The Who What Where and Why of Essential Minerals – Nutrition Now for Healthy Living

The Who What Where and Why of Essential Minerals

This post provides a list of all our essential minerals, why they are essential, what they’re used for and where they’re from.

If you have not read this description of how these nutrients work and are essential to our daily survival, be sure to read it here. It may help to remind you how we not only at risk of having short supply in our diets, how we consume them is putting us at risk at well.

Macro Minerals: 

These essential minerals are known as macro minerals simply because they are required in amounts greater than 200mg. (“Trace” minerals are listed below the macro minerals)

Calcium is the most important mineral to add to our diets, since our bodies cannot product it. Calcium, along with magnesium, vitamin D, phosphorus and fluoride strengthens the bone.

Although most calcium is found in the bone, the small amount found in the blood is essential to metabolic functions, and when depleted causes the bone’s supply to be raided when the diet lacks sufficient calcium to maintain the metabolic process.

The National Institutes of Health recommends 1000-1500 mg of dietary calcium per day. Good sources include dairy products, oysters, salmon, dark leafy greens (spinach, kale), broccoli and oranges.

The digestion of meat results in acids that calcium is required to neutralize along with other acid buffering minerals. This leaves less calcium for bones and teeth, and fewer essential minerals for enzyme function and absorption. So combining dark leafy greens with meats is recommended to provide the needed minerals to counteract the acids resulting from meat digestion.

Magnesium is crucial for maintenance of the acid-alkaline balance in the body, healthy functioning of nerves and muscles, and the activation of enzymes to metabolize blood sugars, proteins and carbohydrates.

It is also vital for proper bone growth and necessary for adequate calcium absorption. A 2:1 ratio of calcium to magnesium is essential for the effectiveness of taking calcium supplements to maintain strong bones.

Magnesium deficiency is considered one of the most under-diagnosed deficiencies in the US today, suffered by approximately 70% of the US population. Indications of a magnesium deficiency may include muscle twitches (e.g., Restless Leg Syndrome), nervousness, abnormal heart beat or disorientation.

Healing properties of magnesium rich foods include the calming of nervous system functions, mental and emotional imbalances including irritability, depression, bipolar disorder, sleep disorders and PMS.

It is also helpful in relaxing the functioning of muscles, reduction in symptoms of migraine, cramps and digestion. The best sources of magnesium are legumes, whole grain, and seeds.

Sodium is necessary for balancing fluids in our bodies, transmission of signals in our nervous system, cardiovascular health, and muscle tissue, and muscle contraction.

While most process foods contain salt, we should be avoiding most of these. Trace amounts of sodium are found in many foods such as meats and vegetables. Though it is important that we have some salt from a good source (sea salt) in our diets, not so much added salt is required over what we obtain from foods. Too much may result in water retention at the cellular level, known as edema, which is a health risk.

Potassium, along with Sodium, is responsible for the regulation of fluids inside of the cells. Potassium is crucial for a healthy nervous system in nerve impulses, muscle contraction, and blood pressure. Levels are controlled by water consumption and kidney function.

Since potassium deficiencies are not common in healthy people (but are common in individuals who use chemical laxatives and diuretics, or who have had excessive vomiting, diarrhea of kidney failure), I suppose that is why it is not categorized as essential.

Symptoms of deficiency include muscle weakness, intestinal issues, heart and respiratory problems. Ever had leg cramps after excessive sweating from exercise or heat? Yep. Potassium is low – drink some orange juice for a quick fix, higher potassium than in a banana!

Potassium is found in a wide variety of foods (here is a nice table of potassium food sources), however most abundant in unprocessed foods, particularly fresh fruits and vegetables. It is only toxic if taken in excess of 18,000 mg/day.

Phosphorus is stored in the bones at normally a 1:2 ratio to calcium, and is also a component of soft tissue and cells, where it is essential for maintaining the body’s pH balance, and contributes to the body’s chemical processes, for example to provide the energy necessary for metabolism.

Food sources include protein-rich foods such as meat, eggs and dairy products, although some is present in almost all foods, and therefore since it is easily absorbed by the body, it is not found in most supplements.

People taking aluminum hydroxide for extended periods however, may end up with a deficiency as these normally contain aluminum which prevents phosphorus absorption.

Sulfur is a component of protein molecules, so is an important building block. It is found in meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, nuts and legumes.

Chloride balances bodily fluids, and is required for digestion as it builds stomach acids. Small amounts are found in milk, eggs, cheese, vegetables and bread, larger quantities are found in table salt and processed foods.

Trace Minerals:

In contrast to the macro minerals, these trace minerals are named as such simply because they are needed in amounts less than 200mg. That does not minimize their importance and necessity however!

Chromium is essential to several enzyme systems, including that which works with insulin in the processing of glucose (sugar). Insulin is necessary in the metabolism of triglycerides (the primary form of fat in the body). Therefore, chromium assists with maintaining triglycerides due to its control of insulin.

Chromium deficiency has been shown to be linked to blood sugar imbalance and improper metabolism. Widespread chromium deficiency is recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as being caused by inadequate food intake but also to excess sugar intake which in turn causes chromium levels to decrease. Chromium toxicity can result from taking levels greater than 800 mcg/day. The only common food source is brewer’s yeast.

Iron is critical for the delivery of oxygen to the cells, is necessary for the production of energy, necessary for the synthesis of collagen and function of the immune system. Iron is normally deficient only among children and pre-menopausal women, but excess iron is more common in men and post-menopausal women.

Iron absorption can be blocked by calcium, magnesium, manganese, and zinc.

Excess amounts of iron in adversely affect the immune system, cell growth and the heart. Men and post menopausal women should give blood to offset excess iron.

Common sources of iron include meat, fish, beans, spinach, molasses, kelp, brewer’s yeast, broccoli and seeds.

Since iron from plant sources is not as easily absorbed as that from animal sources, vegetarians should supplement with, or eat foods high in, vitamin C to enhance iron absorption.

Zinc is required to support the immune system, protein synthesis, enzyme production, and reproductive health, particularly in men. It is found in meat, fish, vegetables, and whole grains (leavened).

Deficiencies are common, and can adversely affect the ability to heal, physical growth, nerve health, and the skin.

Amounts of zinc in excess of 100 mg/day or more can have adverse effects such as lower HDL (good) cholesterol and poor copper retention. Sources of zinc include meats, fish, whole grains, brewer’s yeast, mushrooms, and pumpkin seeds.

Copper is important for the health of the cardiovascular, immune and nervous systems, liver, skin joint and blood. It is most concentrated in the liver and brain, and a crucial component in the absorption and utilization of iron and zinc.

Any excess of copper or zinc causes the suppression and decreased utilization of the other . Copper deficiencies have been shown to be linked to the inadequate production of the critical antioxidant enzyme, superoxide dismutase (SOD), and to red blood cell deficiency. Copper is easily obtained through whole grains, dark green leafy vegetables, nuts, and shellfish.

Manganese is critical to the metabolism of bones, and is essential for enzyme reactions, and healthy brain, thyroid, and nervous systems. Deficiency may affect the health of these systems, including cartilage and skeletal formation, normal reproduction, and glucose tolerance. The best sources of manganese are legumes and whole grains. It is easily lost in processed foods.

Zinc, copper and manganese are essential for enzymes involved in the synthesis of the components of the bone matrix (6, 7).

Selenium is a powerful antioxidant which works in concert with vitamin E to support the operation of antioxidant enzymes, and may reduce the risk of abnormal cell growth, as will many other antioxidants.

It improves your body’s ability to deliver oxygen to your cells, and is also necessary for the body’s production of its most powerful anti-oxidant, glutathione. It facilitates recycling of vitamin C, supports the liver and thyroid, and helps regulate metabolism.

Toxic heavy metals, such as lead and mercury, can be bound up with selenium and rendered harmless.[1]

Selenium has also been identified as a cancer fighting mineral, due to its interaction with enzymes and hormones.[2]

Notably, studies have shown that people living in areas with low levels of selenium in the soil have an increased incidence of cancer, and the contrary is evident as well, that people living in areas high in selenium soil content have lower risk of cancer.

A 10 year study by the University of Arizona gave men in the study group a 200 mcg supplement of selenium per day, and found their risk of prostate cancer had dropped 63 percent over the placebo group.[3]

Keep in mind however that no mineral works alone in isolation. All essential minerals are best delivered in synergistic form as they are found in whole foods.

Deficiencies of selenium can manifest in hypothyroidism, or low thyroid, which is directly related to obesity. Muscle pain and weakness are also associated with selenium deficiency. Excess amounts on the other hand can compromise enzyme functions, result in hair and teeth loss, and skeletal development in fetuses.

The generally recommended dietary intake should be limited to 400 mcg daily to avoid toxicity.

Sources of selenium are brazil nuts, seafood, meat, poultry, whole grains and vegetables.

The outstanding nut in this list, brazil nuts, of which only 6-8 provides a whopping 544 mcg of selenium, while the next highest on this list is yellow fin tuna. Therefore it seems a handful of brazil nuts daily would not be a good idea![4].

Iodine is essential to the function and development of the thyroid gland. Deficiencies result in enlargement of the thyroid, and during pregnancy and infancy can cause brain development and growth issues in the child. The most common source of iodine is table salt.

Any more than 150 mcg/day is possibly a concern for those with thyroid abnormalities, but for most people 1000 mcg/day is a safe limit. However, such amounts may result in breathing difficulties or skin irritations for anyone with sensitivities.

Molybdenum is necessary for the proper function of important enzymes. Deficiencies occur most often in those with metabolic conditions, while excess amounts can cause poor copper retention. Sources include whole grains, beans and dairy products.

Fluoride protects tooth enamel from acid forming bacteria, and strengthens bone and tissue. Sources include fluoridated water, tea, and canned salmon and mackerel (because of the bones processed with the fish).

There are many warnings about fluoride in our diets, particularly as an additive to the public water systems, and even toothpaste, but, it is listed in the essential minerals summary from WebMD, in case you are as surprised as I was to see this in the list of essential minerals!

Non-Essential Trace Minerals:

There are other trace minerals not yet recognized by the health authorities, but which are believed essential for human health such as silicon, arsenic, boron, and vanadium. (Read the latest comments for a question/answer about arsenic!)

Boron has been shown only recently (since the 1980s) to play an important role in the metabolism of other minerals, particularly calcium and magnesium. It is also believed to play a part in regulating steroid hormones. Sources of boron are nuts, beans, soy, and prunes.

Silica (Silicon)  Silicon(Si) and silica(SiO) are often used interchangeably but there is a difference. Silica is the oxide (oxygen bonded) form of silicon, meaning that silica is silicon with an oxygen molecule attached. Silica is involved in the formation of cartilage and skeletal system. It is common in most unrefined produce (grains, vegetables and fruits). This post describes the many benefits of Silica, and in which foods silica is found.

Vanadium has been found to be important for metabolizing fat, and maintaining a healthy cardiovascular system by inhibiting cholesterol synthesis. Common sources are vegetables and seafood. Vanadium absorption is normally poor, less than 5% of dietary vanadium is absorbed by the body.

Electrolytes are essential to maintaining healthy electrochemical activity. Water, along with sodium, potassium and chloride. Sodium and potassium are positively charged, while chloride is negatively charged. Typically we get plenty of these minerals in our daily diet, but through exercise they are excreted through the sweat glands and must be replenished to avoid serious health risks.

Others believed to be essential in tiny amounts in our bodies include nickel, vanadium, and cobalt.

Making it Simple

These minerals are crucial to maintaining a healthy pH balance.

And while supplementation is common, care must be taken with these, even calcium. If you are in an acid state, calcium can build up in tissues causing disease.

It is much safer, and much easier than I anticipated making juice fresh veggies for getting all of these necessary minerals together. When delivered with the electrons and enzymes in fresh vegetables, they are the most easily absorbed by the body and provide critical support!