rosa spp.) hip, powdered
2 tablespoon nettle (Urtica dioica) leaf, powdered
½ tablespoon horsetail (Equisetum arvense) leaf and stems (harvested in spring or early summer), powdered
1 tablespoon amla (Phyllanthus emblica) berry, powdered
½ tsp ginger (Zingiber officinale) rhizome, powdered
Honey – to make a paste
2 tablespoons marshmallow (Althea officinalis) root, powdered

Directions

  • Mix the powdered herbs except for marshmallow powder until smooth.
  • Pour a small amount of slightly warmed honey into the powdered herbs, mixing until the mixture clumps together.
  • Form into small rolls, then cut into small pill-sized pieces, rolling each one into a ball.
  • Roll balls in marshmallow powder until lightly covered, then set on a plate to dry.

Dose: Take one to three pills/day.

In Closing,

With busy lifestyles and daily stresses, getting our daily intake of micronutrients can be a challenge.  Luckily, by merely focusing and incorporating a few nutrient-rich foods and herbs into our daily ritual, we can quickly respond and address potential nutrient deficiencies.  

Nutrient Deficiencies + 4 Vitamin and Mineral-Rich Recipes | Herbal Academy | Many people are not meeting their daily nutrition needs and are at risk of nutrient deficiencies. Here are four mineral-rich recipes to help!

REFERENCES

Bailey, R., Dodd, K., Goldman, J., Gahche, J., Dwyer, J., Moshfegh, A., Sempos, C., & Picciano, M. (2010). Estimation of total usual calcium and vitamin D intakes in the United States. The Journal of Nutrition, 140(4), 817-822.  https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.109.118539

Barhum, L. (2020). What happens when calcium levels are low.  Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321865 

Bird, J., Murphy, R., Ciappio, E., & McBurney, M. (2017). Risk of deficiency in multiple concurrent micronutrients in children and adults in the United States. Nutrients, 9(7), 655. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu9070655

Blumberg, J., Frei, B., Fulgoni, V., Weaver, C., & Zeisel, S. (2017). Impact of frequency of multi-vitamin/multi-mineral supplement intake on nutritional adequacy and nutrient deficiencies in U.S. adults. Nutrients, 9(8), 849. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu9080849

Chen, T., Chimeh, F., Lu, Z., Mathieu, J., Person, K., Zhang, A., Kohn, N., Martinello, S., Berkowitz, R., & Holick, M. (2007). Factors that influence the cutaneous synthesis and dietary sources of vitamin D. Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics, 460(2), 213–217. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.abb.2006.12.017

Cleveland Clinic. (2019). Vitamin D deficiency.  Retrieved from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/15050-vitamin-d–vitamin-d-deficiency

Dawson-Hughes, B., Harris, S., Lichtenstein, A., Dolnikowski, G., Palermo, N., & Rasmussen, H. (2014). Dietary fat increases vitamin D-3 absorption. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 115(2), 225–230. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2014.09.014

Drake, V. (2018).  Micronutrient inadequacies in the US population: An overview. Linus Pauling Institute.  Retrieved from https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/micronutrient-inadequacies/overview#reference24

Haas, E.M. & Levin, B. (2006). Staying healthy with nutrition. New York, NY: Ten Speed Press.

Hallberg, L., Brune, M., & Rossander, L. (1989). The role of vitamin C in iron absorption. International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research, 30, 103–108. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2507689/

Iron deficiency anemia. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/iron-deficiency-anemia/symptoms-causes/syc-20355034

Kant, A. (2000). Consumption of energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods by adult Americans: nutritional and health implications. The third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1988–1994, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 72(4), 929-936. Retrieved from  https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/72.4.929

Keegan, R., Lu, Z., Bogusz, J., Williams, J., & Holick, M. (2013). Photobiology of vitamin D in mushrooms and its bioavailability in humans. Dermato-endocrinology, 5(1), 165–176. https://doi.org/10.4161/derm.23321

Moore, L. & Thompson F. (2015). Adults meeting fruit and vegetable intake recommendations – United States, 2013. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6426a1.htm

Mount Sinai. (n.d.). Vitamin C. Retrieved from https://www.mountsinai.org/health-library/supplement/vitamin-c-ascorbic-acid

Office of Dietary Supplements. (2021). Vitamin D. Retrieved from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-Consumer/

Rutto, L. K., Xu, Y., Ramirez, E., & Brandt, M. (2013). Mineral properties and dietary value of raw and processed stinging nettle (Urtica dioica L.). International Journal of Food Science, 2013, 857120. https://doi.org/10.1155/2013/857120

Tierra, M. & Tierra, L. (2017). East-West Profession Herbalist Course. [Online course]. Ben Lomond, CA: Self-published.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. (2015). Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. Retrieved from http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines

Waldmann, A., Koschizke, J., Leitzmann, C., & Hahn, A. (2004). Dietary iron intake and iron status of German female vegans: Results of the German vegan study. Annals of Nutrition & Metabolism, 48(2), 103–108. https://doi.org/10.1159/000077045

Weed, S. (2002). Herbal basics: Supplement calcium with herbal tea.  Retrieved from https://www.motherearthliving.com/health-and-wellness/supplement-calcium-with-herbal-tea

Vitamin C. (n.d.) Retrieved from https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?contenttypeid=19&contentid=vitaminc

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