Many people do not understand the difference between vitamins and minerals — or why minerals are so important to health and well-being.
Although they are all nutrients, vitamins and minerals differ in some rudimentary ways. For example, vitamins are organic substances that can be broken down relatively easily. On the other hand, minerals are inorganic substances that do not break down easily. Rather, they tend to maintain their chemical structure.
When it comes to minerals, scientists have divided them into two groups:
- Macro-minerals (also known as major minerals)
- Micro-minerals (also known as trace minerals)
Both are essential minerals your body must get via food and/or supplementation.
Macro-minerals are needed and stored by the body in fairly large quantities. Some examples of macro-minerals include calcium, magnesium, chloride, sodium, and sulfur. It may sound surprising, but calcium could account for over one pound of your body weight!
The body only requires a small amount of essential trace minerals such as boron, manganese, zinc, and others.
And even though you only need tiny doses of trace minerals, they are still important to your health. In fact, the minute amounts of trace minerals needed by the body are not an actual indication of their importance.
General Functions of Minerals in the Body
Your body needs minerals for many different functions, including:
- Keeping your bones, joints, muscles, nerves, brain, and heart working properly
- Maintaining the proper balance of water in the body
- Creating enzymes and hormones
- Stabilizing proteins that make up skin, hair, and nails
- Serving as antioxidants to support healthy cells
Getting Minerals Through Diet
In a perfect world, people would get all the macro- and micro-minerals (and vitamins) they need merely by eating a wide variety of foods in their diet, particularly vegetables and fruit.
However, studies have shown a significant loss of vitamins, minerals, and trace elements in many foods over decades.
A landmark study from the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry was published in 2004 in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. Researchers studied nutritional data from both 1950 and 1999 for 43 different fruits and vegetables. Declines were obvious in a number of nutrients over the half century period. These declines were attributed to agricultural practices designed to enhance traits such as size, pest resistance, and growth rate rather than focusing on nutrition.
The Kushi Institute analyzed nutrient data between 1975 to 1997, finding that calcium levels in twelve fresh vegetables dropped 27%. Iron levels fell 37%, vitamin A levels dropped 21%, and vitamin C levels decreased 30%.
There are also contributing environmental factors, including water scarcity, increasing temperatures, and higher levels of carbon dioxide.
Specific Functions of Trace Minerals
To gain a better understanding of how important they are to health, we can look at several important trace minerals, their function in the body, and foods that contain them.
The Trace Mineral Manganese
Manganese plays an important role in bone health. One study noted that, in combination with calcium, copper, and zinc, manganese supplementation supported bone health in postmenopausal women.
In addition, manganese is part of an important antioxidant system in the body. As you may know, antioxidants defend against the production of excessive free radicals.
Studies also show that manganese:
- Supports healthy blood sugar control
- Promotes inflammatory balance when combined with glucosamine and chondroitin
- Supports proper blood flow in the brain and body
- Plays a role in nutrient metabolism and energy production
- Supports the production of the thyroid hormone called thyroxine
- Supports the production of an amino acid necessary for collagen formation
The recommended daily adequate intake levels for manganese are 2.3 mg for men 19 and older, and 1.8 mg for women 19 and older. The amounts vary for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Manganese is found in seeds, nuts, whole grains, legumes, beans, tea, and leafy green vegetables.
The Trace Mineral Boron
A review published in Integrative Medicine: A Clinician’s Journal in 2015 was titled “Nothing Boring About Boron.” That’s because this trace mineral has been proven to be:
- Essential for bone grown and maintenance
- Significant in the regulation of sex hormones
- Helpful in magnesium absorption and maintaining normal vitamin D levels
- Notable in maintaining inflammatory balance
- Beneficial in improving levels of antioxidant enzymes
- Important in cognitive performance and short-term memory
- Important in metabolism
Trace minerals can also support the function of macro-minerals. For example, in one animal study, a diminished immune response due to low calcium intake was improved by supplementing with boron.
No actual Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) has been established for boron.
Boron can be found in leafy green vegetables such as spinach and kale, nuts, and prunes.
The Trace Mineral Zinc
As the 10th most common element in the body, zinc plays a role in the proper functioning of more than 300 hormones and enzymes. It is a key part of one of the body’s most vital antioxidant systems.
Zinc is also a crucial component of your body’s immune system.
The medical journal Immunity and Ageing reports that zinc deficiency:
- Diminishes activity of the thymus gland and its hormones
- Reduces the number and function of important immune cells
- Decreases the production of antibodies
- Impacts inflammatory balance
Even marginal zinc deprivation can affect immune function.
Zinc also plays a role in:
- Bone and skin health
- Cell division and growth
- Wound healing
- Carbohydrate metabolism
- The senses of taste and smell
- Blood sugar support
About 70% of the zinc consumed by most people in the U.S. comes from animal products, especially meat. Liver, eggs, and seafood are high in zinc.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance for zinc in adults is 8 mg per day for women and 11 mg per day for men. Symptoms of zinc deficiency include poor wound healing, difficulty seeing at night, sores in the mouth, white coating on the tongue, and white spots on the fingernails.
Everyone is Different When it Comes to Nutrient Needs
When it comes to nutrients such as trace minerals, macro-minerals, and vitamins, each individual has different requirements. These vary according to age, sex, certain physiological states such as pregnancy, and general state of health.
Those over 50 often have trouble meeting their needs for micronutrients. Older adults more often lack key nutrients such as zinc and other nutrients containing antioxidants.
In fact, a government study of over 29,000 people revealed that 35-45% of those 60+ had zinc intakes insufficient to meet the estimated average daily requirements.
With aging, there is a reduction in the ability to absorb certain nutrients from food. Compounding the problem, medications may prevent proper absorption of vitamins and minerals.
In short, you may not be able to rely on diet alone to provide you with all the trace minerals and other nutrients you need, particularly if you are in an older age group or have health concerns.
Note: This article is not intended to offer medical advice. Consult with your health care provider for more specific information.