Understanding Minerals & Why We Need Them

Minerals are necessary nutrients the body needs to function properly, yet many of us don’t understand what they are, what affects they have, and which ones matter most.

Minerals are naturally occurring inorganic substances that have (more or less) definite chemical compositions and crystal structures. Exciting, right? Well, when you think about it, it is. Here are these elemental compounds, found in the Earth’s crust, that our bodies need to survive. We look at a vegetable, say, ahead of broccoli or a carrot, and we think, “Sure, that’s good for me”. That assumption is more difficult when we look at a lump of iron ore or a pale, yellow sulfur deposit. Yet these, along with around 14 other minerals, are just as important to life as that broccoli or carrot.

It’s important to understand that the essential minerals we need our bodies can’t produce. They must be obtained either by diet or supplementation. A healthy, well-rounded diet should, for most people, provide all the essential minerals needed. Yet, deficiencies do occur. Not only are some minerals difficult for the body to absorb — for example, intestines may only absorb 0.4–2.5% of chromium from food — other factors like one’s pre-existing health issues (obesity, for example), genetic make-up, poor quality foods, or exposure to environmental toxins, may contribute to deficiencies. To aid absorption, minerals are sometimes bound to other compounds like amino or organic acids; these chelated minerals may be better absorbed by the body, as some studies have suggested. Minerals that are understood to be more challenging for the body to absorb include calcium, iron, magnesium, and potassium. 

Minerals affect and are necessary for a wide range of vital functions. Like iron, some are present in every cell in the body, while others are found in our blood, bones, and tissues. They carry oxygen, are part of DNA and RNA, and are required for the proper metabolism function. They help maintain acid-base balance and are needed for healthy heart function; they are vital to normal development and healthy growth for children. 

Science has divided essential minerals into two categories: major minerals (macro-minerals) and trace minerals (or micro-minerals). 

  • The major minerals (macro-minerals)
    • Calcium: Important for healthy bones and teeth; aids muscles function; important in nerve functioning, blood clotting, blood pressure regulation, and immune system function.
    • Sodium: Balances fluids in the body, aids nerve impulses & transmission; and helps muscle contraction.
    • Magnesium: Builds bones and teeth, promotes healthy blood pressure regulation & blood sugar levels, enables muscles to contract, aids nerve transmission, helps blood to clot, and promotes healthy enzyme activation.
    • Chloride: Essential to proper fluid balance and stomach acid secretion.
    • Potassium: Essential to proper fluid balance; aids never transmission; aids muscles function
    • Phosphorus: Present in all cells; vital for healthy bones and teeth; included in the system that maintains acid-base balance
    • Sulfur: Present in protein molecules.
  • The trace minerals (micro-minerals)
    • Iron: Part of a molecule (hemoglobin) found in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body; needed for energy metabolism.
    • Zinc: Present in a variety of enzymes; needed for making proteins and genetic material; promotes wound healing, normal fetal development, production of sperm, normal growth and sexual maturation, immune system function.
    • Copper: Present in a variety of enzymes; required for iron metabolism.
    • Manganese: Present in a variety of enzymes.
    • Chromium: Plays an important role in insulin action and glucose (sugar) metabolism.
    • Iodine: Helps to regulate thyroid hormones.
    • Fluoride: Involved in the growth of bones and teeth and may help prevent tooth decay.
    • Molybdenum: Present in a variety of enzymes.

Finally, a word of caution: If you (in consultation with your healthcare professional) determine you either have or are likely to have a mineral deficiency and decide to add a mineral supplement to your diet regimen, it is important to follow closely the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for that specific supplement (the RDA average amount meets the needs of about 97% of healthy adults). There can be serious side-effects associated with excessive intake of minerals leading to mineral toxicity.