What are minerals?
Minerals are a form of micronutrient. This is a term we use to describe vitamins and minerals – essential things that the human body needs in order to function, but which are needed in much smaller quantities than the major food groups. We need a lot less of any vitamin or mineral than we need of protein, carbohydrate or even fat, and yet they are so important for healthy function. We often hear of minerals in conjunction with vitamins, but there is a difference between the two.
While vitamins are organic compounds, produced by living things such as plants and animals, minerals are inorganic. This means that they are found in the earth or in the water cycle and are then absorbed by plants and animals, rather than created by them. This is a very important difference because it means that we do not produce minerals for our bodies to use, so we must get them from the things we eat and drink.
What do Minerals Do?
In short, minerals help do almost everything the human body needs to do! Practically every process in the human body uses minerals in some way. They are an important part of the fluids and tissues that the body is made up of. For normal healthy nerve function, metabolism (how we obtain energy from food) and essential healing, growth and development, minerals are absolutely essential. Without them, the body could not form bone, the brain could not communicate with the rest of the body, cognitive function would decline, muscles could not function and there would be no energy to enable us to do, well, anything.
The Essential Minerals
It is generally agreed that there are around 16 minerals which are key to healthy bodily function. These include calcium, chloride, chromium, copper, fluoride, iodine, iron, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, sodium, sulfur, and zinc. Some of these are more important than others. For example, calcium is essential for bone health and for the nervous system to communicate messages from the brain. Without enough of this calcium, serious ill health can occur. Iron is another extremely important mineral. Iron is essential for the production of red blood cells which carry oxygen around the human body. Without enough of the mineral iron, there are not enough red blood cells, and this can cause all kinds of very serious health problems. Ensuring the body has enough of these crucial minerals is an important aspect of maintaining our physical health. Then there are minerals which the body only needs very small amounts of – we call these trace minerals. It is very easy to get enough of these trace minerals, and rare to be deficient in them and experience health consequences as a result.
The actual level of minerals that each of us needs will depend on a number of factors. The recommended amount of each mineral depends on the age, sex, and health of the individual. While there are guidelines on the mineral intake for a healthy adult to give an idea of how much each of us needs, it is important to realize that the actual figure will vary from person to person. For example, a child has a very different mineral requirement to an adult, and a young athletic male will have a different requirement to a pregnant woman or an elderly person. The important thing to remember is that all of the essential minerals can be delivered fully by a healthy varied diet incorporating plenty of fresh foods.
When a person does not have enough of a particular mineral, we consider this a deficiency. This might happen because of a particular health problem, an issue with the body’s ability to absorb or retain the particular mineral or as a result of not including enough of the particular mineral in the diet. A healthy balanced diet should deliver all of the minerals that we humans need for good health. However, deficiencies are not uncommon. Modern diets are often lacking in fresh produce, and so many people find themselves experiencing the symptoms of a mineral deficiency. These symptoms are wide-ranging and differ according to which mineral they are lacking. For example, low iron levels can cause pale skin, breathlessness, and fatigue. A deficiency in calcium can lead to brittle bones. Not getting enough magnesium can lead to muscle contraction issues and twitchiness, as well as sleep problems. Mineral deficiencies do not just affect the physical health of a person, they can also have an impact on the cognitive function – how well we think – and the emotional and mental health – how well we feel.
Sometimes a person experiences bothersome symptoms or is concerned that they are not able to consume a diet that is balanced enough to provide them with all the nutrition they need. It is not at all easy to attribute the symptoms to the corresponding mineral deficiency, because different people experience different symptoms. Many people find it difficult to even define what is wrong, they may simply experience tiredness, mood issues and sleep problems and put it down to stress or the normal rigors of a busy lifestyle. However, there may be a mineral deficiency at play that could be easily rectified with a supplement or a simple change to the daily diet. If there are symptoms that need to be checked out, the first step is to speak to a general family doctor or another medical professional who will be trained to recognize the warning signs of a mineral deficiency. Both vitamin and mineral levels can be quickly and easily checked using a routine blood test, and the results can be investigated further to find the root cause. It may be that the deficiency is mild and temporary, can be treated with supplements, or requires a few lifestyle changes in order to get better.
For more info on minerals, their functions in the body and how to get them from a healthy balanced diet, the University of Michigan has some great resources.
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