While it’s true that some health conditions pop up suddenly and catch you unaware, most come on gradually with warning signs. In fact, your body is always communicating with you, dropping subtle—as well as not-so-subtle—hints about potential problems on the horizon. By paying attention to these early warning signals, you can catch serious health problems in their earliest, most easily treated stages. Here are 10 signs of hidden health problems and how to address them.
Sign #1: Cracked, Calloused Skin
Cracked, calloused skin on the heels and feet could signify a deficiency of vitamin A, a fat-soluble vitamin that is crucial for optimal immune system function and eye health. To rectify this, take high-dose vitamin A: 30,000–40,000 IU a day, for two to three months.
Caution: High doses of vitamin A should only be taken over the short term, meaning several days to several months. Women who could get pregnant should not take high-dose vitamin A. To relieve dry or cracked skin on your feet, some of my patients have had good success with an aloe vera–based cream called Miracle Foot Repair. It is available in drugstores.
Sign #2: Yellowing Skin
Yellowing skin is most likely jaundice and signals a serious health problem with the liver, pancreas, or gallbladder. This should absolutely be checked out by a physician.
A mild yellowish tint, however, may indicate a vitamin B12 deficiency, which is a pretty common hidden health problem in older people. This is because vitamin B12 absorption is dependent on hydrochloric acid and pepsin (to break the bonds that bind it to protein) and on intrinsic factor (a substance required for its absorption), and production of all three of these declines with age. To prevent a B12 deficiency, everyone—especially people over 50 and vegetarians of all ages (B12 is most abundant in foods of animal origin)—should take a minimum of 150 mcg of vitamin B12 daily.
Sign #3: Weak, Brittle Nails
Weak, brittle nails may be a sign of malnutrition, especially inadequate intake of protein. Make sure you eat 20–25 grams per meal of high-quality protein from skinless poultry, oily fish (especially salmon), egg whites, beans, and legumes. Occasional servings of lean meat are also okay.
Brittle nails may also be caused by low levels of biotin. Fortunately, there’s an easy fix: Biotin supplementation (300 mcg per day) has been shown to increase nail thickness. Extreme nail brittleness may denote thyroid disease and should be evaluated by a doctor.
Sign #4: White Spots on a Nail
A white spot on a nail may be caused by an injury to the nail bed. However, multiple white spots often point to an underlying zinc deficiency. A good daily multivitamin and mineral supplement containing 30 mg of zinc may clear these spots up.
If that doesn’t help, the hidden health problem may be a digestive disorder such as inadequate production of pancreatic enzymes, which can impair nutrient absorption and contribute to a zinc deficiency. This may be rectified by taking pancreatic enzymes, which are sold in health food stores. Take heed of such warning signs, for good digestion and absorption of nutrients are keys to optimal health.
Sign #5: Burning Mouth Syndrome
A burning sensation over your tongue, lips, or entire mouth (called burning mouth syndrome), may be caused by something as easily remedied as brushing your teeth/tongue too hard, using harsh mouthwash, or wearing irritating dentures. However, it also may be a sign of an iron, zinc, or B-complex vitamin deficiency.
Increase your intake of zinc and B vitamins by taking a high-quality, high-potency daily multivitamin and mineral supplement.
Caution: Do not take supplemental iron before obtaining a blood test to determine iron levels. Excessive iron levels are a risk factor for heart problems and other conditions. Burning mouth syndrome may also be caused by neuropathy (nerve damage), allergies, insulin resistance, or thyroid disorders, so if symptoms persist, see your doctor to see if these other hidden health problems could be the culprit.
Sign #6: Diagonal Creases in Earlobes
Diagonal creases in earlobes can signal increased risk of heart disease, according to a few studies. If you happen to have such creases, don’t panic. Some experts believe they are simply a genetic variant, just as some people’s earlobes are attached while others are not. Others note that these creases are age-related.
I wouldn’t make too much of this, but I would take all the precautions you can to protect yourself. Eat right, exercise regularly, manage your stress levels, and take cardioprotective nutritional supplements such as antioxidants, magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, and coenzyme Q10.
Sign #7: Dark Circles Under the Eyes
Dark circles under the eyes may be indicative of poor sleep, but they are also common in people with food allergies. The easiest way to detect hidden food allergies is with a modified elimination diet: stop eating certain foods, and then reintroduce them to see if they cause any adverse symptoms.
Start with the usual suspects: milk, wheat, eggs, citrus, and corn. Eliminate as many as you want, wait about a week, and then, every other day, reintroduce one food back into your diet. (A two-day wait before reintroducing the next food gives your system time to react to the allergen and cause symptoms.)
If you don’t notice any changes in how you feel, you can assume that food is not problematic. If symptoms return, omit that food from your diet for another week, and then reintroduce it again. Adverse reactions a second time probably indicate that this food should be removed from your diet altogether.
Sign #8: Hair Loss
Hair loss can stem from many causes, some of them quite serious. Thyroid problems, iron deficiencies, protein malnutrition, and severe infections can all cause hair loss. There is even a disease of unknown origin called alopecia areata that results in massive hair loss.
Some drugs can cause hair loss, including chemotherapeutic drugs, birth control pills, and some medications used to treat depression, hypertension, gout, and arthritis. Overprocessing with chemicals, heat, etc., can also contribute to hair loss.
However, the most common cause is pattern baldness, and it is determined primarily by heredity. By age 50, half of all men and a quarter of all women have significant hair loss. Male pattern baldness tends to affect the hair at the hairline and crown, while female pattern baldness usually thins hair all over the head and rarely leads to total baldness.
If you experience hair loss, be sure to eat adequate protein and rule out and correct hidden health problems such as thyroid issues and iron deficiencies, as well as drugs as a cause. Beyond that, Rogaine (minoxidil) appears to help to some degree but results are usually temporary. Another drug, Propecia (finasteride), is approved for men, but it has a rather lengthy list of side effects. Instead, try taking targeted supplements that can help promote healthy hair, including fish oil (2 grams daily) and orthosilicic acid, a form of silicon that boosts collagen formation and has been shown to improve hair thickness (5 mg, taken twice a day with meals; one good brand is BioSil).
Sign #9: Tinnitus
Ringing, humming, buzzing, whistling, roaring, and other sounds in the ears, known as tinnitus, are very common. For most people, tinnitus comes and goes within minutes and is nothing to worry about. For others, it is nearly constant and very annoying.
The most common cause of tinnitus is exposure to excessively loud sounds. Other causes include wax buildup in the ear, aspirin and other medications, whiplash, disorders of the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), and injury to or tumors that affect the auditory nerve. In most cases, the cause of tinnitus eludes both patient and doctor. If you have tinnitus and have not had a recent physical examination, get one.
Tinnitus can be an early sign of atherosclerosis, anemia, and diabetes. Tinnitus has also been linked with a vitamin B12 deficiency. Also consult an ear-nose-throat specialist to determine if you have hearing loss.
Sign #10: Back Pain
Back pain can signal a number of health conditions ranging from scoliosis, arthritis, or herniated discs to spinal injuries, kidney stones, or infections, to name just a few. It could also be a sign that your body is thirsty.
In How to Deal Simply With Back Pain and Rheumatoid Joint Pain, the late F. Batmanghelidj, MD, attributes back pain, and even rheumatoid pain, to chronic dehydration. The discs in the lower back that separate the spinal vertebrae are designed to absorb stress and facilitate movement. Their cushioning effect is based largely on their water content. When pressure is applied to the discs, they extrude water to compensate for added stress. When pressure is relieved, a vacuum is created inside the disc and water rapidly flows in, rehydrating and cushioning the vertebrae. Without this powerful water surge, discs flatten and slip out of spinal alignment, causing acute and chronic pain on the nerves behind the disc.
Alleviating chronic back pain (and other health problems associated with dehydration) won’t happen by simply drinking several glasses of water at one time. Pain indicates that you’ve been dehydrated for quite a while, and it will take several weeks of increased water consumption for you to feel a difference. For back pain, I recommend consuming 10 to 12 glasses daily. Just make sure it’s clean, filtered water.