Health & Science

The Return of Scurvy? Houston Neurologist Diagnoses Hundreds of Patients with Vitamin Deficiencies

Dr. Reeta Achari is a Houston neurologist who has been seeing more and more patients with nutritional diseases. These patients could afford to buy food, and they weren’t obese, but they did have unexplained symptoms like pain, tingling, brain fog, and fatigue.

Dr. Reeta Achari
Dr. Reeta Achari

Dr. Reeta Achari is a Houston neurologist who has been seeing more and more patients with nutritional diseases. These patients could afford to buy food, and they weren’t obese. But they did have unexplained symptoms like pain, tingling, brain fog, and fatigue. When she started testing their blood, Achari often found low levels of vitamins C, B and D.

“What I discovered was that a lot of people, in an effort to get healthy, taking on diets that were very restrictive, so gluten-free or paleo, something where they were eliminating an essential food from their diet.”

You probably associate scurvy with sailors and pirates whose teeth are falling out. And it’s true the disease, which comes from a lack of vitamin C, was first diagnosed among sailors who didn’t get enough fresh food. 

Dr. Achari remembers the very first patient she diagnosed with scurvy. The young woman had joint pain, stomach pain, bruising and a skin rash. All the other expensive tests and scans had revealed nothing.

“Something in my mind said check the vitamin C, and maybe it was one of the blink moments,” Dr. Achari said.

The blood test revealed extremely low levels of vitamin C.

“And when I saw her back to give her the results, I asked her ‘What do you eat?’ and her response was ‘chicken tortilla soup.’ And I said ‘Well, yes, what else do you eat?’ and she said ‘chicken tortilla soup’. So she pretty much ate canned chicken tortilla soup as her meals. Pretty much she had no fresh fruits, no vegetables.”

Although many doctors now check for vitamin D, Achari now checks for C and many of the B vitamins. She says these patients aren’t going hungry, and they aren’t obese. They just eat poorly. Many have ended up sick after trying the paleo diet or going gluten-free. She explains when you stop eating whole wheat, you lose a great source of vitamin B1.

“More and more people were coming in with strange, non-specific findings, so brain fog, or ‘I’ve got a little numbness or tingling’ or ‘I’m a little dizzy.’”

Annarose Harding was typical. She had been working full-time, going to law school at night, and her diet had become, admittedly, terrible.

“I lived on caffeine, I was drinking ‘Monster’ drinks, just entirely too many of them. I wasn’t eating breakfast, lunch I had frozen meals, and I didn’t eat dinner until 10:30 at night.”

When Harding started getting shooting pains in her feet and legs, she went to Dr. Achari. She was afraid it was multiple sclerosis, but it was just her diet. Even though she had gained weight in law school, she was actually malnourished.

“She put me on a prescription for vitamin D, and I take over-the-counter vitamin supplements for C and B12 and B6. And, I mean, within 2-3 weeks I felt such a major improvement in my symptoms, it was pretty unreal,” she said.

A federal study found about 7 percent of people have low levels of vitamin C. But Achari thinks people may also be unknowingly suffering from other vitamin deficiencies.

“We don’t think about nutritional illnesses. These are ancient diseases and we just don’t think we need to check for them,” she said. 

Now Achari checks frequently. She also sends her patients recipes through a public Facebook page, Tasting Health, and gives cooking demonstrations once a month at a farmer’s market.

Editor’s Note: We have updated this story to reflect the correct spelling of Dr. Reeta Achari’s first name. We apologize for the error. 

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Florian Martin

Florian Martin

Business Reporter

Florian Martin is currently the News 88.7 business reporter. Florian’s stories can frequently be heard on other public radio stations throughout Texas and on NPR nationwide. Some of them have earned him awards from Texas AP Broadcasters and the Houston Press Club. Florian is a native of Germany. His studies...

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