4 Diseases Caused by a Lack of Essential Vitamins and Minerals

iStock
iStock

Companies pushing products with added vitamins and minerals can fool people into thinking that they’re eating a “healthy” food when they’re not—but it’s not like those vitamins and minerals are there for no reason. For much of human history, diseases of nutrient deficiency were the norm, and in some parts of the world, they still persist. Even into the 20th century, conditions caused by a lack of certain vitamins or minerals were endemic to North America and Europe. Artificially added nutrients may not make a food “healthy,” but they do stave off several debilitating, and sometimes fatal, diseases of malnutrition. Here are a few of those maladies.

1. Scurvy

The disease of pirates: the grey-death. Scurvy is caused by a lack of vitamin C, whose chemical name, ascorbic acid, is derived from the Latin term for scurvy, scorbutus. Even though the disease was known since ancient times (described by Hippocrates around 400 BCE), it was not a scourge to those who were largely land-bound. Even though its causes were unknown, many cultures realized that eating certain herbs could reverse the symptoms, and as long as there was access to fresh food, it was generally kept under control.

Scurvy didn’t become a significant problem until the Age of Discovery (beginning in the 15th century), when people at sea were not able to access that much-needed fresh food for months at a time. Preserved meats and carbohydrates contained no vitamin C, and unlike most animals, the human body is not able to create vitamin C on its own.

The early symptoms of scurvy include spongy gums, pain in the joints, and blood spots appearing under the skin. As the disease progressed, the teeth would become loose, extreme halitosis (bad breath) would develop, the afflicted would become too weak to walk or work, be in too much pain to eat, and would die “mid-sentence,” often from a burst blood vessel. Many of the early explorers lost great numbers of men to scurvy: Vasco de Gama lost 116 out of 170 men in 1499, and in 1520, Magellan lost 208 out of 230. A few deaths were attributable to other causes, but the vast majority were due to scurvy.

Despite not being able to pinpoint the exact cause of scurvy, in the 18th century, naval physician James Lind was able to prove, in what’s considered to be the first controlled scientific experiment, that scurvy could be prevented (and cured) by incorporating citrus fruits such as limes and oranges into the diet of sailors. Although his findings weren’t widely accepted at first, the British Navy eventually began issuing standard rations of lemon juice, and later, limes, to their sailors—which gave rise to the term “limey” in reference to the British.

These days, scurvy is an extremely rare condition, almost exclusively caused by someone eating a completely unvaried diet. In most cases, high levels of oral supplementation of vitamin C are enough to reverse the condition in a matter of weeks, and death by scurvy is almost unheard of.

2. Rickets

This condition is brought on by a lack of vitamin D, which causes the body to be unable to absorb or deposit calcium. Less commonly, it can also be caused by a lack of calcium or phosphorus, but vitamin D deficiency is by far the most common cause. Unlike vitamin C, the human body is able to produce vitamin D, but only if it has the metabolic precursors available to it.

When the skin is exposed to ultraviolet light (such as from the sun), cholesterol in the skin reacts and forms cholecalciferol, which is then processed in the liver and kidneys to create the active form of vitamin D. Even with a nominally healthy diet, without enough sun exposure, the body can’t produce the vitamin D precursors on its own. This is actually re-emerging as a health concern among some increasingly-indoor groups of people, and is one of the few hypovitaminosis (lack of vitamin) conditions not considered to be a “disease of the past.” Luckily, when the deficiency is recognized, cholecalciferol can be directly taken as a vitamin supplement or acquired from eating organ meats and oils, such as cod liver oil, allowing the body to resume producing vitamin D.

Rickets is a condition of children, as the deficiency’s most severe effects are on developing bones; in adults, “bone-softening,” or osteomalacia, can be caused by the same vitamin deficiency. But in adults, it both takes significantly longer to develop and tends to cause tip-off signs that something is wrong before bone warping sets in, such as extreme pain in the bones, and unexplained muscle weakness. In children, especially those that don’t or can’t receive regular check-ups, deformity and debilitation by the deficiency is often only noticed after significant damage has been done to their developing skeletons.

The most telling symptoms of rickets are at the epiphyses (growth plates) of bones: The body is unable to lengthen bones by depositing calcium, and ends up with bones that flare outward in a “cupping” appearance. This leads to costochondral swelling, or what’s known as the “rachitic rosary” along the ribcage of the child, as well as widened wrists and “thick” joints. Before widened wrists or rachitic rosary appears, the softening of the skull bones can lead to “Caput Quadratum”—a square-headed appearance, and often the first sign of skeletal growth problems. If left untreated, rickets also can cause an extremely curved back, stunted growth, and frequent fractures—all of which can lead to permanent and debilitating deformity.

3. Beriberi

This condition is largely confined to Asia, especially in countries where boiled rice is a staple. The Sinhalese term “beri-beri” means, “I cannot, I cannot,” and derives from the inability to perform even the simplest of tasks once the polyneuritis (nerve inflammation) caused by the deficiency of vitamin B1 (thiamine) has permanently damaged the neurons, when the condition has progressed to the end-stage.

Although beriberi was known to exist in rice-eating countries several centuries back, its prevalence boomed with the introduction of steam-driven rice-polishing mills from Europe. The superior taste of the milled white rice led many locals to abandon the local (unpolished) brown rice, and in doing so, abandon their primary source of thiamine. From the 1860s to the turn of the 20th century, people whose plant consumption was limited to the polished white rice would often come down with weakness, pain, weight loss, difficulty walking, and emotional disturbances. Beriberi became one of the leading causes of mortality in the region.

In the 1880s, a doctor named Christiaan Eijkman began researching the causes of this epidemic at a laboratory in the Dutch East Indies (now Jakarta, Indonesia), and initially believed that the condition was caused by a bacterial infection. However, after years of study, he came to the conclusion that “white rice is poisonous.” He discovered this by feeding a group of chickens solely white rice, and another group unpolished brown rice. The chickens that ate the white rice came down with beriberi-like symptoms, while the others stayed healthy. Eijkman also discovered that when the chickens fed white rice were subsequently fed brown rice, they recovered from their illness! Later dietary testing on prisoners confirmed his results. Even though he didn’t know the cause of the condition, Eijkman proved that white rice was the culprit, and shared the 1929 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discovery.

Beriberi is occasionally seen in the modern world, but its primary cause is chronic alcoholism—the poor diets of some chronic alcoholics, combined with the decreased absorption of what thiamine is consumed, leads to symptoms that unfortunately are sometimes left undiagnosed until it’s too late. Recently, beriberi was also seen in Haitian prisons when the prison system began buying imported polished rice from the United States, and stopped feeding their inmates the local brown rice.

4. Pellagra

What causes blistering of the skin in the sun, pale skin, a craving for raw meat, blood dripping from the mouth, aggression, and insanity? If you answered “vampirism,” you’re close—the myth of the vampire may have its roots in the condition known as “pellagra.”

Pellagra is 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, the condition was seen throughout Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, wherever a large percentage of food energy was derived from corn, and fresh meat was not available. The area of highest prevalence was Northern Italy, where Francesco Frapoli of Milan called it “pelle agra,” meaning “sour skin.”

It was initially believed that either the corn itself, or some insect associated with corn, was causing pellagra. This belief was reinforced when much of France eliminated corn as a food staple and virtually eradicated the condition. Between the era that corn was introduced to Europe (the early 16th century) and the late 19th century, pellagra was found almost everywhere that poor people subsisted on cornmeal and little else.

Around the turn of the 20th century, people began to notice that despite subsisting on just as much corn as poor Europeans, poor Mesoamerican natives didn’t come down with the condition. It was eventually discovered that this was because the traditional processing of corn in the Americas involved “nixtamalization,” in which the kernels were soaked in limewater before hulling them. The alkali solution freed up the niacin that was present in the grain, but previously inaccessible.

Despite the extensive work of Dr. Joseph Goldberger in the 1910s and 1920s, which proved that pellagra wasn’t caused by a germ but by a dietary deficiency, the condition was occurring in epidemic proportions in the rural Southern US until the 1940s.

Today, pellagra is most common in the poorest regions of the world, especially places that rely upon food aid programs. Some countries still ship unfortified cornmeal rather than corn masa (nixtamalized corn) or fortified cornmeal to developing countries or to their own impoverished populations. China, parts of Africa, Indonesia, and North Korea all have endemic pellagra among their lowest classes.

*******

The discovery of important vitamins and how to produce them has been so significant to human health that many of those who were integral to the discoveries have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine; more than 10 Nobel Prizes have been divided among almost 20 eminent scientists for the discovery or isolation of vitamins A, B1, B12, C, D, E, and K. Over the second half of the 20th century, after the beginning of widespread supplementation to everyday food items, the incidences of the conditions covered here went down dramatically across much of the world.

Of course, the minerals essential to the human body play similarly important roles in maintaining health. However, humans have not historically had a widespread significant problem acquiring these nutrients, as most plants absorb many minerals from the soil. With the increased processing of our food throughout the 20th century, however, some of these minerals have been lost, and have had to be re-added to the average Western diet through supplementation. In the rest of the world, displacement due to war, and unfortified food from aid programs, has left survivors with enough calories, but not enough nutrients. Supplementation of assistance food and local fortification of salt and flour is beginning to help give displaced people (especially displaced children) a new chance at life without these and other nutritional diseases.

In the developed world, you won’t be the healthiest bloke on the block if you eat nothing but breakfast cereal and cartons of juice—but the food industry has ensured that you at least won’t die of malnutrition. Even people with healthy diets benefit from the supplementation of vitamins and minerals in common foodstuffs, and adding the nutrients costs next to nothing. Doctors and nutritionists still agree that the healthiest way to acquire your necessary vitamins and minerals is by eating a balanced diet and spending time outdoors each day, but in the course of modern life, that’s not always possible, and if people are going to eat poorly either way, we may as well keep them from dropping dead of scurvy!

17 Bizarre Natural Remedies From the 1700s

In the late 1740s, John Wesley—a British evangelist and the co-founder of Methodism—published Primitive Physick, or, An Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases. The tome gave regular people ways to cure themselves with natural remedies, using items they could find in their own homes.

When in doubt, Welsey thought that drinking cold water or taking cold baths could cure most illnesses (including breast cancer); some of his suggestions, like using chamomile tea to soothe an upset stomach, have survived today. Other natural remedies he whipped up, though, are decidedly strange. Here are a few of them.

1. To Cure An Ague

Wesley describes an ague as “an intermitting fever, each fit of which is preceded by a cold shivering and goes off in a sweat.” There are many natural remedies for curing it, but all must be preceded by taking a “gentle vomit,” which, if taken two hours before the fit, Wesley says will generally prevent it, and may even cure the ague. If the vomiting fails, however, Wesley suggests wearing a bag of groundsel, a weed, “on the pit of the stomach, renewing it two hours before the fit.” The weed should be shredded small, and the side of the bag facing the skin should have holes in it.

Should this not work, Wesley suggests a remedy that requires a stronger stomach: “Make six middling pills of cobwebs, take one a little before the cold fit: Two a little before the next fit: The other three, if Need be, a little before the third fit. I never knew this fail.”

2. To Cure a Canine Appetite

Wesley turns to a Dr. Scomberg for the cure to this condition, which is defined by Wesley as “an insatiable desire of eating”: If there’s no vomiting, canine appetite “is often cured by a small Bit of Bread dipt in Wine, and applied to the Nostrils."

3. To Cure Asthma

Tar water, sea water, nettle juice, and quicksilver are all acceptable cures for what Wesley calls "moist Asthma" (which is characterized by “a difficulty of breathing … the patient spits much”). But a method that “seldom fails,” Wesley says, is living “a fortnight on boiled carrots only.”

Dry and convulsive asthma, meanwhile, can be treated with toad, dried and powdered. “Make it into small pills,” Wesley writes, “and take one every hour until the convulsions fade.”

4. To Prevent or Cure Nose Bleeds

Drinking whey and eating raisins every day, Wesley says, can help prevent nose bleeds. Other methods for preventing or curing the phenomenon include “hold[ing] a red hot poker under the nose” and “steep[ing] a linnen rag in sharp vinegar, burn[ing] it, and blow[ing] it up the nose with a Quill.”

5. To Cure a “Cold in the Head”

Getting rid of this common ailment is easy, according to Wesley: Just “pare very thin the yellow rind of an orange," he writes. "Roll it up inside out, and thrust a roll inside each nostril.”

6. To Cure “An Habitual Colick”

Today's doctors define colic as a condition suffered by "a healthy, well-fed infant who cries for more than three hours per day, for more than three days per week, for more than three weeks." But adults can get it, too; it's characterized by severe stomach pains and spasms (which, we now know, can be an indication of other conditions, like Crohn's disease and irritable bowel syndrome). To cure it, Wesley suggests this odd remedy: “Wear a thin soft Flannel on the part.”

6. To Cure “White Specks in the Eye”

While it's unclear exactly what "white specks in the eye" actually is—eye floaters, maybe—Wesley suggests that, when “going to bed, put a little ear-wax on the Speck.—This has cured many.”

7. To Cure the Falling Sickness

Those who suffer from this illness “fall to the ground, either quite stiff, or convulsed all over, utterly senseless, gnashing his teeth, and foaming at the mouth.” To cure the condition, Wesley recommends “an entire milk diet for three months: It rarely fails.” During fits, though, “blow up the nose a little powder’d ginger.”

8. To Cure Gout

“Regard not them who say the gout ought not to be cured. They mean, it cannot,” Wesley writes. (They, here, might be referring to regular practitioners of medicine.) “I know it cannot by their regular prescriptions. But I have known it cured in many cases, without any ill effect following.” Gout in the foot or hand can be cured by “apply[ing] a raw lean beef-steak. Change it once in 12 hours, ‘till cured.”

Curing the gout in any limb can be accomplished by beginning this ritual at six in the evening: “Undress and wrap yourself up in Blankets. — Then put your Legs up to the Knees in Water, as hot as you can bear it. As it cools, let hot Water be poured in, so as to keep you in a strong Sweat till ten. Then go into a Bed well warm'd and sweat till Morning. — I have known this to cure an inveterate Gout.”

9. To Cure Jaundice

Wesley suggests curing jaundice—which turns the skin and whites of the eyes yellow (thanks to too much bilirubin in the blood, we now know)—by wearing "leaves of Celandine upon and under the feet." Other possible cures include taking a small pill of Castile soap in the morning for eight to 10 days, or "as much lies on a shilling of calcin’d egg-shells, three mornings fasting; and walk till you sweat.”

10. To Cure “The Iliac Passion”

This decidedly unpleasant condition—which Wesley defines as a “violent kind of Colic ... the Excrements are thrown up by the mouth in vomiting,” eww—has a few cures, including “apply[ing] warm Flannel soaked in Spirits of Wine.” Most delightful, however, is the cure recommended by a Dr. Sydenham: “Hold a live Puppy constantly on the Belly.”

11. To Cure “the Palpitation or Beating of the Heart”

Among the remedies for this ailment are the mundane “drink a Pint of cold Water,” the stinky-but-probably-not-effective “apply outwardly a Rag dipt In vinegar,” and the very exciting “be electrified” (which is suggested for a few other illnesses as well).

12. To Cure Pleurisy

This illness is characterized by “a Fever attended with a violent pain in the Side, and a Pulse remarkably hard.” (It's caused, we now know, when the double membrane that surrounds the lungs inside the chest cavity becomes inflamed.) Wesley’s first suggested remedy involves applying “to the Side Onions roasted in the Embers, mixt with Cream." Next up is filling the core of an apple with frankincense “stop[ping] it close with the Piece you cut out and roast[ing] it in Ashes. Mash and eat it.” Sounds delicious!

13. To cure Quinsy

“A quinsy,” Wesley explains, “is a Fever attended with Difficulty of Swallowing, and often Breathing.” (Today, the condition is called peritonsillar abscess and it's known to be a complication of tonsillitis.) He suggests applying “a large White-bread Toast, half an Inch thick, dipt in Brandy, to the crown of the Head till it dries.”

14. To Cure “A Windy Rupture”

Wesley doesn't say what, exactly, this condition is, though a Google search brings up the term hernia ventosa, which another medical book of the same time defines as a "false hernia ... where the wind is pent up by the coats of the Testes, inflating and blowing up the inguen," or the groin area. Wesley prescribes the following method to cure it: “Warm Cow-dung well. Spread it thick on Leather, [throwing] some cummin seeds on it, and apply it hot. When cold, put on a new one.” This, he says, “commonly cures a Child (keeping his Bed) in two Days.”

15. To Cure a "Tooth-ach"

Wesley suggests being electrified through the tooth. If that’s too extreme for you, try “rub[bing] the Cheek a Quarter of an Hour ... Or, put[ting] a Clove of Garlick into the Ear.”

16. To Stop Vomiting

Induced vomiting was an important part of Wesley's medical theories (remember the "gentle vomit" that could stop the ague?). But if a patient was vomiting and it wasn't a part of the prescribed method for curing him, Wesley advised "after every Vomiting, drink a pint of warm water; or, apply a large onion slit, to the Pit of the Stomach."

17. To Heal a Cut

Wesley suggests holding the cut closed "with your thumb for a quarter of an hour" (what we might call applying pressure these days), then dipping a rag in cold water and wrapping the cut in it. Another method: "Bind on toasted cheese," Wesley writes. "This will cure a deep cut." Pounded grass, applied fresh every 12 hours, will also do the trick.

Costco Is Selling Enormous Tubs of Your Favorite Gluttonous Delights—Here Are 5 of Them

iStock.com/mphillips007
iStock.com/mphillips007

Costco's grocery department is perhaps the only place in America where you can get a $5 rotisserie chicken, a $1.50 hot dog and soda combo, and 7-pound bucket of Nutella all under one roof. The tub of hazelnut spread isn't the only food you can buy in bulk, either. Whether you're catering a wedding on a budget or restocking your doomsday shelter, here are five foods you can buy online—and in some stores—that come in outrageous portions.

1. A nearly 7-pound tub of Nutella

Sometimes, a small jar of Nutella just won't do. For those who can't get enough of the chocolatey hazelnut spread, Costco offers a bigger size—to the tune of 6.6 pounds. It costs $22, which is about $14 cheaper than splurging on 14 smaller jars weighing 7.7 ounces apiece. As Thrillist points out, in-store deals are only available to Costco members, but anyone can take advantage of discounts when they order online.

2. 23 pounds of macaroni & cheese

If bathing in macaroni and cheese is on your bucket list, now's your chance. Costco offers a $90 tub filled with 23 pounds of elbow macaroni and cheddar sauce mix, all of which comes in a "heavy duty" 6-gallon bucket. With enough food to serve 180 people, it's designed to last up to 20 years "if stored in a dry, cool environment"—so yes, it's bunker-approved. (Although, sadly, it's currently out of stock.)

3. A lifetime supply of honey

Given the uncertain future of honeybees (and by extension, honey), it might not be a bad idea to stock up on the sweet, sticky stuff. Costco's 40-pound tub of GloryBee Clover Blossom Honey costs $127. Considering that a 48-ounce jar of honey costs $27 on GloryBee's website, this represents savings of more than $200.

4. Emergency rations of mashed potatoes

This bucket of food is explicitly designed for surviving rather than feasting, but who's to say that a sudden craving for mashed potatoes or mac and cheese isn't an emergency? Costco's Emergency Food kit contains a one-month supply of various foods, including oatmeal, cheddar cheese grits with green chilies, chicken-flavored vegetable stew, and a rice and orzo pilaf. It will set you back $115, but again, it has a shelf life of 20 years.

5. 60 servings of freeze-dried breakfast skillet

Mountain House's breakfast skillet comes in six coffee-sized cans rather than one oversized bucket, but it still serves the same purpose. For $160, you get 60 servings of scrambled eggs mixed with hash browns, pork sausage, peppers, and onions. Just be sure to add the right amount of water, unless you like your eggs runny.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER