I often get asked whether vitamins and minerals are the same thing, and whether people should supplement with both.
Everyone talks about vitamins A through K, but it turns out minerals have a far more important role in human health than most people imagine. They’re often the gatekeeper when it comes to your body’s ability to perform complex, enzyme-dependent metabolic operations and even to access important vitamins.
Take iron. “In my practice, I saw [a lot of] females with anemia,” says Darrin Starkey, ND. “But now we’re seeing more boys with anemia as well.” Starkey, who is research director for Trace Minerals Research, Inc., points out that the reason for this surge in anemia may have less to do with iron and more to do with molybdemum.
“Molybdenum is the gatekeeper for iron stores in the liver,” said Starkey. “Without it, your liver won’t release its iron stores effectively and you could wind up with iron-deficiency anemia.”
Molybdenum is what’s known as a trace mineral (also known as microminerals). Minerals in your diet come in two categories — the macrominerals — such as calcium and magnesium — and the microminerals — such as iron, copper, manganese, and zinc. The macrominerals are the ones you need a lot of. The trace minerals are essential — but in tiny amounts. According to Starkey and many other researchers, the diminishing amounts of these minerals in our soil is causing or promoting a host of human health problems. Not all minerals (in either category) need to be supplemented, though trace minerals as a group probably should be since they’re the minerals most neglected in multivitamins. They’re also the ones that seem to be disappearing from the soil the quickest.
Don’t confuse the importance of a mineral with its value as a supplement. Some macrominerals, like sodium and chloride, are so essential you would die without them, but they’re almost never taken as supplements. Meanwhile, other macrominerals, such as calcium and magnesium, are among the most popular supplements in America.
Here’s a basic guide to what you need to know when it comes to minerals.
• Magnesium. Magnesium is needed for more than 300 metabolic operations, but almost no one gets enough of it. Magnesium lowers stress, blood pressure, and blood sugar. I recommend magnesium supplementation for almost everyone. Magnesium — like potassium — is found in vegetables, fruits, and other plant foods.
• Sodium and Chloride. Sodium and chloride — two separate molecules that often combined (as in salt) — are two of the most important electrolytes in the body, essential to balancing fluids. Almost no one needs to supplement with sodium.
• Potassium. Potassium is vitally important for your heart. And it has a symbiotic relationship with sodium: you need the two to be balanced, or to favor potassium. You need thousands of milligrams of potassium a day, and it’s next to impossible to get that amount from supplements. Virtually every plant food has a ton of potassium, so eat plenty.
• Calcium. The conventional wisdom on calcium is turning out to be only partially
true. You definitely need calcium for strong bones — but the time to make those deposits in your calcium bank are before age 25. It’s no longer clear that supplementing with calcium in middle age — particularly when not accompanied by synergistic nutrients like vitamins D and K2, magnesium, and the trace minerals boron and silica — is very effective at preventing fractures or osteoporosis.
• Phosphorus. Eighty five percent of the phosphorus in the body is found in bones and teeth. Phosphorus also helps filter waste in the kidneys and helps synthesize and absorb vitamins and minerals from food. Almost no one needs to supplement with phoshorus. Good food sources include sunflower seeds, raw milk, white beans, tuna, broccoli, and eggs.
• Sulfur. Sulfur is a mineral, naturally occurring in hot springs and volcanic craters. Sulfur does wonders for arthritis and muscle pain, and bathing in a sulfur-rich pool of water does wonders for you. Onions, garlic, leaks, and the cruciferous vegetable family contain a lot of sulfur. One supplement that people commonly take to get more sulfur in their diet is MSM (Methylsulfonylmethane).
The Microminerals (aka Trace Minerals)
- Iron: Iron is part of hemoglobin (found in red blood cells) and is needed to carry oxygen to the rest of the body. Iron is important, but you can overdo it. Women who are menstruating are usually most in need of iron supplementation. I never recommend it for post-menopausal women or men, neither of whom have any natural way to get rid of excess levels of iron.
• Zinc. This powerful antioxidant has a great deal to do with the proper immune system function. Zinc is mainly found in meats and fish. Most multiples contain at least 15 mg. Go higher when you feel a cold or flu coming on.
• Iodine. When asked about the importance of iodine, most people think of the thyroid. But most thyroid disease is Hashimoto’s Thyroidosis, an autoimmune disease, and Hashimoto’s does not respond well to iodine supplementation — in fact, it can make it worse. I recommend that you get your iodine from your diet (seaweed, kelp) and leave the supplements alone unless recommended by a health practitioner.
• Selenium. Studies have shown that populations who get a lot of selenium tend to have lower rates of cancer, which doesn’t prove anything by itself, but is worth noting. Selenium is believed to help chelate toxic compounds, such as mercury. Selenium is another of those minerals that is diminishing in the soil. You can get a great dose by eating just three Brazil nuts a day.
• Copper. Copper is found in a range of foods, from nuts and seeds and legumes to drinking water. We need copper, but more is definitely not better. Copper has a synergistic relationship with zinc and is elevated in a number of conditions, so unless a health practitioner has recommended copper supplementation, I’d go with copper-free multiples. Copper overload may be much more dangerous than we thought.
• Manganese. Manganese is an important part of many enzymes, and enzymes are critical to your metabolic machinery. Manganese is widespread in food — especially plants — and you generally don’t need to supplement. Most multivitamins have a decent amount of manganese in their formulas.
• Chromium. Chromium enhances the action of insulin (whose job it is to get sugar out of your bloodstream and into your cells). In this way, chromium works much like certain “insulin-sensitizing” medications such as Glucophage (Metformin). It helps open the doors of the cells so that insulin and sugar can get in, reducing the burden of high amounts of both blood sugar and insulin. Research on chromium supplementation, particularly for diabetics, is mixed, but chromium definitely has a place in carbohydrate/insulin metabolism. Many people have gotten good results with supplementation of 200 mcg–1,000 mcg a day. It’s next to impossible to get any real amount of chromium from food.
• Molybdenum. Molybdenum is known as a “detoxifier” because it helps cleanse the body of toxins, the accumulation of which contributes to a host of conditions. It’s also an essential part of some very important enzymes. Most folks don’t need a standalone supplement of molybdenum, which is found in legumes, greens, and other foods. Caution: eating sugar can deplete molybdenum stores.
• Silicon/Silica. Silicon helps with the maintenance and flexibility of bones and joints and helps make connective tissue stronger. When it’s oxidized (i.e., when an oxygen molecule attaches to it), it becomes silica, which is now widely called “the beauty mineral” because of its perceived positive effects on nails, hair, and skin elasticity. Silica also has a lot of internal benefits such as boosting immunity and supporting arterial health. Silicon is found in wine, beer, raisins, and a lot of cereals. It’s also found in organ meats.
• Boron. One of the most interesting articles in the medical literature about boron appeared in 2015 in the journal Integrative Medicine. In a nutshell, this neglected trace mineral — for which there still is no RDA (recommended daily allowance) — is turning out to be a nutritional powerhouse, essential to important metabolic operations. Notably, it plays an essential role in making strong bones. It’s also helpful for wound healing, boosting vitamin D levels in the blood, and the regulation of sex hormones. One of the best food sources of boron is raisins.
I asked Dr. Starkey what he thinks the take-home message about minerals should be. “All day long we’re depleting our preciously small stores of trace minerals by respiration, perspiration, menstruation, urination, and defecation,” he told me. “And they’re not being put back.”
These lesser known minerals may not be as well-known, but the show doesn’t go on without them, and it’s all too easy to not get enough of them if you don’t make an extra effort.