Welcome back to The Micro Series!  Over the next couple of weeks, we will be highlight all the major micronutrients, meaning the vitamins and minerals.  It will be broken up into four distinct parts: the fat-soluble vitamins, water-soluble vitamins, the “macro-minerals,” and finally the other minerals.

Today we begin our focus on minerals.  Minerals differ from vitamins in a couple of ways.  First, they are inorganic compounds, meaning they do not contain carbon atoms in their molecular structure.  Secondly, they retain their structure when exposed to the elements.  There are seven minerals considered “macro-minerals,” along with a long list of trace elements.  The seven macro-minerals include magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, chloride, sodium, potassium, and sulfur. These are needed in higher amounts than the trace minerals.  However, if the trace minerals are missing, serious diseases can quickly come to fruition.  The list of trace minerals continues to grow with time, and now exceeds thirty. 

Humans get their minerals in a variety of ways.  Minerals can be taken in as salts.  While most people think of salt as table salt, or sodium chloride, a salt is simply a negatively charged atom and a positively charged atom joined together through an ionic bond.  Thus, other well-known salts exist, such as magnesium chloride, zinc sulfate, and calcium phosphate, to name a few.  These can be ingested in solid form or dissolved in solution as separate ions.  Minerals are also found in the food we eat, and incorporated into their chemical structures.  They are chelated, which is a fancy way of saying their chemical structure contains a metal ion or ions.  Common chelated compounds include hemoglobin, which contains and iron ion, and chlorophyll, which contains a magnesium ion.

Because there are so many minerals to cover, we will focus on the “macro” minerals today.

The Macro Minerals

Magnesium: roughly 65% of magnesium in the body is found in bone, and another 25% is found in muscle tissue.  Magnesium is a regulator for the absorption of calcium and is involved with maintaining bone’s structural integrity.  Magnesium helps regulate heart contractility.  It is also a smooth muscle (intestines and blood vessels) relaxer.  Therefore, it may be useful in treating patients with constipation if the dosage is correct.  Magnesium is helpful in controlling hypertension, angina, and bleeding following a stroke.  It is estimated somewhere between 60-82% of Americans are magnesium-deficient.  Deficiency can cause fatigue, irritability, weakness, muscle tightness/spasms, high blood pressure, cardiomyopathy, and nerve conduction issues.  Magnesium can be found in dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, fish, soybeans and other soy products, cereal grains, avocado, millet, oatmeal, peas, figs, and okra.

Calcium: calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body, and 99% of it is found in teeth and bone.  Vitamin D is essential for the absorption of calcium.  Calcium is absorbed through the small intestine, and is best absorbed in more acidic environments.  However, at best only 30% of ingested calcium is absorbed through the gut.  Calcium is tightly regulated in the bloodstream, and two hormones maintain its balance: parathyroid hormone (increases serum calcium levels) and calcitonin (decreases serum calcium levels).  Calcium’s primary function, as many know, is to harden bone.  However, calcium is also needed for muscle contraction, maintenance of cell membranes, and aids in transport across cell membranes.  It is also needed for proper contraction of the heart.  Deficiency in calcium can lead to osteoporosis in adults and rickets in children.  Calcium-deficient individuals may also have other symptoms, such as muscle spasms, dental diseases, insomnia, depression, and anxiety.  Calcium can be found in dairy products, seeds, yeast, dark leafy greens, okra, broccoli, rhubarb, lamb, almonds, turnips, and sea vegetables.  

Phosphorus:  80% of phosphorus in the body can be found in bones and teeth.  It is tightly regulated in the bloodstream, as it must be in balance with serum calcium levels.  Phosphorus is an essential part of phospholipids and nucleic acids.  However, its most famous function is the role it plays in the Kreb’s cycle and oxidative phosphorylation.  The Krebs is sequence of reactions by which most living cells generate energy during the process of aerobic respiration.  Oxidative phosphorylation is the process in which ATP, the body’s main source of energy.  Deficiency is uncommon with phosphorus, as Americans consume twice as much as is needed.  It is found in cheeses, ham, oatmeal, lentils, tofu, almonds, and milk. 

Chloride: chloride is a major mineral nutrient that occurs primarily in body fluids.  Chloride plays a role as an electrolyte.  Chloride is a negatively charged ion found in in the blood, where it represents 70% of the body’s total negative ion content.  Chloride also combines with hydrogen in the stomach to make hydrochloric acid.  Hydrochloric acid is needed to break down proteins, aid in the absorption of minerals, and activate intrinsic factor.  Intrinsic factor is needed to properly absorb vitamin B12.  Chloride is also needed to help balance pH levels and transport carbon dioxide out of the body.  Along with potassium and sodium, chloride works with the nervous system by aiding the transport of electrical impulses.  Deficiency of chloride is rare, but it can be life-threatening.  It leads to a state of alkalosis, with symptoms including muscle weakness, loss of appetite, irritability, dehydration, and lethargy.  Chloride can be found in table salt (known as sodium chloride), seaweed, tomatoes, celery, lettuce, and olives.

Sodium: along with potassium, these two minerals make up the majority of electrolytes found in the body.  All body fluids contain at least some level of sodium, and most is found in the extracellular fluid.  Sodium is especially important for water balance regulation and maintaining fluid levels inside and outside of cells.  It also plays crucial roles in muscle contraction/relaxation, acid-base balance, and nerve conduction and stimulation.  Sodium plays an important role in proper kidney and adrenal function.  Sodium deficiencies are rare in the American diet.  However, excessive sodium consumption can lead to high blood pressure, kidney stones, osteoporosis, and congestive heart failure.  Good sources of sodium include bone/meat broths, soy sauce, lox, and cheeses.

Potassium: along with sodium, these two minerals make up the majority of electrolytes found in the body.  They tend work in conjunction with each other in many biological reactions.  Potassium is needed for proper nerve and muscle function.  Potassium is the major electrolyte found within cells.  Potassium is vital for glycogen storage in muscles to be used as energy.  Ideally, the ratio of potassium to sodium consumption should be between 5:1 and 10:1.  Potassium deficiency can lead to muscle cramps and spasms, mental confusion, irritability, nerve conduction abnormalities, heart arrhythmias, and weakness.  Taking diuretics, COPD, and diabetes mellitus can cause potassium deficiency.  Potassium toxicity can lead to nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea with ulcers.  Good sources of potassium include many fruits and vegetables, but especially avocados, tomatoes, potatoes, and apricots. 

Sulfur: In terms of biochemistry, sulfur is found in the structure of a few amino acids.  Sulfur also plays a role in many biochemical processes.  Proteins that contain sulfur compounds are used as the building blocks of cell membranes.  Sulfur is found in gel-like substances located in connective tissues and skin.  It aids in protecting the body from infection, slowing the aging process, and defends against the harmful effects of pollution and radiation.  Sulfur can be found in animal products, milk, and the cruciferous family of vegetables.

Final Thoughts

Today we covered the seven macro minerals and the roles they play in our health.  Luckily, you can find these in a variety of different food sources.  Keep in mind, that you need all of these in sufficient amounts, as they are all needed for the body to function properly.  Luckily, there are a variety of whole-food options you can try to get all the vitamins and minerals you need, so why not get creative and try them all!

Disclaimer

Though based in research, personal, and clinical experience, the opinions in this article should not be taken as medical advice. The information is designed for educational purposes only and is not designed to diagnose, treat, or cure disease.  Botanical medicine and nutraceuticals should be treated with the same caution and care as pharmaceuticals, as both have the potential for strong, potentially adverse effects and allergic reactions. Please consult a trained, licensed health care practitioner before proceeding.  Neither the publisher nor the author takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person reading or following the information in this book. All readers, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition or supplement program.