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Vitamins and Minerals – Essential Nutrients

Vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients for your body

Key Points

  • Vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients for you body because they perform hundreds of roles in the body.
  • Be warned: Too much is unhealthy.
  • Eating healthy remains the best way to get sufficient amounts of the vitamins and minerals you need.

With the help of vitamins and minerals your body produces skin, muscle, bones. and rich red blood daily, which carries nutrients and oxygen all over your body. It sends nerve signals skipping along thousands of miles of brain and body pathways. It also formulates chemical messengers that shuttle from one organ to another, issuing the instructions that help sustain your life.

But to do all this, your body requires some raw materials. These include at least 30 vitamins, minerals, and dietary components that your body needs but cannot manufacture on its own in sufficient amounts.

Vitamins and minerals are considered essential nutrients—because acting in concert, they perform hundreds of roles in the body. They help shore up bones, heal wounds, and bolster your immune system. They also convert food into energy, and repair cellular damage.

But trying to keep track of what all these vitamins and minerals do can be confusing. Read enough articles on the topic, and your eyes may swim with the alphabet-soup references to these nutrients, which are known mainly by their initials (such as vitamins A,B,C,D,E, and K—to name just a few).

In this article, you’ll gain a better understanding of why vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients for you body, and what they actually do in the body and why you want to make sure you’re getting enough of them.

Micronutrients with a big role in the body

Vitamins and minerals are often called micronutrients because your body needs only tiny amounts of them. Yet, failing to get even those small quantities virtually guarantees disease. Here are a few examples of diseases that can result from vitamin deficiencies:

  • Scurvy. Old-time sailors learned that living for months without fresh fruits or vegetables—the main sources of vitamin C—causes the bleeding gums and listlessness of scurvy.
  • Blindness. In some developing countries, people still become blind from vitamin A deficiency.
  • Rickets. A deficiency in vitamin D can cause rickets, a condition marked by soft, weak bones that can lead to skeletal deformities such as bowed legs. Partly to combat rickets, the U.S. has fortified milk with vitamin D since the 1930s.

Just as a lack of key micronutrients can cause substantial harm to your body, getting sufficient quantities can provide a substantial benefit. Some examples of these benefits:

  • Strong bones. A combination of calcium, vitamin D, vitamin K, magnesium, and phosphorus protects your bones against fractures.
  • Prevents birth defects. Taking folic acid supplements early in pregnancy helps prevent brain and spinal birth defects in offspring.
  • Healthy teeth. The mineral fluoride not only helps bone formation but also keeps dental cavities from starting or worsening.

The difference between vitamins and minerals

Although they are all considered micronutrients, vitamins and minerals differ in basic ways. Vitamins are organic and can be broken down by heat, air, or acid. Minerals are inorganic and hold on to their chemical structure.

So why does this matter? It means the minerals in soil and water easily find their way into your body through the plants, fish, animals, and fluids you consume. But it’s tougher to shuttle vitamins from food and other sources into your body because cooking, storage, and simple exposure to air can inactivate these more fragile compounds.

Interacting—in good ways and bad

Many micronutrients interact. Vitamin D enables your body to pluck calcium from food sources passing through your digestive tract rather than harvesting it from your bones. Vitamin C helps you absorb iron.

The interplay of micronutrients isn’t always cooperative, however. For example, vitamin C blocks your body’s ability to assimilate the essential mineral copper. And even a minor overload of the mineral manganese can worsen iron deficiency.

A closer look at water-soluble vitamins

Water-soluble vitamins are packed into the watery portions of the foods you eat. They are absorbed directly into the bloodstream as food is broken down during digestion or as a supplement dissolves.

Because much of your body consists of water, many of the water-soluble vitamins circulate easily in your body. Your kidneys continuously regulate levels of water-soluble vitamins, shunting excesses out of the body in your urine.

Water-soluble vitamins

Vitamin C

B vitamins: Biotin (B7), Folic Acid (folate, B9), Niacin (B3), Pantothenic Acid (B5), Riboflavin (B2), Thiamin (B1), B6, B12

What they do

  • Release energy. Several B vitamins are key components of certain coenzymes (molecules that aid enzymes) that help release energy from food.
  • Produce energy. Thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, and biotin engage in energy production.
  • Build proteins and cells. Vitamins B6, B12, and folic acid metabolize amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and help cells multiply.
  • Make collagen. One of many roles played by vitamin C is to help make collagen, which knits together wounds, supports blood vessel walls, and forms a base for teeth and bones.

Although water-soluble vitamins have many tasks in the body, one of the most important is helping to free the energy found in the food you eat. Others help keep tissues healthy. Here are some examples of how different vitamins help you maintain health:

Words to the wise

Contrary to popular belief, some water-soluble vitamins can stay in the body for long periods of time. You probably have several years’ supply of vitamin B12 in your liver. And even folic acid and vitamin C stores can last more than a couple of days.

Generally, though, water-soluble vitamins should be replenished every few days.
Just be aware that there is a small risk that consuming large amounts of some of these micronutrients through supplements may be quite harmful. For example, very high doses of B6—many times the recommended amount of 1.3 milligrams (mg) per day for adults—can damage nerves, causing numbness and muscle weakness.

A closer look at fat-soluble vitamins

Rather than slipping easily into the bloodstream like most water-soluble vitamins, fat-soluble vitamins gain entry to the blood via lymph channels in the intestinal wall (see illustration). Many fat-soluble vitamins travel through the body only under escort by proteins that act as carriers.

Absorption of fat-soluble vitamins

Absorbtion of Fat-Soluble Vitamins
  1. Food containing fat-soluble vitamins is ingested.
  2. The food is digested by stomach acid and then travels to the small intestine, where it is digested further. Bile is needed for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. This substance, which is produced in the liver, flows into the small intestine, where it breaks down fats. Nutrients are then absorbed through the wall of the small intestine.
  3. Upon absorption, the fat-soluble vitamins enter the lymph vessels before making their way into the bloodstream. In most cases, fat-soluble vitamins must be coupled with a protein in order to travel through the body.
  4. These vitamins are used throughout the body, but excesses are stored in the liver and fat tissues.
  5. As additional amounts of these vitamins are needed, your body taps into the reserves, releasing them into the bloodstream from the liver.

Fatty foods and oils are reservoirs for the four fat-soluble vitamins.

  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin K

Within your body, fat tissues and the liver act as the main holding pens for these vitamins and release them as needed.

To some extent, you can think of these vitamins as time-release micronutrients. It’s possible to consume them every now and again, perhaps in doses weeks or months apart rather than daily, and still get your fill. Your body squirrels away the excess and doles it out gradually to meet your needs.

What they do

Together this vitamin quartet helps keep your eyes, skin, lungs, gastrointestinal tract, and nervous system in good repair. Here are some of the other essential roles these vitamins play:

  • Build bones. Bone formation would be impossible without vitamins A, D, and K.
  • Protect vision. Vitamin A also helps keep cells healthy and protects your vision.
  • Interact favorably. Without vitamin E, your body would have difficulty absorbing and storing vitamin A.
  • Protect the body. Vitamin E also acts as an antioxidant (a compound that helps protect the body against damage from unstable molecules).

Words to the wise

Because fat-soluble vitamins are stored in your body for long periods, toxic levels can build up. This is most likely to happen if you take supplements. It’s very rare to get too much of a vitamin just from food.

A closer look at major minerals

The body needs, and stores, fairly large amounts of the major minerals. These minerals are no more important to your health than the trace minerals; they’re just present in your body in greater amounts.

Major minerals travel through the body in various ways. Potassium, for example, is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, where it circulates freely and is excreted by the kidneys, much like a water-soluble vitamin. Calcium is more like a fat-soluble vitamin because it requires a carrier for absorption and transport.

Major minerals

Calcium
Chloride
Magnesium
Phosphorus
Potassium
Sodium
Sulfur

What they do

One of the key tasks of major minerals is to maintain the proper balance of water in the body. Sodium, chloride, and potassium take the lead in doing this. Three other major minerals—calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium—are important for healthy bones. Sulfur helps stabilize protein structures, including some of those that make up hair, skin, and nails.

Words to the wise

Having too much of one major mineral can result in a deficiency of another. These sorts of imbalances are usually caused by overloads from supplements, not food sources. Here are two examples:

  • Salt overload. Calcium binds with excess sodium in the body and is excreted when the body senses that sodium levels must be lowered. That means that if you ingest too much sodium through table salt or processed foods, you could end up losing needed calcium as your body rids itself of the surplus sodium.
  • Excess phosphorus. Likewise, too much phosphorus can hamper your ability to absorb magnesium.

A closer look at trace minerals

A thimble could easily contain the distillation of all the trace minerals normally found in your body. Yet their contributions are just as essential as those of major minerals such as calcium and phosphorus, which each account for more than a pound of your body weight.

Trace minerals

Chromium
Copper
Fluoride
IodineI
ron
Manganese
Molybdenum
Selenium
Zinc

What they do

Trace minerals carry out a diverse set of tasks. Here are a few examples:

  • Iron is best known for ferrying oxygen throughout the body.
  • Fluoride strengthens bones and wards off tooth decay.
  • Zinc helps blood clot, is essential for taste and smell, and bolsters the immune response.
  • Copper helps form several enzymes, one of which assists with iron metabolism and the creation of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood.

The other trace minerals perform equally vital jobs, such as helping to block damage to body cells and forming parts of key enzymes or enhancing their activity.

Words to the wise

Trace minerals interact with one another, sometimes in ways that can trigger imbalances. Too much of one can cause or contribute to a deficiency of another. Here are some examples:

  • A minor overload of manganese can exacerbate iron deficiency. Having too little can also cause problems.
  • When the body has too little iodine, thyroid hormone production slows, causing sluggishness and weight gain as well as other health concerns. The problem worsens if the body also has too little selenium.

The difference between “just enough” and “too much” of the trace minerals is often tiny. Generally, food is a safe source of trace minerals, but if you take supplements, it’s important to make sure you’re not exceeding safe levels.

A closer look at antioxidants

Antioxidant is a catchall term for any compound that can counteract unstable molecules such as free radicals that damage DNA, cell membranes, and other parts of cells.

Your body cells naturally produce plenty of antioxidants to put on patrol. The foods you eat—and, perhaps, some of the supplements you take—are another source of antioxidant compounds. Carotenoids (such as lycopene in tomatoes and lutein in kale) and flavonoids (such as anthocyanins in blueberries, quercetin in apples and onions, and catechins in green tea) are antioxidants. The vitamins C and E and the mineral selenium also have antioxidant properties.

Why free radicals may be harmful

Free radicals are a natural byproduct of energy metabolism and are also generated by ultraviolet rays, tobacco smoke, and air pollution. They lack a full complement of electrons, which makes them unstable, so they steal electrons from other molecules, damaging those molecules in the process.

Free radicals have a well-deserved reputation for causing cellular damage. But they can be helpful, too. When immune system cells muster to fight intruders, the oxygen they use spins off an army of free radicals that destroys viruses, bacteria, and damaged body cells in an oxidative burst. Vitamin C can then disarm the free radicals.

How antioxidants may help

Antioxidants are able to neutralize marauders such as free radicals by giving up some of their own electrons. When a vitamin C or E molecule makes this sacrifice, it may allow a crucial protein, gene, or cell membrane to escape damage. This helps break a chain reaction that can affect many other cells.

It is important to recognize that the term “antioxidant” reflects a chemical property rather than a specific nutritional property. Each of the nutrients that has antioxidant properties also has numerous other aspects and should be considered individually. The context is also important—in some settings, for example, vitamin C is an antioxidant, and in others it can be a pro-oxidant.

Words to the wise

Articles and advertisements have touted antioxidants as a way to help slow aging, fend off heart disease, improve flagging vision, and curb cancer. And laboratory studies and many large-scale observational trials (the type that query people about their eating habits and supplement use and then track their disease patterns) have noted benefits from diets rich in certain antioxidants and, in some cases, from antioxidant supplements.

But results from randomized controlled trials (in which people are assigned to take specific nutrients or a placebo) have failed to back up many of these claims. One study that pooled results from 68 randomized trials with over 230,000 participants found that people who were given vitamin E, beta carotene, and vitamin A had a higher risk of death than those who took a placebo. There appeared to be no effect from vitamin C pills and a small reduction in mortality from selenium, but further research on these nutrients is needed.

These findings suggest little overall benefit of the antioxidants in pill form. On the other hand, many studies show that people who consume higher levels of these antioxidants in food have a lower risk of many diseases.

The bottom line? Eating a healthy diet is the best way to get your antioxidants.

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Is Calcium The Answer To Strong Teeth and Bones

It is generally believed that strong teeth and bones requires the intake of calcium. In fact, milk is consumed as for the calcium as the protein. Older adults in fear of bone loss or osteoporosis (a painful and debilitating disease marked by calcium loss and bone deterioration) consume large amounts of calcium to delay or prevent bone loss or osteoporosis. However, taking large amounts of calcium to prevent bone loss or osteoporosis may be causing more harm than good. Excess calcium in the body can actually become toxic leading to painful conditions. So, is calcium the answer to strong teeth and bones? As with mmost things the answer is more complicated than yes or no. Read the article below by Bart Walton, M.Ac, L.Ac, and discover that the missing ingredient may be magnesium and it’s ratio to calcium.

Calcium vs. magnesium: The key is balance

Sound Consumer | March 2004

by Bart Walton, M.Ac., L.Ac.

(March 2004) — People in the United States consume more calcium supplements than any other group on earth. And if that’s not enough, additional calcium is added to our cereals, our fruit juices, our crackers, our antacids and many other processed foods. Yet the United States ranks among nations with the highest incidence of osteoporosis — a painful and debilitating disease marked by calcium loss and bone deterioration. How is this possible? Are we missing something?

About 30 or 40 years ago, doctors began routinely prescribing calcium to many men and almost all women over the age of 40 to counter the effects of bone loss due to aging. The conventional wisdom was that bone loss is due to calcium deficiency. Yet after 40 years, it has become evident that taking calcium alone does not stop or even slow bone loss and does not prevent osteoporosis.

The new wisdom now emerging is that magnesium is actually the key to the body’s proper assimilation and use of calcium, as well as other important nutrients. If we consume too much calcium, and without sufficient magnesium, the excess calcium is not utilized correctly and may actually become toxic, causing painful conditions in the body.

Many researchers and nutritionists now believe magnesium is more important than calcium in order to maintain healthy bones. In addition, magnesium is responsible for more than 300 biochemical reactions, all necessary for optimum health. Magnesium plays a vital role in digestion, energy production, muscle contraction and relaxation, bone formation and cell division. In addition, magnesium is a key nutrient in the proper functioning of the heart, the kidneys, the adrenals and the entire nervous system.

Shopping for calcium-magnesium supplements

PCC’s calcium/magnesium supplements have various ratios of calcium and magnesium to choose from.

Other questions to decide: do you want a tablet, chewable or not? Or a capsule? For people who don’t like pills, PCC sells a liquid calcium-magnesium supplement. Is the calcium and magnesium chelated? It means the minerals are easier to absorb. Some practitioners recommend taking calcium with vitamin D to increase absorption. Several of PCC’s formulations include vitamin D.

Most calcium and magnesium supplements contain a ratio of two parts calcium to one part magnesium. The logic behind this ratio is based on the relative amounts of these nutrients used in the body. But in order to determine how much we might need to take as a supplement, we should consider how much of these nutrients we are getting in our food and how they are stored and recycled in the body.

For example, the body tends to hold calcium and either store it or recycle it again and again. Magnesium, however, is either used up or excreted and must be replenished on a daily basis. So, even though the daily need for calcium is greater, we are much more likely to become deficient in magnesium.

  • insomnia
  • muscle tension or spasms
  • muscle cramps
  • constipation
  • headaches
  • heart palpitations
  • PMS
  • calcification of tissues or joints
  • nervousness or irritability

If you are taking a mineral supplement, it’s also important to consider the form you are taking. In a typical calcium or magnesium tablet, the body can absorb and assimilate only about 10 to 15 percent. In the form of a mineral citrate, in which the mineral is combined with citric acid, the body can absorb a much greater amount. If you mix the mineral citrate in warm water and let stand for 10 minutes until it is fully dissolved, you’ll absorb the minerals very quickly and your body will feel the difference. And if you are taking calcium or magnesium in this form, you don’t have to take nearly as much as with other forms in order to get the same benefit.

I recommend magnesium and calcium citrate as the preferred form. If you believe you might be deficient in magnesium, I suggest taking magnesium citrate alone (without any calcium) for one to three months. Some manufacturers are now producing these minerals together in a reverse ratio of two or three parts magnesium to one part calcium. I suggest this ratio for the longer term. If your diet is reasonably balanced, a modest supplementation will help to maintain adequate levels and more important, the correct balance of these important minerals.

Bart Walton, M.Ac. is a Washington State licensed acupuncturist with a private practice in the Green Lake area of Seattle. Bart has a master of acupuncture degree from Northwest Institute of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine and specializes in Japanese style acupuncture and moxibustion. Over the last 20 years, Bart has traveled extensively in Asia, studying the use of herbs, diet and lifestyle in traditional medicine. Bart may be contacted at 206-527-9672 or bartonwa@hotmail.com.