Micronutrients: Are You Getting Enough of These Things?!
Micronutrients are a category of compounds that are vital to good health. They influence everything from fluid balance to bone health, skin health, blood clotting, metabolism, and much more.
What Are Micronutrients?
Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals that are essential for the development and maintenance of organs and tissues in the body.
Los Angeles-based dietitian Jamie Mok says, “Adequacy of all micronutrients is essential for optimal health.”
If you don’t get the right balance of them, you may risk experiencing fatigue, weakened immunity, mood issues, and more.
These can be water soluble or fat soluble. This means that while some can be easily absorbed without fat, others must be consumed with some fat to be taken up and used by your cells.
These are grouped into macrominerals and trace minerals. Macrominerals are those that are needed in larger amounts, while trace minerals are only required in small concentrations.
That doesn’t mean, however, that macrominerals are any more important. The body simply requires larger amounts of them to meet our needs.
The vitamins and minerals comprising all micronutrients are found in a wide variety of foods and involve many complex interactions. Perhaps most important to know, however, is that you can meet your needs for almost all of them by eating a balanced diet.
What Are the Functions of Micronutrients?
Each micronutrient performs a distinctly different role in the body’s many processes. Daily values as recommended by the FDA are in parentheses, and are based on a 2,000-calorie diet.
B vitamins: This series of vitamins is mostly responsible for the production of energy from food. These also aid the production of red blood cells.
- B1/thiamin (1.2 mg)
- B2/riboflavin (1.3 mg)
- B3/niacin (16 mg)
- B5/pantothenic acid (5 mg): especially vital in breaking down fats.
- B6/pyridoxine (1.7 mg): Also plays roles in immune function and early cognitive development.
- B7/biotin (30 mcg)
- B9/Folate, a.k.a. folic acid in supplement form (400 mcg): Adequate folate intake is associated with healthy pregnancies.
- B12/cobalamin (2.4 mcg): also helps make DNA, and supports neurological function.
- Vitamins B6 and folate in concert may help support cardiovascular health.
Vitamin A (900 mcg): This antioxidant helps keep the cells and membranes that support the heart, lungs, kidneys, and other organs healthy.
- Believed to support eye health
- Plays a role in immune function
- Associated with cell growth and communication
- May benefit skin health
Vitamin D (20 mcg): This vitamin is needed to help maintain strong bones. It does so by helping the body absorb calcium.
- Combined with calcium, helps support bone health
- Helps facilitate neuromuscular communication
Vitamin E (15 mg): One of the major antioxidants, vitamin E is believed to help offer protection to cells from free-radical damage.
- Helps to widen blood vessels and keep blood from clotting within them
- Supports a health immune system
- Promotes cellular communication
Vitamin K (120 mcg): Actually refers to a family of compounds and includes vitamin K1 (called phylloquinone) and vitamin K2 (called menaquinones).
- Associated with healthy blood clotting
- Linked to bone health
- Supports muscle function
- Works with vitamin K to aid blood clotting
- Is believed to help maintain healthy blood pressure already within the normal range
Phosphorus (1,250 mg): The second most abundant mineral in the body plays a crucial role in the strength of bones and teeth, while also helping to create energy and new cells.
- Works alongside calcium to strengthen bones and teeth
- Helps repair and maintain cells and tissues
- Provides basis for adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which the body uses for energy
- Aids healthy kidney function
- Assists with muscle contraction
- Supports a healthy heartbeat
- Promotes normal functioning of nerve signaling
- Helps maintain nerve and muscle function
- Is believe to support the immune system
- Helps to regulate normal heartbeat function
- Assists in bone health
- Is believed to help regulate healthy blood sugar levels already within the normal range
Sodium (less than 2,300-2,400 mg/day): While essential for some processes, excess sodium is believed to have an association with some health concerns. Try to consume sodium from whole foods and limit added sodium for increased health benefits.
- Aids muscle contraction
- Helps maintain fluid balance in the body
Chloride (2,300 mg): Together with sodium, chloride is responsible for fluid balance. However, it’s not as over-consumed and causes fewer health concerns.
- Assists the formation of stomach acid
- Helps maintain fluid balance in the body
Potassium (4,700 mg): Potassium is one of the main electrolytes in the body.
- Is believed to help flush out excess sodium
- Can help maintain healthy blood pressure already within the normal range
- Assists in contraction of the heart and muscles
Sulfur: Sulfur is required in the production of two amino acids — methionine and cysteine — which are the building blocks of protein.
Iron (18 mg): There are two forms of dietary iron: heme, found in animal products, and non-heme, which is mainly found in plant foods. Women typically require more iron than men.
- Helps produce hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood
- Aids the creation of some hormones
Manganese (2.3 mg): Activates many enzymes needed to help support a healthy metabolism.
- Helps metabolize carbs, fats, and proteins for energy
- Contributes to healthy blood clotting
- Helps support immune health
Copper (900 mcg): Small in inventory but big in benefits, copper is essential to metabolic function.
- Involved in the production of energy
- Assists in immune system function
- Aids iron absorption
Zinc (11 mg): While not generally a problem in the U.S., many people worldwide are deficient in zinc, which is essential for more than 100 enzyme systems in the body.
- Helps regulate immune response
- Important for proper taste and smell perception
- Aids in skin health and clotting
Iodine (150 mcg): This favorite fortifier of table salt is an essential component of thyroid hormones.
- Plays key role in protein synthesis
- May play a role in immune response
Fluoride (3-4 mg): Most community water systems are fortified with this nutrient, which has helped to dramatically reduce cavities in children.
- Contributes to tooth strength
- Is believed to reduce tooth decay
Selenium (55 mcg): Needed only in very small amounts, selenium still plays a role in functions that range from antioxidant to helping support immune health.
- Is important for thyroid gland function
- May support healthy cardiovascular function
- Is believed to help protect the body from free-radical damage
What Are the Most Important Micronutrients?
All micronutrients are equally important, as they all play vital roles and work synergistically to keep the body running smoothly. An imbalance in any one can cause symptoms and could lead to disease if not corrected quickly. For example, you wouldn’t be able to efficiently absorb calcium if you were deficient in vitamin D.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are five micronutrients in which Americans are more likely to be deficient: vitamin B6, iron, vitamin D, vitamin C, and vitamin B12. Registered dietitian and certified trainer Katie Reines confirms: “The deficiencies I see most are vitamin B12, iron, and vitamin D3.”
Mok adds that she most commonly recommends vitamin D supplements to her clients as a result of deficiencies.
What Can Happen When You’re Deficient in Certain Micronutrients?
A balance of all nutrients is important for optimal health. Following are some of the more common deficiencies and their symptoms.
Rare in the U.S., extreme vitamin A deficiency is usually only seen in developing countries and people suffering from severe malnutrition.
- Increased risk of blindness and reduced night vision
- Greater risk of poor pregnancy outcomes
- Increased risk of diarrhea
Deficiencies of most B vitamins are rare, however they can lead to serious problems.
- Neurological symptoms
Deprive yourself of adequate vitamin C and you chance scurvy. At greatest risk are smokers, those with limited food variety, and others with certain medical conditions.
- Inflammation, bleeding along gums
- Weakened connective tissues
- Joint pain
- Tooth loss
A problem mostly for breastfeeding infants and the elderly, those with dark skin or limited exposure to natural sunlight may also suffer from inadequate vitamin D.
Vegans and vegetarians who don’t consume dairy may be at increased risk of weakened bones.
- Increased risk of osteopenia and osteoporosis
Teen girls and women with heavy menstrual flows, pregnant women, regular blood donors, and those with cancer, heart failure, or gastrointestinal disorders are most vulnerable.
- Body temperature regulation
- Compromised immunity
- Impaired cognitive function
Most Americans don’t consume enough magnesium, according to the National Institutes of Health, but low intake rarely has symptomatic effects.
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea, vomiting
Do Micronutrient Supplements Work?
Supplements work if your levels of a certain micronutrient are extremely low and you need a temporary solution. “In today’s society where our schedules have us traveling, on the go, and in a hurry, it may not be realistic to get every nutrient needed from your diet alone, 100 percent of the time,” Reines says.
However, if you’re eating a nutritionally complete diet, you shouldn’t need a lot of supplements. “When it comes to nutrition advice, I recommend speaking with a registered dietitian to help you learn what a healthy, well balanced diet is for you.” Mok adds.