By: Bryna Gavin, MS, IFMNT, CNS
So what is a micronutrient?
In nutrition, we speak about the components your body needs in terms of macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and water) and micronutrients (mainly vitamins and minerals- and sometimes we even talk about antioxidants, metabolites, and the other fun stuff). Often times the micronutrients get overlooked and overshadowed by the more popular conversations around "macros" and food but make no mistake, they are equally as important and in the next few paragraphs I'll tell you why.
Why test my micronutrient status in the first place?
Let's say you are the kind of person who never misses your annual physical with your doctor. You get the standard blood work done every year (hopefully covered by insurance) and you think "this would tell me everything about my health", right? Well, unfortunately, not really. This standard blood work that most physicians count on usually comes in the form of a Complete Blood Count (CBC) and a Complete Metabolic Panel (CMP). Now although these blood tests are wonderful, they are more aimed towards giving us a general overview of major organ function and basic blood status. Yes, this is very valuable information, but it's meant to help your doctor or health care professional track something specific (like cholesterol, or liver function), or look for any red flags that might help lead us to a condition that needs addressing. What this blood work doesn't do is give us any insight of your vitamin and mineral status in the body, which are essential for normal cell function, growth and development.
But how important are vitamins + minerals in the body, really?
I'll answer this one in 6 words: they are very...very VERY important. Some vitamins and amino acids are even categorized as "essential" meaning just that- they are essential to our survival and if not acquired through diet or supplementation we would die. So what are these crazy important vitamins? I'm sure you've heard of some of them. A few examples might be the family of B vitamins, which help with energy production, making red blood cells, skin and nerve health, and the making of our DNA. Vitamin A helps to form and maintain healthy body tissues, and Vitamin D is critical for the proper absorption of Calcium (your bones thank you for this one), mood balance, and cognitive function. If you're interested in reading more about micronutrients and their major functions, Harvard Health has a nice little chart that can be found here for you to buff up your micronutrient knowledge. Trust me, naming all the vitamin deficiencies and their acute symptoms in alphabetical order is a great party trick. (I'm kidding. I tried that once and no one was amused.)
Now luckily, we live in a day and age where most of us have access to vitamins, supplements, and even healthy foods that could provide us with a well-rounded diet. So why then would we even suspect that any of us could have a micronutrient deficiency?
Well, the answer to that can be extremely complex, but it boils down to this: because the diet you eat, the way you live your life, and the way your body absorbs, assimilates, and processes vitamins and minerals are all completely different than anyone else. I've seen first hand in a family with very similar routines and sun exposure, who eat an identical diet and one member tested extremely deficient in Vitamin D while the rest of the family were all in optimal range. That's called biochemical individuality and it explains why one diet or style of eating can work really wonderfully for one person, but not another. Why one identical twin has a peanut allergy but the other doesn't. Your unique biological makeup has a big part in determining how your body absorbs, uses and stores vitamins. Compound this with the fact that the average American is overworked, overstressed, undernourished and underslept and these leads to a host of deficiencies.
Statistically, how common are micronutrient deficiencies in the US?
The United States Department of Agriculture states that:
9 out of 10 Americans are deficient in potassium.
8 out of 10 are deficient in vitamin E.
7 out of 10 are deficient in calcium.
50% of Americans are deficient in vitamin A, vitamin C, and magnesium.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
More than half of the general population is vitamin D deficient regardless of age.
About 70% of elderly Americans are vitamin D deficient.
90% of Americans of color are vitamin D deficient.
Now if reading that felt totally daunting, don't worry. The great news here is that most micronutrient deficiencies are easily reversible or even avoided, all we have to do is be in the know of what's going on in our bodies.
Would a micronutrient test be good for me?
With very few exceptions...yes.
Tens of thousands of Americans go to the doctor every year because of symptoms from an unknown cause or with no diagnosis. Fatigue, exhaustion, hair loss, feelings of depression and anxiety, headaches, joint pain, loss of vision, neurological issues, anemia, diarrhea and gastrointestinal issues...these (and so many more) can all be symptoms of a lack of important vitamins and minerals in the body. If left untreated, long-term vitamin or mineral deficiency (or excess, also known as vitamin toxicity) can lead to serious health complications and disease. This is why I believe in the value of micronutrient testing as one of the introductory courses of action for many new clients, even when they are feeling great! When I get that standard blood work from your doctor, I'm lucky if we get to see even one or two of these micronutrients status represented, and that's simply not enough insight to get the full picture. As a whole, it can be an incredible tool for a nutritionist to take the guessing out of symptoms and allows us to hit the ground running when putting together a customized nutritional protocol.
I'm often asked if bloodwork is "necessary" when seeing a nutritionist, and of course this depends on your medical history, what you're hoping to achieve while while working together, and your budget. But if you're looking for a comprehensive, reasonably priced test you give you some great insight into your current health status, micronutrient testing is definitely a good place to start.