11 Minerals and shocking associated body functions

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1. Calcium

Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body. Ninety-nine percent of the body’s calcium is in the bones and teeth. Calcium is an integral part of bone structure, necessary to create a rigid frame to hold the body upright and for movement.

Calcium in the bones also serves as a bank from which the body can withdraw calcium to compensate for low intakes. The remaining 1% of the body’s calcium is in the body fluids, where it helps regulate blood pressure and muscle movement.

The body needs calcium for healthy bones. Bones are gaining and losing minerals continuously in an ongoing process of remodeling. Calcium forms crystals on a matrix of the protein collagen. This process is called mineralization.

During mineralization, as the crystals become denser, they give strength and rigidity to the bones. Most people achieve a peak bone mass by their late 20s, and dense bones best protect against age-related bone loss and fractures.

Calcium is important at all life stages, and most especially during periods of linear growth, infancy, childhood, and puberty, as well as pregnancy and lactation. Calcium in the blood helps to maintain normal blood pressure.

Calcium is also involved in the regulation of muscle contraction, the transmission of nerve impulses, the secretion of hormones, and the activation of some enzyme reactions.

The primary sources of calcium

Milk and milk products, small fish (with bones), calcium-set tofu (bean curd), and legumes, spinach, Chinese cabbage, kale, broccoli.

Bioavailability of calcium

Calcium absorption by the body is enhanced by the presence of vitamin D and decreased in the presence of oxalic and phytic acids in foods.

Thus, foods with high content of calcium that are also rich in oxalic acid (e.g., spinach, sweet potatoes, rhubarb, and beans) or phytic acid (e.g., seeds, nuts, grains) will result in lower absorption of calcium compared to foods with no inhibitors, such as milk and milk products. Diets high in sodium or phosphorus (e.g., cola beverages) also negatively affect calcium levels in the bone.

Because calcium is critical to muscle contraction and nerve impulses, the body tightly regulates blood calcium levels. If calcium intake is low, the body will draw on calcium in the bones. Poor chronic intake of calcium results in osteomalacia, in which bones become weak owing to a lack of calcium.

Insufficient calcium in bones can also result from an inadequate supply of vitamin D, which is essential for the absorption of calcium and its deposition in the bones. Thus, adequate calcium and vitamin D intake is vital for bone integrity and for bone growth.

2. Magnesium

More than half the body’s magnesium is found in the bones, where it plays an important role in the development and maintenance of bone. Much of the rest of the mineral is found in the muscles and soft tissues, with only 1% in the extracellular fluid. Bone magnesium serves as a reservoir for magnesium to ensure normal magnesium blood concentrations.

Magnesium is involved in more than 300 essential metabolic reactions such as the synthesis of our genetic material (DNA/RNA) and proteins, in cell growth and reproduction, and in energy production and storage. Magnesium is important for the formation of the body’s main energy compound adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Our cells need ATP for all their processes.

The primary sources of magnesium

Nuts, legumes, whole grains, dark green vegetables, and seafood.

Bioavailability of magnesium

Magnesium absorption will decrease in diets with low intakes of protein. As with calcium, foods high in fiber that contain phytic acid will also decrease the absorption of magnesium.

Magnesium deficiency in healthy individuals who are consuming a balanced diet is quite rare because magnesium is abundant in both plant and animal foods and the kidneys are able to limit urinary excretion of magnesium when intake is low.

Severe magnesium deficiency (hypomagnesemia) can impede vitamin D and calcium homeostasis. Certain individuals are more susceptible to magnesium deficiency, especially those with gastrointestinal or renal disorders, those suffering from chronic alcoholism, and older people.

Magnesium toxicity is rare. The upper limit of magnesium can only be exceeded with non-food sources such as supplements or magnesium salts.

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3. Phosphorus

About 85% of phosphorus in the body is combined with calcium in the bones and teeth. In all body cells, phosphorus is part of a major buffer system (phosphoric acid and its salts).

Phosphorus is also part of DNA and RNA, which are essential components of all cells. Phosphorus assists in energy metabolism in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). The ATP molecule uses three phosphate groups to do its work. Many enzymes and B vitamins become active only when a phosphate group is attached.

Lipids found in the cell walls also use phosphorus. These phospholipids give cells their fluid structure, which is necessary for the transport of compounds into and out of cells.

The primary sources of phosphorus

Phosphorus is found naturally in many foods. Animal-source foods such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and milk are excellent sources, as are sunflower seeds.

Bioavailability of phosphorus

Phosphorous is absorbed well from most foods, especially animal-source foods. In plant seeds containing phytic acid/phytate, only 50% of the phosphorus is available for humans. Individuals who consume large amounts of dairy products or cola beverages have higher intakes of phosphorus, which may interfere with calcium metabolism.

Because phosphorus is so widespread in food, dietary phosphorus deficiency is seen mostly in cases of malnutrition, anorexic individuals, or alcoholics. Symptoms of phosphorus deficiency are poor appetite, anxiety, and irritability. In children, phosphorus deficiency may manifest as decreased growth and poor bone and tooth development.

4. Potassium

Potassium is the body’s principal positively charged ion (cation) inside our cells. Its major role is to keep us alive. Potassium is essential for the maintenance of normal fluid and electrolyte balance, enzyme reactions, cell integrity, and muscle contraction. Potassium and sodium are pumped across the cell membrane, a process that drives nerve impulse transmission.

The potassium found in natural, unprocessed foods is often linked to an organic anion (e.g. citrate). Organic anions play an important role in buffering the acids produced by the body in metabolizing meats or protein-rich foods. These acids can demineralize the bone and increase the risk of kidney stones.

The primary sources of potassium

Fruits and vegetables, especially vine fruits (tomato, cucumber, zucchini, eggplant, pumpkin), leafy greens and root vegetables, grains, meat, and legumes.

Moderate potassium deficiency is linked to increases in blood pressure, increased risk of kidney stones, bone demineralization, and stroke. Certain types of diuretics (e.g., thiazide diuretics or furosemide), alcoholism, severe vomiting or diarrhea, overuse or abuse of laxatives, anorexia nervosa or bulimia, magnesium depletion, and congestive heart failure (CHF) are associated with a higher risk for potassium deficiency.

Potassium toxicity does not result from overeating foods high in potassium but can result from overconsumption of potassium salts or supplements (including some protein shakes and energy drinks) and from certain diseases or treatments.

5. Chromium

Chromium is an essential mineral that participates in the metabolism of glucose and fats. Like iron, chromium assumes different charges. Cr3+ is the most stable form and is commonly found in foods; other Cr charges, like Cr6+, are toxic. Chromium helps maintain blood glucose levels by enhancing the activity of the hormone insulin.

The primary sources of chromium

Chromium is found in egg yolk, whole grains, high-bran cereals, green beans, broccoli, nuts, and brewer’s yeast.
Diets rich in simple sugars may actually increase urinary excretion of chromium due to enhanced insulin secretion.

Bioavailability of chromium

The low pH of the stomach enhances chromium availability. Vitamin C enhances chromium absorption.

Chromium deficiency in humans is very rare. Cases of chromium deficiency have been described in a few patients on long-term intravenous feeding who did not receive supplemental chromium in their intravenous solutions.

6. Copper

Copper is a constituent of several enzymes. Copper-dependent enzymes transport iron and load it into hemoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen through the blood. Copper-dependent enzymes release energy from glucose; provide a natural defense against free radicals that damage the body; manufacture collagen (required by skin and bone); inactivate histamine, which is responsible for allergic reactions; and degrade dopamine into a neurotransmitter so cells can “talk” to each other.

The primary sources of copper

Seafood, nuts, whole grains, seeds and legumes, and organ meats (offal).

Bioavailability of copper

Copper absorption depends on copper intake; absorption rates are approximately 50% when intakes <1 mg/day (which is about the recommended intake for adult males). High iron intake may lower the absorption of copper.

Copper deficiency in healthy humans is very rare. However, those at risk for copper deficiency are individuals with a rare genetic disorder, Menke’s disease, children who are malnourished, those with prolonged diarrhea, or who are fed only cow’s milk. Because copper is needed to transport iron, clinical signs of copper deficiency include anemia.

Other clinical signs are osteoporosis and other abnormalities of bone development, loss of pigmentation, neurological symptoms, and impaired growth. Excessive intakes of copper from foods are unlikely.


7. Fluoride (Fluorine)

Fluoride is present in soils, water supplies, plants, and animals. Fluoride is critical for healthy teeth and bones. Only a trace of fluoride is found in the body, but even at these tiny amounts, the crystalline deposits of fluoride result in larger and stronger bones and make teeth more resistant to decay.

The primary sources of fluoride

Drinking water (if fluoride-containing or fluoridated), tea, and seafood (especially if eaten with bones).

Bioavailability of fluoride

Fluoride bioavailability from water and dental products is very close to 100%. Calcium may reduce the absorption of fluoride by 10–25%.

In humans, the only clear effect of inadequate fluoride intake is an increased risk of dental caries (tooth decay) for individuals of all ages. Too much fluoride can damage the teeth, causing fluorosis.

Teeth develop small white specks and in severe cases, the enamel becomes pitted and permanently stained. Fluorosis only occurs during tooth development and cannot be reversed, making its prevention a high priority.

8. Iodine

Traces of the iodine ion (called iodide) are indispensable to life. Iodide is an integral part of the thyroid hormones that regulate body temperature, metabolic rate, reproduction, growth, blood cell production, nerve and muscle function, and more.

By controlling the rate at which the cells use oxygen, these hormones influence the amount of energy released when the body is at total rest. Most (70-80%) of the body’s iodine is found in the thyroid.

The primary sources of iodine

Most foods have low iodine content. Iodized salt, seafood, plants grown in iodine-rich soil, and animals fed those plants or feed containing iodine are good sources. Some foods may be sources of iodine if iodized salt is used in their preparation (e.g. bread).

Bioavailability of iodine

Normally, the absorption of iodine from foods is very high (>90%). Some foods (e.g., cassava, millet, lima beans, cabbage) contain substances called goitrogens. These substances inhibit the transfer of iodine to the thyroid gland and disrupt the production of thyroid hormones.

If foods containing goitrogens are consumed in large quantities, they may limit the absorption and use of iodine by the body. In general, most people can tolerate higher intakes of iodine from food and supplements.

Iodine deficiency has adverse effects at all stages of development but is most damaging to the developing brain. In addition to regulating many aspects of growth and development, thyroid hormone is important for myelination of the nerves, which is most active before and shortly after birth.

Thus during pregnancy, diets deficient in iodine may result in a higher risk for mental retardation. Thyroid
enlargement, or goiter, is one of the most visible signs of iodine deficiency.

9. Iron

Iron’s main role is to accept, carry and release oxygen. Most of the body’s iron is found in two oxygen-carrying proteins – hemoglobin, a protein found in red blood cells, and myoglobin, which is found in the muscle cells. Iron also serves as a cofactor to enzymes in oxidation/reduction reactions (i.e., accepts or donates electrons). These reactions are vital to cells’ energy metabolism.

Iron requirements fluctuate throughout the life course. Iron needs increase during menstruation, pregnancy, and periods of rapid growth such as early childhood and adolescence.

The primary sources of iron

Red meats, fish, poultry, shellfish, eggs, legumes, grains, and dried fruits.

Bioavailability of iron

Iron is carefully regulated by the body and absorption rates vary by the size of a person’s iron stores. The more iron-deficient a person is, the better the absorption rates. Conversely, in healthy individuals iron absorption shuts down when iron stores have been maximized.

Many factors affect the absorption of iron. Heme iron from animal-source foods is absorbed, on average, twice as well as inorganic iron (from plant sources). The absorption rates for inorganic iron are also influenced by the meal composition and the solubility of the iron form.

Factors that enhance the absorption of inorganic iron are vitamin C and animal protein. Factors that inhibit inorganic iron absorption include phytates (found in grains), polyphenols (found in teas and red wine), vegetable protein,
and calcium (which also affects the absorption of heme iron). Food processing techniques to reduce the phytate content of plant-based foods, such as thermal processing, milling, soaking, fermentation, and germination, improve the bioavailability of inorganic iron from these foods.

A lack of dietary iron depletes iron stores in the liver, spleen, and bone marrow. Severe depletion or exhaustion of iron stores can lead to iron deficiency anemia. Certain life stages require greater iron intake and if these are not met, the risk for iron deficiency is increased.

For example, pregnancy demands additional iron to support the added blood volume, growth of the fetus, and blood loss during childbirth.

Infants and young children need extra iron to support their rapid growth and brain development. Because breast milk is low in iron, infants exclusively fed breastmilk may also be at risk for iron deficiency. Similarly, the rapid growth of adolescence also demands extra iron.

Because of iron’s role in energy metabolism, depletion of body iron stores may result in reductions of the available energy in the cell. The physical signs of iron deficiency include fatigue, weakness, headaches, apathy, susceptibility to infections, and poor resistance to cold temperatures.

10. Selenium

Selenium is one of the body’s antioxidant nutrients, protecting the body against oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is a natural by-product of the body’s metabolism. Selenium also regulates thyroid hormone and oxidative reduction reactions of vitamin C.

Selenium, along with vitamin E, works to reduce the free radicals that are generated through cellular processes.

The primary sources of selenium

Selenium is found in seafood, meat, whole grains, dairy, fruits, and vegetables. The selenium content in plant food varies according to selenium soil content. Animal-source foods are reliable sources of selenium because selenium is required by animals and thus added to their feed.

Bioavailability of selenium

Selenium from food sources is highly bioavailable.

Overt selenium deficiency is very rare. Some endemic diseases in parts of Russia and China such as Keshan and Kashin-Beck disease are related to low selenium intakes.

Individuals at risk for low selenium intakes are vegans who eat foods grown in low-selenium areas. Selenium is toxic in high doses and causes loss and brittleness of hair and nails, garlic breath odor, and nervous system abnormalities.

11. Zinc

Almost all cells contain zinc and it is a vital nutrient for growth and development. The highest concentrations are found in muscle and bone. The body tightly regulates zinc levels. Stress and infections cause plasma zinc levels to fall.

Zinc participates in a variety of catalytic, regulatory, and structural functions. Zinc is a catalyst for about 100 enzymes. It is important in the structure of cell transport proteins such as vitamins A and D.

Zinc regulates gene expression; stabilizes cell membranes, helping to strengthen their defense against oxidative stress; assists in immune function; participates in the synthesis, storage, and release of insulin; interacts with platelets in blood clotting; and influences thyroid hormone function.

It is necessary for visual pigments; normal taste perception; wound healing; sperm production; fetal development; and behavior and learning performance.

The primary sources of zinc

Meats, some shellfish, legumes, whole grains, and some fortified cereals.

Bioavailability of zinc

Like iron, zinc absorption will depend on the zinc body pool, with those having poorer zinc status able to absorb zinc more efficiently in the gut. Foods rich in phytate lead to previously absorbed zinc being lost in the feces. High intakes of calcium, phosphorus, or iron also decrease the absorption of zinc. Protein may enhance the absorption of zinc.

Individuals consuming unprocessed or minimally processed diets consisting of unrefined whole grains or unleavened whole bread and little animal-source foods are at greater risk for zinc deficiency.

Zinc needs are higher in periods of growth and development, such as infancy, childhood, pregnancy, and lactation. Zinc deficiency can occur even with only modest restrictions to zinc intake.

Impaired growth velocity is the main clinical feature of zinc deficiency. Immune system functions and pregnancy outcomes improve with zinc supplementation. For example, zinc is often given as an adjunct therapy for diarrhea.


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