As children, we were all reminded to drink milk to grow strong bones or to eat bananas to prevent cramping up on the soccer field. What our parents did not tell us, however, was that a variety of important minerals are crucial to our wellbeing.
Minerals are elements created in the earth that humans and animals cannot produce within their bodies. Despite our inability to synthesize these substances, they are critical to our everyday bodily function. We should get most of the minerals we need from plant and animal food sources, but sometimes we just can’t consume enough from our food. If one’s body does not have enough of certain minerals for prolonged amounts of time, he or she can develop a deficiency that can cause health problems. Luckily, many minerals can be taken as supplements and promote health in several different ways. Here are five important minerals that shoppers may be deficient in and the potential effects on their health.
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body. It is best known for its crucial role in the development of bones and teeth, where 99% of the body’s calcium is found, but it also ensures that the heart, nerves, muscles and other systems work correctly. Calcium is so important to life, in fact, that the body will demineralize and reabsorb calcium from the skeleton to combat a calcium deficiency. Continuously low levels of calcium can prevent optimal bone mass in youth and can accelerate bone loss and osteoporosis with age (1, 2).
Maintaining healthy calcium levels not only provides general health benefits, but it also has shown promise in preventing and alleviating the symptoms of certain conditions. By consuming the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of 1,000–1,200 mg per day, individuals have a lesser chance of developing osteoporosis, a condition in which the bones weaken. Those suffering from osteoporosis have an increased chance of hip fracture, one of the most serious consequences of the bone disease. Almost one-third of individuals who sustain hip fractures are in nursing homes within the year, and one in four die within that time. Hypertension is another condition that scientists have studied extensively in connection to calcium. Research has found that systolic blood pressure decreased by 0.34 mmHg and diastolic by 0.15 mmHg for each 100 mg/day increase in calcium intake.
Healthy levels of calcium are also associated with lower rates of rickets, kidney stones, premenstrual syndrome symptoms and also shows promise against colorectal cancer (1, 2).
Calcium absorption can be hindered by age, metabolic conditions, and medications, as well as the heavy consumption of alcohol and cigarettes.
It is important for shoppers to understand that several nutrients are required for proper calcium absorption and usage in the body. Protein, vitamin D, vitamin K2 and magnesium all play important roles on this front. Moreover, high-sodium and phosphorus-rich foods increase the loss of calcium in the urine (2).
With 80% of the world’s population not getting enough iron, iron deficiency is the most common nutritional disorder in the world (3–4). Iron is critical to the metabolism; 92% of the body’s iron is found in hemoglobin, red blood cells that carry oxygenated blood from the lungs to all other organs. It is also involved in the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the body’s energy source, as well as a component of hundreds of proteins and enzymes, many of which protect cells against potentially dangerous reactive oxygen species (3–4).
Low iron levels can lead to anemia, the most common symptoms of which are weakness and fatigue due to cells’ lack of oxygen. Deficiency also leads to increased lactic acid production, which contributes to decreased exercise capacity and athletic performance. Iron is also crucial to healthy immune function with responsibilities ranging from spreading T cells and creating reactive oxygen species to fight pathogens. In children, iron deficiency is linked to impaired cognitive development, low school performance, and behavioral issues, as well as lower attention, arousal, and even attention deficient–hyperactivity disorder (3–4).
Those at the highest risk of an iron deficiency are children six months to four years old, adolescents, pregnant women, vegetarians, those who exercise intensely, individuals who suffer from certain diseases or conditions, and anyone who chronically loses blood. The RDA for iron is 8 mg per day for all adults over 51 and men 19–50. However women in their child-bearing years should consume 18 mg per day. Because excess iron cannot be excreted by the body as other substances are, iron supplements should not be taken unless diagnosed as deficient (3–4).
When advising shoppers about which iron form to pick, look for those that are easy to absorb and will not cause digestive discomfort. Ferrous salts (sulfate, fumarate, gluconate, lactate, glycine, succinate, citrate and sulfate) are said to be more bioavailable than ferric salts (ferric ammonium citrate). Carbonyl iron, iron amino acid chelates and polysaccharide-iron forms may have fewer GI side effects. In addition, several liquid forms are on the market that are said to offer better absorption.
Magnesium is critical to the formation of hundreds of enzymes and is involved in several different bodily processes, including ATP formation, DNA and RNA synthesis, ion transport and cell signaling. Magnesium is also involved in building the structures of bone, cell membrane and chromosomes and helps regulate the levels of calcium, copper, potassium and other nutrients in the body. This mineral, 60% of which is found in the skeleton and another 27% in muscle, is involved in over 300 metabolic reactions (5–6).
Magnesium deficiency has been linked to certain medical conditions, but supplementation has shown promise in alleviating the symptoms of many of these conditions. Low magnesium levels have been shown to increase the risk of developing asthma, but when inhaled through a nebulizer, it can enhance the effects of asthma medicine. Some research has also found that magnesium can alleviate symptoms of hypertension. In a cohort of 28,349 women followed for 9.3 years, the risk of developing hypertension was 7% lower for those taking the highest amount of magnesium (434 mg) versus the lowest (256 mg) per day. Research studying the relationship between magnesium and type-2 diabetes also showed positive results, suggesting that raising one’s magnesium intake by 100 mg a day can result in up to a 15% decrease in diabetes risk. This mineral is also key to supporting proper bone mineral density. In one large study conducted in Norway, one’s level of magnesium intake was inversely correlated with hip fracture risk (5–6).
Symptoms of magnesium deficiency can include agitation and anxiety, sleep disorders, irritability, nausea and vomiting, abnormal heart rhythm, low blood pressure, muscle spasm and weakness and seizures (5–6).
Potassium is the positively charged ion inside of cells, and all bodily functions depend on a specific balance of potassium concentration inside and outside of the cells. Sodium and magnesium are critical to keep proper levels of potassium in cells. Potassium levels are about 30 times more inside cells than outside them, while sodium levels are 10 times lower inside cells than outside them. The concentration differences between the two minerals create an electrochemical gradient called the membrane potential that is maintain by ion pumps. Because this balance is so crucial in nerve impulse transmission, muscle contraction, heart function and the function of all cells and systems of the body, 20–40% of an adult’s resting energy expenditure goes to maintaining it (7–8).
Potassium supports bone health, but the greatest promise comes from studies about potassium’s effect on high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. In a study of over 43,000 men followed for eight years, those in the top fifth for potassium intake, consuming an average of 4,300 mg of potassium a day, were 62% less likely to have a stroke than those in the lowest fifth, taking an average of 2,400 mg per day (7–8).
The most common causes of hypokalemia are excessive loss of potassium, resulting from prolonged vomiting or diarrhea, kidney disease, metabolic absorption issues, anorexia, and congestive heart failure. Symptoms of a potassium deficiency are weakness, lack of energy, muscle cramps, intestinal paralysis and bloating, constipation, and abdominal pain, irregular heartbeat, and abnormal EKG. The RDA for adults over 19 is 4,700 mg a day, but as people get older, they run a higher risk of having too much potassium, as their kidneys become less efficient at eliminating excess (7–8).
Although only found in the body in small amounts, selenium is an essential part of many amino acids and biological functions. Selenium acts primarily as an antioxidant, fighting damaging free radicals, but research continues to discover the metabolic capabilities of selenoproteins (selenium-dependent enzymes) (9–10).
Low levels of selenium have been linked to heart disease and worsening atherosclerosis which can lead to heart attack and a stroke. Selenium deficiency is also linked with a higher risk of cancer-related deaths and research has supported that selenium may lower the risk of prostate cancer specifically (though the supplement cannot be said to cure, treat or prevent disease). A meta-analysis of over 144,000 people found that increased selenium intake was associated with a 31% lower risk of developing cancer and a 40% lower chance of cancer-related death. The effect of selenium on the immune system is currently being studied as well. Research has shown that selenium ensures optimal function of B-cell antibodies and produces t-cell immunities. Trials have suggested that Selenium can prevent viral load progression and increase immune cell count in HIV/AIDS patients who show low selenium levels (9–10). Again, the supplement cannot be used to treat or prevent any disease.
The RDA for selenium is 55 micrograms per day, but one may have a deficiency if they excessively smoke or drink alcohol, take birth control pills, or have a disease that impairs nutrient absorption such as Crohn’s. Prolonged selenium deficiency is linked to the development of fatal forms of cardiomyopathy (9–10).
Be sure to let shoppers know that mineral supplementation is a good option that should be discussed with physicians to promote general health. WF
1. University of Maryland Medical Center Complementary and Alternative Medicine Guide, “Calcium,” http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/calcium, accessed May 20, 2016.
2. Oregon State University Micronutrient Information Center, “Calcium,” http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/minerals/calcium, accessed May 21, 2016.
3. University of Maryland Medical Center Complementary and Alternative Medicine Guide, “Iron,” http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/iron, accessed May 20, 2016.
4. Oregon State University Micronutrient Information Center, “Iron,” http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/minerals/iron, accessed May 21, 2016.
5. University of Maryland Medical Center Complementary and Alternative Medicine Guide, “Magnesium,” http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/magnesium, accessed May 20, 2016.
6. Oregon State University Micronutrient Information Center, “Magnesium,” http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/minerals/magnesium, accessed May 21, 2016.
7. University of Maryland Medical Center Complementary and Alternative Medicine Guide, “Potassium,” http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/potassium, accessed May 20, 2016.
8. Oregon State University Micronutrient Information Center, “Potassium,” http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/minerals/potassium, accessed May 21, 2016.
9. University of Maryland Medical Center Complementary and Alternative Medicine Guide, “Selenium,” http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/selenium, accessed May 20, 2016.
10. Oregon State University Micronutrient Information Center, “Selenium,” http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/minerals/selenium, accessed May 21, 2016.
Paige Lazar is a freelance writer based in Mendham, NJ.
Published in WholeFoods Magazine September 2016