What Are Micronutrients, And Why Do We Need Them?
Vitamins and minerals, also called micronutrients, are the building blocks for good health and are necessary to sustain human life. People without enough of these essential nutrients develop micronutrient malnutrition which can subsequently result in serious health consequences.
According to recent statistics over 40% of Americans do not meet the recommended levels for many micronutrients. These include vitamin D, calcium, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, thiamine, folate and magnesium. Though people only need small amounts of micronutrients, consuming the recommended amount is important.
Contents – click to jump to any subject
- Macronutrients and Micronutrients
- Vitamins and Minerals
- Nutrients for Health
- Sources of Micronutrients
- Factors to Consider
Macro and Micro Nutrients
When people talk about health and nutrition, they most commonly discuss macronutrients. These are the carbohydrates and fats that provide the calories to fuel your body, as well as the proteins that compose the physical components needed to build muscle. In general, you can think of macros as the source of energy for your body. These are called macros, because indeed, they are needed in larger quantities in order to keep you going each day.
On the other hand, micros are needed in much smaller quantities. However, this does not mean they are not important. In fact, they are the keys to the metabolic processes that distribute this energy and keep the body running efficiently. Some vitamins and minerals even have antioxidant properties. Consequently, they work to prevent oxidation in the body, lowering the risk of cancers and inflammation. We’ll review more of the benefits of micronutrients in a bit.
VITAMINS VS MINERALS: What is the difference?
Minerals and vitamins are both micronutrients. Although they do not contain calories, they play an essential role in supporting daily activities and maintaining proper bodily functions. They both are vital to various aspects of good health. The main difference between these two categories of micronutrients is their source.
Vitamins are organic compounds naturally produced by plants and animals, and are present in small amounts in natural foods. There are 13 recognized vitamins. Most come from food you eat because the body either doesn’t produce them or produces very little. There are two kinds of vitamins: fat-soluble and water-soluble. Vitamins A, D, E and K are fat soluble and can be stored in the bodies fatty tissue and liver. Vitamin C and the various B vitamins are water soluble. These vitamins do not stay in the body for long and cannot be stored. Because of this, people need a more regular supply of water-soluble vitamins.
Minerals, on the other hand, are inorganic. This means they are not produced by living organisms. Rather, they are found in soil and water, and must be absorbed or otherwise ingested by plants and animals. Because they are not easily broken down by nature, they are transferred to you in the foods you eat. This also means they retain their structure even as your body uses them. They are found in our blood, bone, and other tissues. In some cases -such as iron- they may be found in every living cell of the body. They carry oxygen and carbon dioxide, and are part of our DNA and RNA. Like vitamins, they are a necessary component of metabolism.
Nutrients For Health
The energy to support the body’s metabolic process is derived from the food we eat. Therefore a poor quality diet can contribute to feelings of fatigue and/or lowered cognitive function. Certainly, these are clear signs that you may be deficient in essential nutrients. Depression, a compromised immune system, and imbalances between neurotransmitters and hormones are other side effects of low nutritional status.
The body uses macronutrients -carbohydrates, fat, and protein- to produce ATP (adenosine triphosphate). Subsequently, this “the molecular unit of currency” aka energy, is used to power all of our body’s actions. The process of producing ATP requires an ample supply of micronutrients that act as coenzymes and cofactors for reactions to occur. So when these nutrients are absent, imagine the effects it will have on your nervous system. It would be like having fuel in the tank, but no way to pump it into the engine. Or maybe fuel can get to the engine, but then a lack of micros prevent the engine from running properly. In any case, the complex machine that is your body cannot operate without both fuel and catalyst. Below are some examples of how specific vitamins and minerals impact well-being.
EXAMPLES OF MICRONUTRIENT FUNCTIONS IN THE BODY
Iron is critical for motor and cognitive development. Lack of it is the leading cause of anemia.
Supports healthy eyesight and immune system functions.
B vitamins Are necessary for the body to breakdown glucose from carbohydrates and transform it into ATP as well as many other benefits.
Is necessary for the healthy mineralization of bone by helping the body absorb calcium. Vitamin D also helps the immune system resist bacteria and viruses, and is required for muscle and nerve functions.
Is necessary for the synthesis of the energizing neurotransmitters dopamine and noradrenaline. Vitamin C also contributes to collagen production, wound healing and bone formation.
Effects hormone release and the breakdown of glucose for energy.
Its antioxidant activity helps prevent against oxidative stress, an issue that increases the risk of inflammation and various diseases.
Helps to make various proteins that are necessary for blood clotting and the building of bones.
Promotes immune functions and helps people resist infectious diseases. Further, it effects neurons and hormones that regulate brain activity.
AILMENTS DUE TO MICRONUTRIENT DEFICIENCIES
This list is not all-inclusive. However, it serves as an example of the common sicknesses that can occur when one is deficient in certain vitamins and minerals.
|Missing/Lacking Micronutrient||Deficiency Disease|
|Vitamin A||Impaired vision, Blindness|
|Vitamin B12||Megaloblastic Anaemia, Impaired Brain Function|
|Vitamin D||Rickets, Bone Loss, Muscle Weakness|
|Iodine||Goiter, Mental Slowness|
|Magnesium||Muscle Cramps, Fatigue|
Natural Sources of Essential Micronutrients
Here is a quick list of some of the vitamins and minerals discussed along with a few good food sources of each. As always, it is important to obtain the micronutrients through your diet before reaching for a supplement.
|These Micronutrients…||Can Be Found In…|
|Water Soluble Vitamins|
|B-1 (Thiamine)||Ham, Soymilk, Watermelon, Acorn Squash|
|B-2 (Riboflavin)||Milk, Yogurt, Cheese, Whole and Enriched Grains And Cereals|
|B-3 (Niacin)||Meat, Poultry, Fish, Fortified and Whole Grains, Mushrooms, Potatoes|
|B-5 (Pantothenic Acid)||Chicken, Whole Grains, Broccoli, Avocados, Mushrooms|
|B-6 (Pyridoxine)||Meat, Fish, Poultry, Legumes, Tofu and Other Soy Products, Bananas|
|B-7 (Biotin)||Whole Grains, Eggs, Soybeans, Fish|
|B-9 (Folate / Folic Acid)||Fortified Grains and Cereals, Asparagus, Spinach, Broccoli, Legumes, Oranges|
|B-12 (Cyanocobalamin)||Meat, Poultry, Fish, Milk, Cheese, Fortified Soymilk And Cereals|
|Vitamin C||Citrus Fruit, Potatoes, Broccoli, Bell Peppers, Spinach, Strawberries, Tomatoes, Brussels Sprouts|
|Fat Soluble Vitamins|
|Vitamin A||Beef, Liver, Eggs, Shrimp, Fish, Fortified Milk, Sweet Potatoes, Carrots, Pumpkins, Spinach, Mangoes|
|Vitamin D||Fortified Milk and Cereals, Fatty Fish|
|Vitamin E||Vegetables Oils, Leafy Green Vegetables, Whole Grains, Nuts|
|Vitamin K||Cabbage, Eggs, Milk, Spinach, Broccoli, Kale|
|These Micronutrients…||Can Be Found In…|
|Calcium||Yogurt, Cheese, Milk, Salmon, Leafy Green Vegetables|
|Magnesium||Spinach, Broccoli, Legumes, Seeds, Whole-Wheat Bread|
|Potassium||Meat, Milk, Fruits, Vegetables, Grains, Legumes|
|Sodium||Salt, Soy Sauce, Vegetables|
|Chromium||Meat, Poultry, Fish, Nuts, Cheese|
|Copper||Shellfish, Nuts, Seeds, Whole-Grain Products, Beans, Prunes|
|Iodine||Iodized Salt, Seafood|
|Iron||Red Meat, Poultry, Eggs, Fruits, Green Vegetables, Fortified Bread|
|Manganese||Nuts, Legumes, Whole Grains, Tea|
|Selenium||Organ Meat, Seafood, Walnuts|
|Zinc||Meat, Shellfish, Legumes, Whole Grains|
Snapshot of Vitamins and Minerals
Some vitamins and minerals are needed in smaller amounts. However, others are necessary in larger amounts. And amounts will vary during a person’s lifespan and circumstances. Scientists have identified three major categories that increase risk of a nutritional deficiency. All need to be considered when reviewing your needs and whether or not to supplement your diet.
Certainly there are many aspects of our daily living that negatively impact the useful nutrients we consume and and can efficiently process. However, if we are aware of them, we can account for them accordingly. For example, these include:
- Restrictive diets, especially low calorie diets or those that limit macronutrients. (vegetarian / vegan diets)
- Regular high-volume athletic training.
- Chronic work and family stress combined with unhealthy food choices.
- Excessive coffee consumption.
- Smoking or excessive alcohol and drug use.
Related to changing physiological needs that either increase nutrient requirements, reduce absorption of nutrients, or both. For instance, when we are younger, our bodies are more readily able to absorb and utilize vitamins and minerals. Conversely, when older, our bodies may not be able to produce various micronutrients as needed.
An example of a life-stage factor to consider when deciding which supplements may be best for you:
CoQ10, also known as ubiquinone, is a naturally occurring compound found in our bodies and many foods we eat. It is highly concentrated within the heart, liver, kidneys and pancreas and is also found in smaller amounts throughout the rest of the body, including muscle tissue. CoQ10 acts as a powerful antioxidant and plays a significant role in energy processing and conversion, metabolism, and cellular growth and maintenance .
After the ages of 25-30, we start to lose our levels of CoQ10 and our mitochondria risk becoming less efficient. Similarly, if you are very active and moving a lot, you may risk tissue depletion of CoQ10. A supplement may help you maintain the appropriate level of this enzyme to support your metabolic function.
Individuals with underlying diseases tend to have higher levels of inflammation and may take medications that deplete nutrients. They may also suffer from reduced absorption of nutrients. For example, people with gastrointestinal disorders (celiac disease, Crohn’s disease or IBS) are at high risk for nutrient depletion.
However, many of the above factors can be countered with improving the composition of the diet and supplementation. Consult with your doctor or specialist when determining what supplementation is necessary for your situation.
A BIT ABOUT MULTIVITAMINS
Choosing a multi-vitamin is not a quick fix solution and in most cases is not necessary. The process of fitting many different nutrients into a single capsule is a complicated chemical process. Unfortunately, many supplement manufacturers cut corners such as using cheap, inactive ingredients. These are poorly absorbed by the body, so consequently end up being eliminated through the urine. It is essential to understand where you stand and what you require.
In conclusion, when considering whether to supplement with micronutrients (or pretty much anything) it is important to consider your lifestyle and life stage factors. In order to be effective, the process should be ongoing. Supplementation should be altered depending on where you are in life and what you need at that time. But ultimately, the use of supplements can be a great support when passing through challenging phases of life. And further, it can help keep your body on track when your diet alone cannot.
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