Malnutrition —along with its causes, signs, symptoms and effects— has been broadly discussed in previous articles. It cannot be stressed enough that this issue is very much alive today, in both the developing and developed world. The rise of the diet culture, which has seen incredibly restrictive and harmful diets being merchandised as something good, has played with the self-esteem —and the health— of millions. Moreover, the prevalence and affordability of fast food over its healthy counterparts in food deserts has condemned a wide range of people —namely the urban poor— to trading proper nutrition for cheap, available foods. On the other end of the spectrum, obesity is considered an epidemic in the US and other developed countries, while in the developing world people live day-to-day not knowing if they are going to eat or not. This plethora of situations, not to mention illnesses and other causes of malnutrition, leads to different kinds of nutritional deficiencies, which manifest in several forms. At its most severe, malnutrition can lead to illness, which is what this post focus on. Keep reading for common malnutrition diseases, meaning those that are caused by malnutrition.
Although not entirely common and largely considered an illness of the past, scurvy might be making a comeback. Dylan Seabridge, an eight-year-old boy from Wales died in 2011 due to this illness. Moreover, scurvy has been on the rise in Britain during the last decade. Between 2009 and 2014 hospital admissions related to the illness increased by 27% —and in the first four months of 2014, scurvy “was the primary diagnosis behind 16 hospital admissions and the primary or secondary cause of 94 admissions” (BBC, 2016). Furthermore, cancer patients treated with the drug Nilotinib are at risk of developing scurvy (MPR, 2016).
So what is scurvy?
Also called “the scourge of sailors”, scurvy is a severe vitamin C deficiency. Most commonly seen in sailors during the Age of Discovery, which began in the 15th century, scurvy was among several common malnutrition diseases an unhealthy, unbalanced diet could cause in sailors. With no access to fresh food for months at a time, sailors had to rely on preserved meats and carbohydrates, which sadly do not contain any vitamin C, which worsened the fact that the human body cannot create this nutrient. The early symptoms of the illness encompass “spongy gums, pain in the joints and blood spots appearing under the skin” (MentalFloss.com, 2013). Further effects are the loosening of the teeth and extreme bad breath, followed by a weakness that makes it impossible to walk or work. Finally, the patient “collapses” dying often from a burst blood vessel.
Especially relevant today, as more and more people spend their lives indoor. Rickets is caused by a lack of vitamin D, which impedes the body from absorbing or depositing calcium. A less frequent cause of rickets is a lack of calcium of phosphorus.
But how come there can be a lack of vitamin D in the body if it can produce this nutrient?
Well, the human body can, indeed, produce vitamin D but only if it has the metabolic precursors available to it. Exposure of the skin to ultraviolet light (as in sunlight), causes the cholesterol in it to react and form cholecalciferol, which is then processed in the liver and kidneys to create Vitamin D.
Rickets, one of the common malnutrition diseases, is more severe on children, as its most severe effects are seen in developing bones, as the body is unable to lengthen them, among other skeletal growth problems, including bone fragility. In adults, it can cause “bone-softening”, but the signs —such as extreme pain in the bones and muscle weakness— take longer to develop and it generally can be diagnosed before bones are warped.
This illness is mostly seen in Asia, where several countries count boiled rice as a food stable. “Beri-beri” is Sinhalese for “I cannot, I cannot” (MentaFloss.com, 2013), and derives from being unable to do anything due to the nerve inflammation caused by vitamin B1 deficiency, which damages neurons in the end-stage of the illness.
In Asia and other cases —such as the prisoners in Haiti— Beriberi is caused by substituting brown rice, their primary source of vitamin B1, for milled white rice, which contains no vitamin B1. In developed countries, beriberi and other common malnutrition diseases are mostly observed in chronic alcoholics due to their poor diets and decreased absorption of nutrients.
Other common malnutrition diseases can be found here.