Micronutrients & Why They Are So Important

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We're taking a deep dive into one of the most important and essential lessons of nutrition today...micronutrients! 

What are micronutrients? Micronutrients are the essential vitamins and minerals the body needs to function. Energy metabolism, formation of cells and tissues, and enzymatic reactions all depend on vitamins and minerals, or micronutrients.

Micronutrients are components that the body needs in smaller amounts (hence micro, meaning small) than macronutrients (macro, meaning large). The macronutrients are protein, fat and carbohydrates, which we eat in our regular diets everyday. Within these macronutrients lie the micronutrients, which play an absolutely essential part of our diet and regulation of homeostasis (keeping us alive)! Protein, fat and carbohydrates cannot do their job in the body without the help of the micronutrients. The job of one micronutrient cannot take the place of another – meaning if you are deficient in even just one nutrient, disease can result. 

According to NHANES (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey) data, 96 percent of Americans do not obtain adequate micronutrients from food alone. This is a startling statistic; especially considering that majority of the food Americans eat is fortified with micronutrients. So why aren’t we getting enough? Besides the fact Americans don't generally eat enough healthy, whole, real food with high nutrient density there are a few other factors:

  • Absorption is hindered – just because we are eating a certain quantity of a vitamin or mineral, DOES NOT guarantee we are absorbing it completely, allowing us to use it in the body. Things like impaired digestion, low stomach acid, stress, sleep, drugs (prescription and over the counter), sugar in the diet, lectins and prolamins found in grain products, alcohol, pollution, and smoking can all affect absorption.

  • Soil quality – The food we eat has decreasing amounts of vitamins and minerals because it was grown in soil that was void of nutrients as well. The health of the soil that food is grown in ultimately dictates the nutrients that we end up getting from that food. A majority of the earth’s soil is degraded and is therefore void of the essential carbon needed to grow healthy, nutrient dense food. Our diets suffer as a result.

  • Food travels farther distances to get to us nowadays – If you go to your local grocery store and pick out a vegetable, you can find on the tiny produce sticker where that vegetable came from. Chances are, that vegetable traveled pretty far to get into your hands. Much of America’s food supply travels over 100 miles to get to us. What does this mean? It means our food has less nutrition. Exposure to heat, light, and air can all reduce the amount of micronutrients a food has. Micronutrients are fragile, and by the time we get our food into the kitchen, many of the nutrients that were present when the food was grown and picked, are gone.

Vitamins and minerals

There are two categories of vitamins – fat-soluble and water-soluble. Fat-soluble vitamins are stored in the body and are required in lesser amounts than water soluble vitamins. Water soluble vitamins are not stored in the body, and therefore need replenishment and are excreted if not used. I won't dive too much into these vitamins and minerals, this is meant to give a general idea on their function in the body: 

Fat-Soluble:

Vitamin A – Immune system function, supports health skin, bone and teeth.

Vitamin D - Regulates blood calcium levels, supports mood, digestion, skin, and bones.

Vitamin E – Protects cell membranes, protects red blood cells, improves vitamin A absorption.

Vitamin K1 – Assists in blood coagulation and bone metabolism.

Vitamin K2 – Helps direct calcium to bones and teeth, supports heart health.

Water-Soluble:

Thiamin (Vitamin B1) – Supports energy use from carbohydrates.

Riboflavin (Vitamin B2) – Required cofactor for energy metabolism.

Niacin (Vitamin B3) – Supports DNA replication and repair, metabolism.

Pantothenic acid (Vitamin B5) – Assists with fat metabolism, supports hormone production.

Pyridoxine (Vitamin B6) – Formation of red blood cells, supports brain health.

Biotin (Vitamin B7) – Supports energy production, supports healthy skin and hair.

Folate (Vitamin B9) – Required for DNA synthesis, cofactor for amino acid metabolism.

Cobalamin (Vitamin B12) – Assists with blood formation, supports nervous system health.

Choline – Healthy brain development, nerve function, healthy digestion.

Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) – Supports immune system function, supports collagen production, protects against free radicals.

The body can produce some vitamins on its own, in small amounts. Vitamin K and D are two examples of this. However, the body is not capable of producing any minerals on its own, and MUST obtain them from food or supplementation. (Preferably food, see below.)

Minerals:

Calcium – Keeps bones and teeth strong and healthy, essential for muscle contraction and blood clotting.

Chloride – Transmission of nerve impulses, component of stomach acid.

Magnesium – Essential for over 300 enzymatic reactions in the body, nerve function, brain health, bone health, heart health, mood, blood pressure and temperature regulation.

Phosphorus – Bone formation, proper fluid balance.

Potassium – Transmission of nerve impulses, muscle contraction, fluid balance.

Sodium – Helps regulate acid-base balance, supports nerve impulse transmission, muscle contractions and fluid balance.

Boron – Supports healthy bones, brain health, healthy inflammation levels.

Chromium – Helps regulate insulin, essential for energy metabolism, supports immune health.

Copper – Energy production, skin and hair health, healing processes, metabolism of fatty acids.

Iodine – Thyroid health, energy metabolism.

Iron – Blood production, immune function.

Manganese – Helps repair and form connective tissue, energy production, calcium absorption.

Molybdenum – Acts as a cofactor for enzymes related to the breakdown of protein.

Selenium – Prevents cell damage, supports hormone levels, acts as a protective antioxidant.

Silicon – Helps provide support for tissues and blood vessels, supports bone and skin health.

Zinc – Supports immune system health, assists in more than 100 enzyme systems, gene regulation and growth.

Micronutrients related to health

When someone is struggling with an issue related to their health – from large to small – the first thing to consider is micronutrient status. This is the first very basic premise of what nutrition as a study was based on…scientists in the late 1700s noticed diseases that were unrelated to bacterial infection and realized the foods that a person ate were able to improve health. For example, vitamin C deficiency results in Scurvy. Vitamin B1 deficiency results in Beriberi. These diseases are not common nowadays, because we have fortified foods, and we understand the importance of nutrient rich food consumption.

So should we test for all these specific nutrients to make sure we are getting adequate amounts? Not necessarily. Testing for certain nutrients is a good idea for some people, in specific situations. For example, vitamin D is a very important nutrient that many people are deficient in, and I recommended everyone get this tested. The test is affordable, traditional doctors will do it (usually), and it gives an accurate representation of the true levels in the body.

Testing other nutrients can oftentimes lead to inaccurate results, and doesn’t give a true representation of how well the nutrient is working in the body. After all, that’s what we are trying to accomplish. The most effective approach to avoid nutrient deficiency of any vitamin or mineral is to eat a variety of nutrient dense foods, and avoid things that deplete nutrients. Sometimes getting and staying healthy is not all that complex!

Can’t I just take a supplement?

Supplements can be very helpful for some people on their journey to better health. However, I generally do not encourage people rely on supplements for their micronutrient intake. I strongly recommend someone get a majority of their micro and macronutrients from high quality, real, whole foods. I encourage this for many reasons:

  • Food contains far more than just micronutrients – The foods we eat are high in nutrients, yes, but they’re also full of active food components such as phytochemicals, antioxidants, and other beneficial compounds. Nutrition is a fairly new area of study, and there is discussion surrounding the idea that there are micronutrients and compounds that exist in foods that we haven’t discovered yet. You won’t find a supplement that can offer what food does.

  • You cannot overdose on nutrients when they come from food – Supplements can be easy to overdo, and more is NOT always better. There is a dose responsive curve when it comes to micronutrients – meaning the body functions optimally when levels are in balance, not too high and not too low. Toxicity is often impossible to achieve when obtaining nutrients from whole foods.

  • Micronutrients in foods work together to enhance absorption and function – This is perhaps the biggest reason to rely on food for your micronutrients: food synergy. Nature has designed the nutrients in foods to work together, and it’s a beautiful system that offers supreme efficiency and effectiveness in the body. For example, the vitamin B2 in beef works synergistically with the zinc to enhance the absorption of each nutrient. Iron and vitamin C work together. No supplement exists that replicates this precise synergy that occurs in food.

  • Supplements often don’t have a full spectrum of nutrients and are often in unusable forms – Two common nutrients that many people are deficient in are vitamin D and magnesium. Take a look at the back of your multivitamin bottle and notice just how little of both these micronutrients are in a standard multivitamin. These supplements are giving many people a false sense of security thinking they’re getting the necessary amounts from a supplement, when in reality, they’re hardly getting any.

  • Humans eat food, not supplements. The cultural, emotional, and social benefits that come from food are unparalleled when compared to supplements. You don’t sit down to eat a family meal of pills and shakes. Thanksgiving dinner wouldn’t be the same with a plate full of supplements. Food provides us comfort, connection and contentment.

If you're concerned about your micronutrient status or want more information about how to increase your status through diet and lifestyle, get in touch with me to schedule a FREE consultation where we can talk about some of the challenges and issues you face. Call, email or comment on this post to get in touch, or if you have any questions! Thanks for reading!