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Why minerals matter

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They are critical to health for many reasons, yet modern diets mean we can lack some of the most important minerals. Here’s how to ensure you’re getting enough.

There are many reasons why mineral intake is low these days, with depleted soils and poor diet being just two of the most common. You may not even know you are experiencing mineral deficiency until you reach incredibly low levels but it’s important to note just how critical they are, being involved in many functions that are necessary for health.

By way of example, let’s take magnesium, a mineral that it’s known many people are deficient in. Too low levels can lead to muscle cramps, raised blood pressure, and poor sleep. Or zinc, crucial for the immune system, can make us more susceptible to colds, as well we leave us with poor skin health.

Why we need minerals

Keeley Berry, Nutritional Expert and Product Developer at BetterYou, explained: “All minerals are important for optimal health, but the ones I would consider the most important include magnesium, zinc, iron and calcium. Each of these individually have an important contribution to human health, but they also work together, for example, it’s vital for magnesium and calcium to be present in order for the body to maximise bone health. These key minerals also serve a wide range of purposes, so it’s particularly important to keep levels up as deficiencies could cause multiple consequences.”

Alex Kirchin, Performance Nutritionist and Technical Manager at Nordiq Nutrition, added: “Of growing concern is magnesium deficiency. The evidence in the literature suggests that subclinical magnesium deficiency is rampant and one of the leading causes of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease and early mortality around the globe, with some researchers suggesting this should be considered a public health crisis.

“It seems that in western society, we are typically overfed and undernourished – in effect, we are receiving plenty of calories but lacking required levels of essential micronutrients. It is suggested that an excess of heavy metals due to soil contamination and a lack of minerals due to soil erosion also may predispose to micronutrient deficits.”

Nutritional Therapist, Natalie Lamb, Technical Advisor at ADM Protexin, which has launched Bio-Kult Mind, highlighted zinc: “The essential trace ion, zinc, participates in numerous biological processes throughout the body, and, after iron, is the second most abundant trace element. Zinc is well known for its beneficial effects on the immune system, especially for the normal development and function of all the different immune cells.

“Dietary zinc deficiency has been associated with impaired growth and development in children, pregnancy complications, and immune dysfunction with increased susceptibility to infections. Zinc contributes to normal cognitive function, so low levels could affect our cognitive abilities, such as concentration, learning, memory and reasoning, as well as resistance to stress.”

But why is it levels are low in some people?

Alice Bradshaw, Head of Nutrition Education and Information at Terranova, explained: “Many nutrition researchers have suggested that the foods we now consume contain lesser amounts of minerals than in the past due to factors such as intensive farming and soil erosion. Furthermore, many people may not meet the daily required intake on mineral-rich foods, such as vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds and quality animal produce. Habits such as smoking, and consuming alcohol, tea, coffee and soft beverages further compromise the uptake and bioavailability of many minerals.”

Could you be deficient?

Different minerals are needed for certain functions so there is no one sign you are low.

“Low zinc status can result in compromised immune health, skin issues such as acne and problems with fertility,” Alice explained, adding: “Magnesium deficiency can lead to cardiovascular health issues (including high blood pressure), sleep irregularities, PMS and menstrual cramps in women, muscle cramps and predisposition to stress.”

Keeley turned the attention on specific minerals. “Signs of deficiency can vary from nutrient to nutrient. Early signs of magnesium deficiency include nausea, vomiting, fatigue and weakness. As the deficiency progresses, it can cause numbness, tingling and cramps in the muscles and those with severe deficiencies may also notice abnormal heart rhythms and seizures,” she explained.

“As iron is essential to a vast number of processes within the body, symptoms can manifest in a number of different ways. Lack of energy, pallor and some mood symptoms might seem like obvious signs, but some are far less so. One of the strangest symptoms is the compulsion to eat non-food items, ranging from ice cubes to dirt and plaster, a condition called pica. Selenium deficiency can produce a range of symptoms, from muscle weakness, poor immune system and fatigue. Those with severe deficiencies may also experience hair loss and fertility problems.”

Supplement choice

Some people may choose a supplement, especially if they know they are lacking.

In terms of what to look for when buying a mineral supplement, Alice advised: “Generally, choose organic mineral forms over inorganic minerals forms where possible. Additionally, good formulas will have added nutrients or plant compounds that complement the mineral’s absorption and assimilation. For example, an iron supplement may contain vitamin C or vitamin C-rich botanicals, which not only enhance the uptake of iron, but also protect the body from the potential pro-oxidant effects that iron possesses.”

Looking at zinc supplementation, Natalie continued: “Commercially available supplements can contain elemental zinc bound to various compounds, such as oxide, picolinate, citrate, gluconate, sulphate, and acetate. Zinc supplementation in citrate form contains high zinc content and appears to be highly bioavailable.”

Frankie Brogan, Senior Nutritionist at Pharma Nord,  added: “Minerals can vary widely in their absorption rates (or bioavailability) and careful attention should be put on delivery form. Simple selenium supplements such as sodium selenite offer only around 50 per cent bioavailability, whereas the organically bound selenium-yeast, SelenoPrecise, demonstrates 89 per cent bioavailability.”

Keeley suggested choosing the form you take a supplement in, commenting: “High dose magnesium supplements can cause stomach cramping and diarrhoea as they travel through the digestive tract, so when choosing, consider transdermal (through the skin) magnesium therapy. This alternative method helps to avoid digestive discomfort, whilst still being able to supply the body with the nutrients it needs. When taken using traditional tablet and capsule formats, iron is another mineral that is poorly absorbed by the body and can cause gastrointestinal side effects, such as abdominal discomfort, nausea, vomiting and constipation. Alternative methods such as oral sprays are available, which offer a solution to the digestive discomfort and poor absorption experienced from these traditional ingested supplementation methods.”

Mineral breakdown

So, what are the most important minerals?

“Although a micromineral, iron is essential as it’s required for the formation of red blood cells and is vital for the transportation of oxygen around the body,” Keeley explained, adding: “Magnesium is the third most abundant mineral within the human body, and it is responsible for over 300 chemical reactions, including relieving muscle tension, improving bone and skin health, aiding muscle recovery and promoting relaxation.”

Krystina Duncan, Nutritional Advisor at supplement brand, FSC, added: “Our bodies need calcium and it’s essential in building and maintaining strong healthy bones and teeth. After the age of 25, bone density starts to decrease, but by making sure you are getting enough calcium in your diet, you can help slow down bone density loss, which is a natural part of the ageing process. Calcium is needed to regulated nerve impulse transmission and muscle contraction including that of the heart.”

Alex, meanwhile, focused on iodine. “Iodine is required for synthesis of the thyroid hormone, thyroxine – crucial for governing a healthy metabolic rate. Deficiency symptoms include goitre, hypothyroidism, and pregnancy related problems,” he explained.

Turning the focus further onto zinc, Natalie added: “Zinc participates in cell division and growth throughout the body and is essential for normal growth and development in children. The brain contains the highest concentration of zinc in the body, so it is not surprising that zinc appears to be involved in a number of critical brain functions, such as helping brain cells to communicate with one another, helping to prevent too high levels of inflammation that could cause damage to brain cells and acting as an antioxidant to help protect brain cells from oxidative stress caused by free radicals.”

Frankie emphasised the importance of selenium, commenting: “Selenium is a trace element important for proper immunity, thyroid function, fertility and even the quality of hair and nails. Perhaps more so than other nutrients, the mineral quality of the soil directly impacts the mineral status of our foods. Giving the example of selenium, UK soils are low in the trace element, resulting in low selenium in local crops and livestock. As a result, even eating a healthy, balanced diet based on local produce is likely to carry with it a risk of selenium deficiency. Recent stats show that as much as 25 per cent of men and 50 per cent of women in the UK are low in the vital element.”

How can you obtain adequate amounts through the food that you eat?

“Good dietary sources of magnesium include nuts, dark chocolate and unrefined whole grains. Eating seasonal, local, freshly prepared, whole (unrefined), preferably organic foods/sea vegetables can help optimise micronutrient (vitamin/mineral) levels,” Alex explained.

Keeley continued: “In order to have a diet rich in magnesium, it’s recommended to have a varied diet with a selection of food groups as this will also provide other essential nutrients the body needs.”

Krystina continued: “The best food source for calcium are dairy products, small fish with bones in, such as sardines, broccoli, beans, leafy green vegetables, almonds, rhubarb, tofu and foods that have been fortified with calcium like certain cereals. Heme iron is better absorbed and comes mainly from red meat (including tuna, ostrich and duck). Non-heme iron is found in plant sources, such as spirulina, spinach, lentils, pumpkin seeds, dairy, soybeans, raw cacao, potatoes and kidney beans, to name a few. It’s important to take note that calcium-rich foods can reduce the absorption of iron, whilst vitamin C-rich foods can increase absorption.”

When it comes to zinc, Natalie recommended: “The body has no mechanism for storing zinc that is not being currently used somewhere in the body, so we do need to eat some each day to keeps levels topped up. Zinc from animal products tend to be better absorbed but legumes such as kidney beans and chickpeas could be soaked overnight before cooking, and grains could be fermented as in sourdough bread to can help reduce phytate levels and improve absorption.

“Zinc bioavailability is relatively high in meat, eggs, and seafood. Fish, crab and lobster are good sources, as are dairy products such as yogurt, cheese, milk. Although still good sources, zinc is less bioavailable from whole grains and legumes due to their high phytate content. Phytate is known to inhibit zinc absorption. Nuts including cashews and almonds are good vegetarian sources too.”

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