Minerals are important for your body to stay healthy. Your body uses minerals for many different jobs, including building bones, making hormones and regulating your heartbeat.
There are two kinds of minerals: macro-minerals and trace minerals. Macro-minerals are minerals your body needs in larger amounts. They include calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, potassium, chloride and sulfur.
Your body needs just small amounts of trace minerals. These include iron, manganese, copper, iodine, zinc, cobalt, fluoride and selenium.
The best way to get the minerals your body needs is by eating a wide variety of foods. In some cases, your doctor may recommend a mineral supplement.
Plants take up minerals from healthy soils, and people get minerals from healthy plants or indirectly through eating meat. A lot of our modern foods do not have good mineral balances. There are many causes for this:
- Conventional agriculture uses chemical fertilizers that only add the major plant nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous to soils in order to make the plants grow faster. However plants extract many other minerals as well, eventually emptying the soil of such reserves. The poorer the soils are in the first place, the sooner they get depleted and crops - our food - becomes less nutritious. Unfortunately many African soils are fairly poor and depend on constant replenishment of organic matter to stay fertile and productive. Organic and sustainable agriculture technologies improve and maintain soil fertility, but such knowledge is almost getting forgotten with all the promotion of chemical agriculture.
- Essential minerals are refined out of food. Refining food to make white rice, white flour and white sugar removes up to 90% of trace minerals. This resulted in wide prevalence of the disease Beriberi before governments got wise and ordered the refined foods to have legal minimum nutrient requirement of especially calcium, iron and Vitamin B added. This is advertised on the packet as "enriched" or "with added vitamins and minerals". Requirements keep on being added as knowledge increases. This could have been avoided by not removing the nutrients in the first place, but consumers have now become used to white foods, and awareness of the health hazards of such white foods is still quite low.
- Our mineral needs are increasing. Over the last 20 years numerous samples of human blood, sweat and hair has been analysed and without exception has shown increased levels of heavy metals such as cadmium, aluminium, and mercury. These are poisonous minerals that come from pollution and act as "anti-nutrients" as they compete with essential minerals such as magnesium, zinc, chromium, manganese and selenium. Consequently the beneficial essential minerals are decreasing in the same samples. The poisonous minerals accumulate as we get older, and cause increasing health problems. We now need more "good" minerals to protect us from the toxic minerals we get through polluted air, food and water.
Percentage minerals lost in refining wheat flour
|Minerals||Percentage remaining after
removing bran and
Adapted from: P. Holford 2007
Because many of us choose to eat the white foods such as white rice, white bread, white pasta etc, where the mineral rich bran and germ has been removed, most modern human beings are mineral deficient. As an example - zinc is a mineral that is very essential for most growth processes including intelligence development. Most breast feeding mothers get only half the amount they would need in their daily food for the best development of their babies. Where does this leave our society? All above minerals are essential for our growth and development in one way or another and we do not get enough of them. No wonder diseases among people are on the increase
The Macro Minerals
Five of the minerals are present in the body in relatively large amounts, namely calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium and sodium.
Calcium - The Bone Mineral
A grown up person has almost 1.5 kg of calcium in their bones and teeth alone apart from the lesser amount needed for other body processes. Calcium is especially important in childhood when the bones are growing and in old age where we loose some of our ability to retain calcium in the bones.
The ability to use calcium depends not only on how much we eat, but also on how much is actually used by the body, which is usually only about 20-30% of the amount we eat. The calcium uptake is improved by vitamin D and by weight bearing exercises, and assisted by available levels of magnesium.
Deficiency symptoms: muscle cramps, tremors and spasms, lack of sleep, nervousness, joint pain, osteoarthritis, tooth decay and high blood pressure. Serious deficiency causes osteoporosis.
Calcium robbers: Lack of vitamin D, alcohol, coffee, tea, lack of stomach acid, high consumption of raw bran, excess phosphorous or fat in the diet, excessive protein consumption.
Good food sources of calcium: vegetables, pulses, nuts, whole grains, milk and milk products, mineral water.
Magnesium - Calcium's friend and helper
Magnesium works with calcium in maintaining bone density and nerve and muscle impulses. The average diet is relatively high in calcium, but low in magnesium, because milk - which for most of us is the main source of calcium, does not have enough magnesium. Both minerals are present in green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds. Magnesium is essential for many enzymes in the body, working with Vitamin B1 and B6. It is also involved in protein building and therefore essential for some of the hormone production.
Lack of magnesium is strongly associated with cardiovascular diseases leading to heart attacks: People who die from this cause have abnormally low levels of the mineral in their hearts. Lack of magnesium causes muscles to go into a spasm, and there is much evidence that some heart attacks are caused by cramping of the heart arteries - not by their being blocked, resulting in the heart dying from lack of oxygen.
Self help in case of heart attack: If you feel the heart painfully constricting - stop what you are doing, sit down and relax and breathe in and out deeply for some time to try and get more oxygen to your heart - until the pain eases. This simple exercise could well save your life, after which you should really get serious about eating all those good vegetables every day.
Signs of magnesium deficiency: Muscle tremors or spasms, high blood pressure, irregular heart beat, constipation, hyperactivity, confusion, calcium deposited in soft tissue such as kidney stones.
Robbers of body magnesium: Large amounts of calcium in the form of dairy products, excess intake of proteins and fats, also excess oxalates from spinach and rhubarb or excess phytate from wheat bran or bread.
Some good food sources of Magnesium: Wheat germ, brewers yeast, nuts, buckwheat flour, cooked beans, garlic, raisins, green peas, potato skin, crabs (seafood).
Phosphorus - Partner of Calcium and Magnesium
Phosphorous along with Calcium and Magnesium is used by the body to build strong bones and teeth, assisted by vitamin D and the trace mineral boron. It is needed for milk production, in building muscle tissue and for energy production. The bones are held together by a kind of glue called collagen formed by the same minerals aided by Vitamin C. The trace mineral zinc help make new bone cells. Phosphorous is also essential in protein formation including formation of the hormones steering the development of our bodies.
Phosphorous deficiency is very rare still, but as our crops grow ever less nutritious and there are warnings that climate change will lower protein content of our crops there is cause to be careful about our phosphorous reserves.
The ideal calcium:phosphorous ratio in our food is probably 1:1 meaning we need as much phosphorous as we need calcium.
Signs of phosphorous deficiency: Rickets (for more information - link to datasheet on Rickets), osteomalacia (softening of bones), bone pain, loss of appetite.
Robbers of body phosphorous: too much iron, magnesium, aluminium
Phosphorous is present in almost all whole foods, but according to the table above, 70% of the natural phosphorous is removed from white refined flour.
Sodium - for Nerve Transmission and Water Balance
We get sodium mainly in the form of sodium chloride - common table salt. A healthy human body contains about 92 grams of sodium at any one time. It plays a central role in nerve transmission and in keeping the water balance in blood and body fluids.
Sodium is usually present in small amounts in all natural foods, and has usually been added to all processed foods. So usually we get more than enough of this mineral and there is no need to add more to our food.
On the contrary there are good reasons to avoid too much salt: Too much salt is associated with high blood pressure to sensitive people (though not all of us appear to be sensitive to salt). Some salts like unrefined sea salt and Solo salt have less sodium and more potassium and magnesium. Potassium and magnesium are good news as far as your arteries and blood pressure are concerned, so if you have problems of blood pressure, and like your salt - look for those salts.
Potassium - Partner of Sodium
Potassium works together with sodium to maintain water balance and proper nerve and muscle impulses.
The more sodium (table salt) we eat, the more potassium is required, and since this mineral is not as common in our diets, deficiency is widespread.
Deficiency symptoms: vomiting, abdominal bloating, muscular weakness and loss of appetite
Potassium robbers: diuretic drugs or laxatives, long administration of corticosteroid drugs, diarrhea (caused by other agents).
Good food sources of Potassium: Fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
The Micro Minerals
Micro-minerals are all those minerals scientists have discovered we need in very small amounts. More essential (essential=necessary for life processes) minerals keep on being discovered as scientists learn more about our bodies and their life processes. The ones so far identified are iron, manganese, boron, zinc, chromium, selenium, molybdenum, copper and cobalt. The following is just a brief description of why and for what they are needed and a mention of some good food sources for each.
Iron is a component of haemoglobin - the molecule that makes blood red. This molecule helps carry oxygen to the body cells and carbon dioxide back to the lungs to be expelled when we breathe out. Iron is also part of many enzymes and necessary for energy production in the body. Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron as does vitamin E and a healthy composition of stomach acid.
Signs of deficiency: Anemia, pale skin, sore tongue, tiredness, loss of appetite, nausea.
Robbers of body iron: oxalates found in spinach and rhubarb, tea, unfermented wheat bran, antacids, soft fizzy drinks.
Good food sources of iron: Pumpkin seeds, parsley, nuts, raisins and other dried fruit, pork, sesame seeds.
Manganese helps to form healthy bones, cartilage, tissues and nerves and it activates more than twenty enzymes, stabilizes blood sugar, is needed for reproduction and formation of red blood cells and is required for brain functions. It is helped by zinc, vitamins E, B1, C and K.
Signs of Deficiency: Muscle twitches, childhood growing pains, dizziness, poor sense of balance, fits, sore knees, joint pains.
Robbers of body manganese: Alcohol, antibiotics, refined foods.
Some good food sources of manganese: Lima beans, pineapple, dark red berries, oats, beetroot, celery, watercress
Boron is part of the bone building complex, but not many other details have been found
Zinc on the other hand is well documented. It is a component of over 200 enzymes in the body, a component of our genes, it is needed for growth - not least growth of mental capacity in children, it is important for healing wounds and cell damage, to control stress, aids bone and teeth formation, helps hair have a healthy shine and is necessary for constant energy. Zinc works together with vitamins A, E and B6, magnesium, calcium and healthy stomach acid.
Signs of deficiency: Poor sense of smell or taste, white marks on more than two fingernails, frequent infections, stretch marks, acne or greasy skin, low fertility, pale skin, tendency to depression, loss of appetite. Some evidence seem to link zinc and essential fats deficiency to the more and more common childhood learning difficulties such as ADHD etc.
Robbers of body zinc: phytates (found in wheat bran), oxalates (from rhubarb and spinach), low protein intake, high sugar intake, stress. Alcohol prevents the body from utilizing zinc in food. Some good food sources of zinc: Oysters (very high level of zinc content: sometimes taken as aphrodisiacs), ginger root, lamb, other sea food, nuts, peas, whole grains and egg yolks.
Chromium is essential for normal heart functions, it helps protect our genes and keep them healthy, balances blood sugar, helps control our appetite and sufficient supply of it may improve our lifespan. Chromium is helped by Vitamin B3 and 3 amino acids - glycine, glutamic acid and cystine - to form the glucose tolerance factor (GTF), important for maintaining normal blood sugar levels.
Signs of chromium deficiency: Excessive or cold sweats, dizziness or irritability after more than 6 hours without food, need for frequent meals, cold hands, excessive needs for sleep, addiction to sweet foods.
Robbers of body chromium: High consumption of refined sugars and white flour and flour products, obesity, food additives, pesticides, petroleum products, processed foods, toxic metals Some good food sources of Chromium: Yeast, whole grains and whole meal bread, potatoes, oysters, wheat germ, chicken and eggs, green peppers, fruits and dairy produce.
Selenium is an anti-oxidant and as such helps our bodies withstand pollution and free radicals and cancer inducing chemicals. It reduces inflammation and stimulates the immune system to fight infections. It promotes a healthy heart and the activity of vitamin E which is required for the male reproductive system. It is also need for digestion of food. In all this it is assisted by vitamins A,E and C.
Signs of selenium deficiency: Family history of cancer, signs of premature aging, cataracts, high blood pressure, frequent infections.
Robbers of body selenium: Refined foods, Modern chemical farming techniques Some good food sources of selenium: Seafood, molasses, beef liver, less (which means we need to eat more to get the same amount of selenium) in fresh cheese, cabbage, courgettes and chicken.
Molybdenum helps the body get rid of the food break down products such as uric acid as well as free radicals, petrochemicals and sulphites. It strengthens teeth and may help reduce occurrence of holes in the teeth. Its function in the body is assisted by a healthy diet with good proteins, carbohydrates and essential fats.
Signs of molybdenum deficiency: Not known in people. Animals show signs of breathing difficulties and neurological disorders.
Robbers of body molybdenum: excess copper as sulphates
Some good food sources of Molybdenum: Tomatoes, wheat germ, lamb, pork, lentils, beans
Copper and Cobalt
Although essential for body functions in minute amounts, copper and cobalt rarely become deficient in the human diet. Copper is needed among other things to produce the protective coat of the nerve cells. Copper and zinc are antagonistic, which means the too high intake of zinc can lead to copper deficiency and vice-versa.
Too much copper is more frequent a problem than too little, but scientists do not seem to agree exactly what is too much or too little. Too much copper in the food can come from using copper pans for cooking, using copper pipes for water supply or any other exposure to copper.
WARNING Mineral supplements are dangerous and should not be taken without consulting a medical practioners
1. First draft compiled by Infonet and Dr Mukuhi Nganga 2009 - 2010
2. Reviewed by Alice Ndong February 2012
Information Source Links
- D'Souza RM, D'Souza R. Vitamin A for treating measles in children. COCHRANE DATABASE SYST REV. (2002);(1):CD001479.
- Holford P. (2007).New Optimun Nutrition Bible. Piatkus Books, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, 100 Victoria Embankment, London EC4Y 0DY. ISBN: 978-0-7499-2552-9
- Human Vitamins requirement; Report of Joint FAO - WHO expert Consultation (2002) - Bangkok Thailand
- Lee V, Ahmed F, Wada S, et al. Extent of vitamin A deficiency among rural pregnant women in Bangladesh. PUBLIC HEALTH NUTR. Jun 12 (2008);1-6
- Phylis A. Balch, and James F Balch, (2000). Prescription fro Nutritional healing, 3rd Edition