Minerals are pure inorganic elements (containing atoms of the same element), meaning they are much simpler in chemical form than vitamins. Minerals are constituents of your bones, teeth, soft tissue, muscles, blood and nerve cells. They act as catalysts (think of how a match has to strike the side of the matchbox, to ‘catalyse’ a reaction which ignites the match) for many biological reactions within the body and are important in the production of hormones. All vitamins are essential or required by our bodies, but not all minerals are absolutely essential nutrients. Vitamins are more vulnerable to heat, light, and chemical agents, so cooking, food preparation, processing, and storage must be appropriate to preserve vitamins in food. Minerals, on the other hand, tend to be more stable to food preparation, but mineral loss can occur when they are bound to other substances in foods (such as oxalates found in spinach and tea, and phytates found in legumes and grains), making them unavailable for the body to utilise. I typically find that the ‘hot-drink’ people, those who consume tea and coffee regularly throughout the day, tend to be more trace-element deficient than those who drink herbal tea or water.
Minerals are categorised as either major or macro- (calcium
, phosphorus, potassium
, sodium, chloride, magnesium
, and sulfur), and trace or micro- (iron
, and manganese
) minerals, the former needed in quantities of 100mg per day or more, and the latter required in much smaller, or “trace,” amounts, and in some cases on micrograms are required. These 19 essential minerals also play vital roles in the body, such as calcium and boron in osteoporosis prevention and iron (iron-deficiency) for anemia prevention; and, they can be found in the body dissolved in body fluids as ions and/or are part of important compounds, such as calcium and phosphorus and boron found in bones and teeth.
Here are some quick links that will take you to different pages of interest:
- Plays a role in maintaining strong bones.
- Affects calcium and magnesium metabolism.
- Builds strong bones and teeth.
- Involved in nerve transmission and muscle contraction.
- Key component of glucose tolerance factor (GTF), works with insulin to regulate blood sugar levels & proper metabolism of carbohydrates.
- Essential for red blood cell formation and haemoglobin synthesis.
- Involved in many enzyme systems including superoxide dismutase.
- Required for proper functioning of thyroid gland and the
- Production of thyroid hormones.
- Prevents anaemia, is a constituent of haemoglobin, transports oxygen throughout the body
- Required in many enzyme systems, especially those involved in energy production
- Essential for proper and regular heartbeat, nerve transmission
- Constituent of bones and teeth
- An important co-factor in many enzyme systems including those involved in the formation of bone
- Energy production and protein metabolism
- Required for proper growth and development
- Plays a vital role in fat and nucleic acid development
- Maintains strong bones and teeth
- Necessary for muscle and nerve function
- An electrolyte required to maintain proper fluid balance, proper heartbeat and nerve transmission
- An important antioxidant, constituent of glutathione peroxidase
- Helps to protect Vitamin E
- Required for proper bone structure and growth
- A component of insulin, required for correct blood sugar control
- Required for proper taste and hearing
- Important for wound healing and many enzyme activation pathways
We need minerals, our diet simply doesn’t deliver the nutrition gram for gram than it did even 50 years ago, and according to countless scientific research papers, our levels of essential minerals are continuing to decline year after year. Many of us may perhaps be aware of the ‘eat beef’ campaign on the TV, designed to get more iron into our diets. It is a known fact that almost 20% of women in this country are iron deficient. But what about manganese or molybdenum? I find that many people lack sufficient levels of these important trace elements in NZ. We all know about the selenium deficiencies in our NZ soils, but what about cobalt or iodine?
What minerals do you really need to take……for yourself?
Well, first of all, we need to know what your normal level of minerals should be. And secondly, we need to analyse what your existing levels are. Sounds simple, but neither of these two steps is easy. How can we analyse your existing levels? And what exactly do we analyse to come up with the level of minerals in your body?
Well, if you visit your qualified naturopath, he or she should be able to pick up on deficiencies. Your practitioner may want to look at your tongue, nails, skin, eyes, and ask you lots of questions. All this will help to determine what your core mineral deficiencies are, such as zinc, iron, calcium, magnesium, and more. But what about the elements that are much more difficult to determine, such as molybdenum?
Tissues to sample mineral determination
In clinical practice, there are only a few types of tissues (or parts of your body) that we can sample relatively easy, without causing you excessive pain or cost. Many tissues such as bone or teeth would be clearly to destructive and painful for normal or frequent sampling.
Magnesium determination – an example of the complexity
Let’s say you want to accurately assess your magnesium (Mg) levels for instance. With kidney dysfunction, Mg is typically lower (retained) in the urine, but higher in the blood (serum). But what about the Mg levels in your other body tissues such as such as the bones or connective tissue? Perhaps we should take several tissue samples from you, blood, skin, bone, and combine them all?
According to Dr. Alan Gaby, an American Mg expert, a 24-hr urine collection level is considered to be the gold standard for Mg determination. With some folk, Mg levels are extremely difficult to determine accurately, (remember the hot-drink people?) whole blood and blood cell levels are more indicative for instance, than urine or hair levels. A bit of this and a bit of that, mind you, it is generally not worth testing for Mg anyway, it is one of the most easily excreted minerals for those under ANY type of stress! We could all generally do with a bit extra of this extremely important major mineral on a daily basis.
Interestingly, some mineral studies have been done on teeth of 7yr olds, but it has been found that these studies are not useful or practical in general terms. Besides, they can only be done once or twice in a person’s lifetime.
Some American laboratories have done extensive testing on toe nail clippings, I can remember reading in a journal some years back that this is a particularly good way of determining the level of selenium and also certain heavy metal concentrations (arsenic) in the human being. Low levels of selenium in toenails have been linked with an increased risk for having worn out knee joints, according to a recent study. Much more research, however, is required in this field.
Many people have their urine analysed, claiming that they can determine all their nutritional needs from it. It must be remembered, urine is a waste product from the body, and the many and complex compounds contained in this waste substance serve to tell us more about what the body has retained, as well as wasted, rather than what the actual body stores of minerals are. There are many urine tests available, but once again, one needs to be conversant in biochemistry to determine what the accurate picture is here too.
Blood is a very complex fluid. There are a number of different cells, white, red, proteins, small organic molecules, and much more. Results can vary widely here, depending on the analytical techniques used. A number of minerals have been shown to be of doubtful value when determined in the blood. These include zinc, copper, selenium, chromium, and heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium and arsenic. Zinc, for example can bind to a protein (metallothionein) which can falsely increase or decrease this element in both a hair analysis or blood-test. The same goes for copper.
Hair is a complex substance as well, and is mainly compromised of protein. This protein structure contains a lot of the sulphur containing amino acids, (which is why it smells so bad when it burns!) which readily bind to minerals in your blood stream. Your scalp is richly supplied with blood, and as your hair follicles (bathed in this blood) grows out of your scalp, it takes with it the minerals, trace elements and even heavy metals which have been circulating in the blood. A hair sample, is generally a much more stable medium than blood, is more easily (and painlessly!) taken as a sample, and also costs much less than a blood test.
A serum (blood) based Mg test can run into a few hundred dollars, and this price is for one mineral element alone! Hair levels also yield higher concentrations of elements, blood is a ‘snapshot’ of what is going on in your body in a few hours prior to the sample being taken, whereas a Hair Analysis will give you up to a three month trend, a longer picture, of what is actually happening in your body in terms of mineral (and toxic element) accumulation.
With the major minerals, such as Mg, Ca, K, and Na, a Hair Analysis will give you trends or patterns of dysfunction, and not the actual high or low levels themselves of these elements in your body. The key is to understand essential element biochemistry to really get the most out of a Hair Analysis. And this is a trap for the many who have a Hair Analysis done, with some people using this excellent functional test like a ‘cook-book’. Low selenium? I’ll take 200mcg per day, Low calcium?, I’ll take 2000mg per day. Stop please, this is not the correct way to go about it. A Hair Analysis was not designed to be used as a stand-alone “diagnostic” tool.
I have been testing hair in clinical practice now for 11 years, and find it an extremely useful way of determining a persons level of mineral, trace element as well as toxic element accumulation. In the future, I would like to share with you some very interesting case studies. If you are interested in Hair Analysis, you may want to approach your health-care practitioner about this most useful mineral determination tool. Who knows, it may even uncover a major deficiency or toxicity which could be underpinning a health problem that you (or your doctor) have been struggling to come to terms with for a number of years. But please consult your qualified health-care professional before interpreting any test, and particularly before you take any vitamin or mineral based on the results.Last Page Update: 20 May 2011
- Schroeder HA. The Trace Elements and Man. Devin-Adair, New Greenwich (CT), 1973
- Dietary guidelines in The Weston A. Price Foundation brochure. Weston A. Price Foundation, Washington, 1999
- Nielsen F. Trace Minerals. In Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease, 8th ed. Lea & Febiger, Phil.,1994:269-286
- Thiel RJ. Mineral salts are for plants, food complexed minerals are for humans. ANMA Monitor 1999;3(2):5-10
- Cunnane SC. Zinc: Clinical and Biochemical Significance. CRC Press, Boca Raton (FL),1988
- World Health Organization Expert Committee: Trace Elements in Human Nutrition, WHO Tech. Rep. Ser. 1973; 532
- King JC, Keen CL. Zinc. In Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease, 9th ed. Williams & Wilkins, Balt., 1999:223-239
- Jenkins DJA, Wolever TMS, and Jenkins AL. Diet Factors Affecting Nutrient Absorption and Metabolism. In Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease, 8th ed. Lea and Febiger, Phil.:583-602, 1994
- Malnutrition in hospitals in Britain. McWhirter & Pennington British Medical Journal 1994;308:945-8
- Vitamins for chronic disease prevention in adults: clinical applications. Fletcher RH, Fairfield KM. JAMA. 2002;287(23):3127-3129
- Toenail selenium and osteoarthritis determination http://www.macleans.ca/topstories/health/article.jsp?content=20051205_114334_4272