top of page

The Importance of Micronutrients: Vitamins, Minerals, and Electrolytes for Optimal Health

Updated: Mar 20

In our final article in this series, we will talk about Vitamins, Minerals, and Electrolytes (Micronutrients). Micronutrients are essential compounds that we need in small quantities to maintain good health. These include vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, which participate in key metabolic processes such as growth, repair, digestion, energy transfer, nervous system function, and immunity. Vitamins, in particular, are organic compounds that we cannot produce ourselves and thus must obtain from our diet. They function as co-factors for enzymes and help regulate important physiological processes.

Vitamins are generally classified as fat-soluble or water-soluble. Water-soluble vitamins are a group of micronutrients that are easily dissolved in water and thus can be transported through the bloodstream. These vitamins are not stored in the body to a great extent and need to be replenished regularly through the diet. The two groups of water-soluble vitamins are B vitamins and vitamin C.

In contrast, fat-soluble vitamins are not easily dissolved in water, instead, they are absorbed along with dietary fat and stored in fatty tissues. These vitamins can accumulate in the body and become toxic if consumed in excess. The four fat-soluble vitamins are vitamins A, D, E, and K.

Moreover, many vitamins are complex compounds that consist of related chemical cousins. For instance, "vitamin A" includes several molecules such as retinol, retinal, retinoic acid, and many carotenoids. The specific molecular form of a vitamin affects its bioavailability and how our body digests, absorbs and excretes it. Therefore, getting a wide range of foods that contain different vitamin forms is important to ensure adequate intake.

Overall, micronutrients are crucial for maintaining optimal health, but getting the right amount is key. Deficiencies or excesses can lead to a range of health problems, and it's essential to understand how to obtain and regulate micronutrient intake. Minerals are essential nutrients that we obtain from the earth's crust through soil and water. Plants absorb these minerals, and animals consume both plants and other animals to obtain these minerals. The health of our environment, particularly our soil, directly affects the quality of our food. Just like vitamins, minerals do not provide us with energy directly, but they are crucial for building body structures, regulating body fluids, and acting as co-factors in enzymatic reactions. We can classify minerals into macro minerals, which the body requires in larger amounts, and microminerals, which the body requires in trace amounts.

Most minerals are absorbed in our small intestine, either through passive or active transport. Unlike fragile vitamins or phytonutrients, minerals in food easily survive storage and cooking. Usually, minerals must bind to other compounds, such as amino acids, to be effectively absorbed and used by our bodies. Eating a variety of whole, less-processed foods that contain minerals in their naturally occurring format, along with other foods that help us extract those minerals, is the best way to ensure we absorb and use minerals efficiently.

Electrolytes are substances that help generate and regulate electrochemical impulses in our bodies. Mineral-based electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium, are crucial for contracting and relaxing our muscles, balancing our body fluids, and transmitting signals across our nerve cells. We can absorb electrolytes from food in an electrically charged state, either missing an electron (positive charge) or having extra electrons (negative charge), which lets minerals bond readily with water. This charged state creates concentration gradients across cell membranes, allowing electrolytes to perform their functions.

Imbalances in mineral balance, just like in vitamin balance, can be dangerous. Too little sodium and too much water can lead to hyponatremia, while high calcium and low magnesium levels can cause muscle cramps. Mineral supplements are often a poor substitute for whole foods, as the micronutrients in whole foods work together to create a beautiful biological symphony that is hard to duplicate with an isolated supplement. Indeed, some large-scale studies have found that isolated micronutrient supplements can be harmful, while the same micronutrients in whole foods are helpful. So, it's always better to consume a variety of whole, nutrient-dense foods to obtain the minerals we need for optimal health. In this article, we will delve into the role of vitamins and minerals in the body and the consequences of having too much or too little of them. It is important to keep in mind that there is no single ideal diet, and the amount and type of micronutrients each person needs can vary depending on several factors, such as age, sex, medication use, food choices, stress levels, physical activity, pregnancy or menstruation, and illness or injury.

For instance, women who are still menstruating, particularly athletes, should consume sufficient iron to prevent deficiency. On the other hand, excess iron can be harmful to men, who do not lose it as easily. Individuals with primary or secondary hemochromatosis should also avoid consuming too much iron, as it can cause organ damage.

Athletes, especially those who are trying to lose weight or fat, will require more micronutrients than sedentary individuals. It is also crucial to inquire about any medications or supplements that clients may be taking since these can affect the absorption of micronutrients. For example, oral contraceptives can interfere with vitamin B2 absorption. If clients have a history of disordered eating, food restriction, or dieting, they may likely have micronutrient deficiencies. Supplementing with a basic multivitamin/multimineral may help address this issue.

Vitamin and mineral overview Vitamins

Vitamin A (and carotenoids)

As we touched on earlier, the vitamin A family includes:

• Animal sources: retinol, retinal, retinoic acid; and

• Plant sources: carotenoids — the chemicals that make foods such as carrots or peppers yellow, orange, and red.

Some of these (i.e., the carotenoids) are “provitamins”, which means that they are

converted in our body to vitamins.

Hypervitaminosis is caused by consuming excessive amounts of preformed vitamin A (retinyl palmitate), not the plant carotenoids. Preformed vitamin A is absorbed rapidly but excreted slowly. It’s involved in:

• Forming pigments in the eye

• Synthesizing proteins

• Immune function and wound healing

• Embryonic development • Stem cell differentiation

• Red blood cell development

We get it from:

• Red/orange/yellow vegetables and fruits such as carrots, pumpkin or winter squash, orange sweet potatoes, beets, orange melons

• Dark leafy greens such as spinach, collards, kale, mustard


• Liver (polar bear liver provides toxic levels of vitamin A,

as it can have 20,000 IU of retinyl palmitate per gram of


• Egg yolks

Not getting enough can result in:

• Difficulty seeing in dim light

• Dry eyes

• Rough/dry skin

• Acne

Getting too much can result in:

• Nausea

• Headache

• Fatigue

• Loss of appetite

• Dizziness

• Dry skin

• Birth defects when pregnant (thus prenatal vitamins contain less vitamin A)

Vitamin B1 (thiamin)

Vitamin B1 is found in many foods, so deficiencies are rare. It’s water-soluble and easily excreted, so there’s no known excess or toxicity. It’s involved in:

• Producing energy (as a co-enzyme)

• Synthesizing DNA and RNA

• Potentially treating diabetic retinopathy and nephropathy We get it from:

• Beans and legumes

• Sunflower seeds and tahini (seed paste)

• Marmite

• Nutritional yeast

• Whole grains such as oats and barley

Not getting enough can result in:

• B1 deficiency (known as beriberi) which can cause burning feet, weakness in extremities, rapid heart rate, swelling, loss of appetite, nausea, fatigue, GI distress, and nystagmus (eye twitching).

• Chronic B1 deficiency in alcoholics, which can lead to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, with confusion and memory loss. (Alcohol makes it difficult for the body to absorb B1 from food).

• B1 deficiency isn’t common today, as many foods are fortified. But B1 deficiency is common with malnutrition and may contribute to symptoms of anorexia (especially over time, as nutrient intake dwindles).

Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)

B2 helps regulate levels of other B vitamins. B2 is only somewhat water-soluble, so it’s not well absorbed. We tend to excrete the excess as bright yellow urine (which is harmless but potentially entertaining, especially for clients who may be new to taking vitamin

supplements). Some medications such as oral contraceptives can interfere with B2 uptake.

B2 deficiency (known as ariboflavinosis) isn’t common today, as many foods are fortified.

However, B2 deficiency is common with malnutrition and may contribute to symptoms of anorexia (especially over time, as nutrient intake dwindles). It’s involved in:

• Being part of the electron transporter FAD

• Metabolizing drugs and toxins in the liver

• Neutralizing hydroperoxides (antioxidant) • Red blood cell production

• Maintaining the health of the skin, nervous system, and GI tract

• Purine metabolism

• Iron metabolism

• Red blood cell production

We get it from:

• Soybeans

• Mushrooms

• Spinach

• Whole grains, especially wheat

• Almonds

• Eggs

• Shrimp

• Beef liver

• Dairy (there will be seasonal variations due to what the animals are eating)

• Nutritional yeast Not getting enough can result in:

• Damage to mucous and skin membranes, such as mouth inflammation or rashes

• Conjunctivitis

• Light sensitivity (photophobia)

• Anxiety

• Loss of appetite

• Anemia and fatigue

Vitamin B3 (niacin)

A deficiency of Vitamin B3 (known as pellagra) is rare in industrialized regions but can happen to people who live in poor regions with limited diets, such as rural people in South America who may live mostly on a corn-based menu. It can also happen to people with chronic diseases such as HIV or alcoholism. Niacin from foods is safe. Toxicity generally comes from supplementing excessively. Niacin can be created from tryptophan in the human body. It’s involved in:

• Making up the electron transporter NAD

• DNA repair • Maintaining the health of the skin, digestive system, and nerves

• Cellular signaling

• Controlling cholesterol levels by influencing lipid synthesis in the liver

We get it from:

• Whole grains such as whole wheat and buckwheat

• Mushrooms

• Canned tomato products (such as tomato paste)

• Beef

• Fish

• Pork

• Chicken

• Liver from any source Not getting enough can result in:

• Damage to mucous and skin membranes, such as mouth inflammation or rashes

• Diarrhea

• Dementia Getting too much can result in:

• Nausea

• Headache

• Diarrhea • Liver toxicity

• Insulin resistance

• Flushing of the skin (this can also happen when getting a normal amount)

Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid)

Our gut bacteria may produce a little B5 on their own. Deficiency is very rare, and excess/toxicity only happens with supplementation in very high doses. It may be a helpful supplement for treating acne. The name “pantothenic acid” inspired Pantene shampoo.

It’s involved in:

• Forming acetyl-CoA.

• Synthesizing cholesterol, steroid hormones, and neurotransmitters

• Drug metabolism

• Maintaining skin health

We get it from:

• Mushrooms

• Corn

• Avocado

• Peas • Lentils

• Egg yolk

• Beef liver

• Poultry

• Yogurt

• Fish and seafood

• Potatoes and sweet potatoes Not getting enough can result in:

• Tingling feet (only in severe malnutrition)

Getting too much can result in:

• Nausea

• Heartburn

We get it from:

• Potatoes and sweet potatoes

• Bananas and plantains

• Sunflower seeds

• Chickpeas

• Spinach

• Fish Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) It’s involved in:

• Working as a co-enzyme to form PLP, which is needed for more than 100 enzymes involved in protein metabolism

• Glycogen breakdown

• Red blood cell metabolism

• Nervous and immune system function

• Forming neurotransmitters and steroid hormones

• Pork

• Beef

• Poultry

• Damage to mucous and skin membranes, such as mouth inflammation or rashes

• Nervous system disorders

• Anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability

• Confusion

• Depression

• Anemia Getting too much can result in:

• Painful neurological symptoms (look for excess B6 from supplementation in people with things like carpal tunnel syndrome or tennis elbow)

Vitamin B7 (biotin)

Intestinal bacteria can produce biotin. Eating a lot of raw egg whites, which contain avidin, can create a biotin deficiency. Avidin can bind up to four molecules of biotin and carry them out of the body. It’s involved in:

• Forming four vital enzymes known as carboxylases, which are involved in gluconeogenesis, leucine metabolism, energy production, and the synthesis of fats

• DNA replication and transcription

We get it from:

• Nuts and peanuts

• Sweet potatoes

• Onions

• Mushrooms

• Cacao (chocolate)

• Tomatoes

• Whole grains, especially oats

• Beans and legumes

• Egg yolks

• Dairy

• Liver

• Fish

• Pork

Not getting enough can result in:

• Dry or rashy skin

• Nausea and loss of appetite

• Hair loss / thinning hair

• Conjunctivitis

• Depression

Vitamin B9 (folate)

“Folate” is found in foods while “folic acid” is a synthetic supplement. Folate deficiency is one of the more common in the US. Folate is particularly important for pregnant women, as

it helps prevent neural tube defects. It’s involved in:

• Metabolism of nucleic and amino acids as a co-enzyme

• Breaking down and using vitamins B12 and C

• Forming new proteins

• Red blood cell formation and circulation

• Fetal development We get it from:

• Beans and legumes

• Leafy greens such as spinach, and other greens such as asparagus or broccoli

• Chicken liver

Not getting enough can involve:

• Anemia

• Low white blood cells (leukopenia) and platelets (thrombocytopenia)

• Weakness and weight loss

• Cracking/redness of tongue and mouth

• Diarrhea

• Low birth weight and preterm delivery in pregnancy, neural tube defects in newborns

Getting too much can result in:

• Masking Vitamin B12 deficiency (beyond 1,000 mcg of supplemental folic acid)

Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) We can store literally decades’ worth of B12 in our liver. This is good, because as we age, we often absorb less B12. In particular, low intrinsic factor (IF) can result in a Vitamin B12 deficiency. (Folks on antacids or proton pump inhibitors will likely have problems absorbing vitamin B12 in the gut and may benefit from a sublingual supplement).

This relationship between low IF and low B12 is known as pernicious anemia. A symptom is large, immature, red blood cells with nuclei (mature red blood cells don’t normally have nuclei) called megaloblasts.

Only bacteria can produce B12. Yet it’s only found in animal products (thanks to bacterial symbiosis). So plant-based eaters will need a B12 supplement. It’s very hard to get too much B12, so there are no real toxicity symptoms. It’s involved in:

• Forming and maintaining healthy nerve cells and red blood cells

• DNA synthesis

We get it from:

• Fish and shellfish

• Beef (especially liver)

• Dairy

Not getting enough can result in:

• Loss of appetite and weight loss

• Fatigue/weakness

• Depression

• Mouth inflammation

• Neurological problems (including poor memory, mania, dementia, and psychosis)

• Megaloblastic anemia (a symptom of pernicious anemia)


Choline is a water-soluble nutrient that’s often grouped together with the other B

vitamins. Choline metabolism can vary widely from person to person. Up to half of people

in North America may carry gene variants that make them susceptible to choline

deficiency. Our body’s regulation of choline may also be regulated by estrogen.

Toxicity/excess is rare without supplementation.

However, some people have a genetic condition known as trimethylaminuria, in

which they over-excrete trimethylamine, a byproduct of choline. This will give

them a fishy smell, even when eating normal amounts of choline. It’s involved in:

• Building cell membranes and neurotransmitters (e.g., it’s used in synthesizing acetylcholine, an essential neurotransmitter for muscle impulses)

• Liver metabolism

• Nutrient transport

• Controlling homocysteine levels in the fetus during pregnancy

• Possibly lowering inflammation

We get it from:

• Shellfish

• Beef and beef liver

• Eggs

• Salmon

• Pork

• Chicken

• Legumes and beans

• Tomato products Not getting enough can result in:

• Problems metabolizing fats

• Liver disease

• Kidney disease

• Muscle and nervous tissue damage

• Cognitive and memory problems

Getting too much can result in:

• Hypotension

Vitamin C

It’s involved in:

• Protecting cells from free radicals (antioxidants)

• Improving iron absorption

• Regenerating vitamin E supplies

• Building collagen, an important structural protein throughout the body

• Synthesizing norepinephrine and carnitine

• Metabolizing cholesterol to bile acids

We get it from:

• Most colorful fruits and vegetables • Organ meats (such as thymus) Not getting enough can result in:

• Poor wound healing and structural repair (e.g., bruising and slow collagen rebuilding)

• Poor dental health

Getting too much can result in:

• Diarrhea

• A higher risk of kidney stones

Vitamin D (ergocalciferol / cholecalciferol)

Most of our vitamin D can and should come from the sun. We can’t overdose on sun-based vitamin D, so any excess will come from supplementation (however, you can get skin damage, so be reasonable). Vitamin D is really a group of prohormones. Vitamin D must be metabolized to its biologically active form in the body.

• After it is consumed or synthesized in the skin, it enters the bloodstream and goes

to the liver.

• There, it’s hydroxylated to form 25-hydroxyvitamin D. • In the kidney, a second hydroxylation results in calciferol, or 1,25-dihydroxy vitamin D – the most potent form.

• In animals, this forms cholecalciferol or vitamin D3.

• In plants, this forms ergocalciferol or vitamin D2. It’s involved in:

• Maintaining serum calcium levels

• Modulating gene transcription

• Cell differentiation

• Immune system function

• Regulating glucose tolerance

• Regulating the renin-angiotensin cascade and blood pressure

Note: vitamin D can interact with certain prescription drugs

We get it from:

• Fish

• Egg yolks

• Mushrooms

• Shrimp

• Beef liver

• Fortified dairy products such as milk

Not getting enough can result in:

• In children: Rickets, deformed bones, retarded growth, and soft teeth

• In adults: Low bone density, tooth decay

Getting too much can result in:

• Elevated blood calcium

• Loss of appetite

• Nausea and/or vomiting

• Fluid imbalance

• Itching

• Muscle weakness and joint pain

• Disorientation

• Calcification of soft tissues

Vitamin E (tocopherol/tocotrienol)

The vitamin E family contains eight antioxidants: four tocopherols and four tocotrienols. Alpha-tocopherol is the chief form found in blood and tissues. Deficiency is rare unless someone is very malnourished.

It’s involved in:

• Scavenging free radicals (antioxidant)

• Cell signaling

• Expression of immune and inflammatory cells

We get it from:

• Nuts and seeds; peanuts

• Dark leafy greens such as spinach, Swiss chard, and turnip greens

• Avocado Not getting enough can result in:

• Muscle weakness

• Damage to red blood cells (hemolysis)

• Movement coordination problems (ataxia)

• Impaired vision

• Acne

Getting too much can result in:

• Impaired blood clotting (as vitamin E interferes with vitamin K metabolism) Vitamin K1 (phylloquinone) and Vitamin K2 (menaquinone) Vitamin K is a family of fat-soluble vitamins. Vitamin K1 (phylloquinone) and Vitamin K2 (menaquinone) Two of the main forms are:

• Vitamin K1 (plant-based)

• Vitamin K2 (animal-based)

In plants, K1 helps with photosynthesis, which is why it’s found most often in dark leafy greens. We can convert K1 to K2, mostly with our GI bacteria. But some other tissues such as the testes, pancreas, and arterial walls can convert K1 to K2 as well. Synthetic forms of Vitamin K (such as K3) may be toxic.

It’s involved in:

• Blood clotting (K1 and K2)

• Amino acid metabolism co-factor (K2)

• Cell signaling in bone tissue (K2)

We get it from:


• Leafy greens such as kale, collards, spinach, turnip greens, beet greens, dandelion greens, Swiss chard

• Cruciferous greens such as Brussels sprouts and broccoli

• Asparagus


• Cheese

• Egg yolks

• Grass-fed butter

• Chicken, duck, goose liver

• Beef

• Dairy

Not getting enough can result in:

• Tendency to bleed or hemorrhage; bruising

• Anemia

• Calcium going to the wrong places: not enough in bones, but too much in blood vessels Getting too much can result in:

• Negating anti-clotting effects from blood-thinning drugs (which work as vitamin K inhibitors).

Note: As far as we know, there’s no upper limit to K1 or K2. Do not supplement with the artificial form of K3. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------



Calcium is the most common mineral in our body. Calcium levels are regulated by complex systems that involve the interplay of parathyroid hormone, calcitonin, vitamin D, and bone cells such as osteoblasts and osteoclasts.

It’s involved in:

• Transmitting nerve impulses

• Muscle contraction

• Hormone secretion

• Forming teeth and bone

• Acting as a co-factor for enzymes We get it from:

• Dairy

• Dark green vegetables

• Beans

• Nuts and seeds

• Fish

• Calcium-fortified foods Not getting enough can result in:

• Poor bone metabolism (e.g., low bone density, rickets in children)

• Muscle stiffness/cramps

• Low blood pressure

Getting too much can result in:

• Nausea and/or vomiting

• Constipation

• Dry mouth and thirst

• Kidney problems

• Calcium deposits in the wrong places (e.g., in soft tissues)


Almost every whole food (e.g., fruits and vegetables, lean meats) has some chloride. And processed foods generally have a lot of sodium chloride (salt). Thus, chloride deficiency is rare and only occurs as a result of excessive fluid loss (e.g., through severe diarrhea

or vomiting).

It’s involved in:

• Maintaining an electrochemical gradient across the cell membranes (membrane potential)

• Digestion and absorption of many nutrients (part of hydrochloric acid in the stomach)


High-sugar diets can increase chromium excretion in the urine, which means people may need more chromium. Vitamin C can improve chromium absorption; antacids and NSAIDs can decrease it. Although chromium is important for glucose and fat metabolism, and low chromium may increase the risk for chronic diseases, there’s still not enough evidence to support chromium supplementation for health problems like Type 2 diabetes. True chromium deficiency is rare. Chromium toxicity is generally limited to industrial exposure. However, long-term supplement use may increase DNA damage. It’s involved in:

• Glucose and fat metabolism; supporting the effects of


• Lipoprotein metabolism and oxidation of


We get it from:

• Broccoli

• Mushrooms

• Potatoes

• Oats

• Prunes

• Nutritional yeast

• Beer / red wine

• Aged cheese

• Beef/organ meats


You may have heard that wearing copper helps prevent arthritis. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that that’s true. Indeed, copper deficiency is relatively rare. However, supplementing with high doses of zinc can result in copper deficiency by increasing intestinal

proteins that bind and prevent certain metals from being absorbed. Also, a high intake of vitamin C supplements may impair copper absorption. (Note that some herbal cold remedies include both zinc and vitamin C, and people may take high doses of these.)

It’s involved in:

• Oxidation-reduction reactions and free radical scavenging (antioxidant)

• Cellular energy production

• Collagen and elastin cross-linking

• Synthesis and metabolism of neurotransmitters and myelin

• Regulating protein synthesis We get it from:

• Cacao (dark chocolate)

• Mushrooms

• Nuts and seeds

• Beans and legumes

• Beef liver

• Seafood, especially oysters

Not getting enough can result in:

• Anemia that doesn’t respond to iron therapy

• Low white blood cell count

• Loss of skin and hair color (hypopigmentation) Getting too much can result in:

• Nausea and/or vomiting

• Abdominal pain

• Diarrhea

• Liver damage Iodine

Between iodized salt and fish and seafood consumption (along with seaweed in some regions), iodine deficiencies are rare in industrialized countries (as is iodine excess). Yet, iodine deficiencies are amongst the most common worldwide. Low iodine is possible, especially given that some plant foods contain goitrogens. When iodine is too low, the thyroid swells and tries to harness more iodine, leading to a goiter. Equipment used to process dairy may be sanitized with chemicals containing iodine. Thus, higher levels of iodine can make their way into dairy products.

It’s involved in:

• Forming T3 and T4 thyroid hormones

We get it from:

• Saltwater fish and seafood

• Seaweed

• Iodized salt

• Dairy

• Eggs

Not getting enough can result in:

• Impaired growth and neurological development

• Decreased production of thyroid hormones, enlarged thyroid

Getting too much can result in:

• Burning mouth/throat/stomach, fever

• Diarrhea

• Enlarged thyroid Iron

Hemoglobin and myoglobin are two proteins that bind with oxygen to move it around the body. Iron forms an essential part of hemoglobin and myoglobin. Dietary iron comes in two forms: heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron comes mainly from the hemoglobin and myoglobin in red meat (which includes dark-fleshed fish such as tuna, and poultry such as ostrich and duck). Heme is better absorbed than non-heme.

Non-heme iron is found in plant sources and iron salts. (The story that Guinness beer is highly nutritious and a good source of iron is, sadly, a myth.) Vitamin C, organic acids, and meats enhance iron absorption. On the other hand, zinc, calcium, phytates, and polyphenols inhibit iron absorption. Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide.

This has many causes:

• Plant-based eaters or people whose diet depends heavily on grains may eat iron-rich

plant foods, but not absorb much of that iron.

• Vitamin A deficiency can intensify iron-deficiency anemia, and we need enough copper to metabolize iron properly and form red blood cells.

• Women need more iron to support menstruation and pregnancy. Yet they often eat fewer iron-rich foods (and are more likely than men to be plant-based eaters, or restrict their food intake). However, iron overload can also be a problem. Iron can poison children who over-eat vitamin pills. And excess iron is a particular problem for men. Some people have speculated that our less-active lifestyle (in which we are less likely to lose blood, bruise, or do hard physical work) may be out of sync with our evolutionary past, and thus lead to iron overload. Luckily, men can lower their risk by regularly donating blood. It’s involved in:

• Forming hemoglobin (which stores about 2/3 of the body’s iron) and myoglobin; oxygen transport and storage

• Forming red blood cells and blood vessels

• Producing anaerobic energy

• Forming cytochromes involved with cellular energy production and drug metabolism

• Making up hundreds of proteins and enzymes We get it from:

• Seeds, especially pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, and tahini

• Whole grains, especially brown rice, whole wheat, teff, amaranth, and quinoa

• Dark poultry (e.g., chicken and turkey dark meat, duck, ostrich)

• Prune juice

• Heme food sources

• Fish

• Shellfish

• Organ meats

• Potatoes

• Red meats (e.g., beef, pork, wild game)

• Non-heme food sources

• Beans and legumes

• Dark leafy greens

• Molasses

• Olives

• Jerusalem artichokes

• Raisins

• Seaweed

• Peppers

Not getting enough can result in:

• Anemia

• Behavioral abnormalities (in children)

• Spoon-shaped nails that curl upwards (Koilonychia)

• Low immunity Getting too much can result in:

• Nausea and vomiting

• Shock; potentially death

• Increased risk of CVD, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases


Magnesium is found mostly in the skeleton, but also in skeletal muscle and inside/outside of cells. We need magnesium for many processes. Yet most Americans don’t get the basic

dietary requirements for magnesium. Low-level magnesium deficiency might play a role in hypertension and Type 2 diabetes. Magnesium also seems to have a calming effect, making it useful for helping muscle cramps, anxiety, and sleep. It’s involved in:

• Carbohydrate and fat metabolism

• DNA and protein synthesis

• Active transport of ions across cell membranes

• Phosphorylation of second messengers

• Cell migration and wound healing

• More than 300 enzymatic reactions We get it from:

• Beans and legumes

• Dark leafy greens

• Nuts and seeds

• Cacao (dark chocolate)

• Potatoes

• Whole grains, especially quinoa, buckwheat, brown rice, and barley

Not getting enough can result in:

• Muscle cramps and twitching

• Nausea and loss of appetite

• Abnormal heart rhythms

• Problems with thinking, moods, and memory

Getting too much can result in:

• Diarrhea

• Weakness or sleepiness

• Very low blood pressure

• Shortness of breath


Manganese is found widely in many foods. Phytates found in many foods can decrease manganese absorption, as can iron, magnesium, and calcium supplementation.

Manganese excess is rare and limited mostly to industrial exposure (e.g., in miners). It’s involved in:

• Antioxidation

• Proteoglycan synthesis

• Carbohydrates, amino acids, and cholesterol metabolism

We get it from:

• Tea

• Nuts

• Cacao (dark chocolate)

• Seaweed

• Peppers

• Garlic and onions

• Mushrooms

• Beans and legumes

• Dark leafy greens, especially spinach, and kale

• Whole grains, especially teff, oats, and barley

• Okra

• Berries

• Pineapple Molybdenum

The active form of molybdenum is called the molybdenum co-factor. Since molybdenum helps to get rid of purines, molybdenum deficiency can lead to increased uric acid in the body and gouty arthritis. Both molybdenum deficiency and excess are rare.

It’s involved in:

• Carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur metabolism

• Nucleotide breakdown

• Metabolism of drugs/toxins (e.g., purines, nitrosamines)

We get it from:

• Legumes

• Almonds and peanuts

• Oats

• Yogurt

• Potatoes

• Bread

• Green vegetables


Remember ATP? Phosphorus is the P, in the form of phosphate. Every cell in the body needs phosphorus to function. Both phosphorus deficiency and excess are rare, except in cases such as severe malnutrition. It’s involved in:

• Bone formation

• Energy transfer

• Hormone production

• Enzyme production

• Cell signaling

• Buffering acidity

• Helps regulate oxygen delivery from hemoglobin

We get it from:

• Beans and legumes

• Nuts and seeds; peanuts

• Cheese (especially ricotta)

• Fish

• Beef and beef liver

• Eggs


Potassium is the principal cation (positively charged ion) of the intracellular fluid. (Sodium is the main cation of the extracellular fluid.) Sodium and potassium are both essential for maintaining an electrochemical gradient across cell membranes. This gradient must be tightly regulated to have healthy nerve impulse transmission, cardiac function, and muscle

contraction. Potassium works to balance sodium. In fact, some estimate that our ancestors ate 10 times more potassium than sodium in their hunter-gatherer diets. This balance helps regulate blood pressure. Potassium deficiencies are usually caused by protein-wasting conditions, severe diarrhea, or the use of some diuretics. The USDA states that the average American consumes around 60% of their potassium needs.

Potassium excess happens when there is more potassium than the kidneys can excrete. This often happens with kidney failure and potassium-sparing diuretics, or with potassium supplementation. Excess potassium can be quite dangerous, given potassium’s role in regulating some of the body’s essential activities such as heart function. It’s involved in:

• Maintaining an electrochemical gradient across cell membranes

• Enzyme activity (ATPase and pyruvate kinase)

We get it from:

• Vegetables

• Potatoes

• Beans and legumes

• Fruits

• Dairy

• Fish

• Whole grains Not getting enough can result in:

• Cardiac arrhythmia (possibly leading to cardiac arrest)

• Muscle cramps

• High blood pressure

• Glucose intolerance

• Kidney stones

• Bone loss

Getting too much can result in:

• Tingling of extremities

• Muscle weakness

• Nausea and/or vomiting

• Diarrhea

• Cardiac arrhythmia


Selenium is a powerful antioxidant, but it’s easy to get too much. Just six Brazil nuts can contain as much as 800 mcg of selenium, exceeding the upper limit of recommended

intake. Excess selenium can be a risk factor for Type 2 diabetes. Since selenium appears in a wide range of animal foods, selenium deficiency is rarely seen in industrialized countries.

It’s involved in:

• Working with selenoproteins, selenium-dependent enzymes

• Antioxidation

• Deiodination of T4 we get it from: • Brazil nuts

• Whole grains (especially whole wheat and brown rice)

• Fish and seafood (especially tuna, shrimp, and salmon)

• Sunflower seeds

• Poultry

• Red meat (including beef and pork)

• Eggs Not getting enough can result in:

• Excess oxidation / free radical production

• Juvenile cardiomyopathy (also known as Keshan disease)

• Problems in skeletal and connective tissue metabolism and growth

• Inflammatory arthritis (Kashin-Beck disease)

• Acne (possibly) Getting too much can result in:

• Skin problems

• Brittle hair and nails

• GI upset • Fatigue

• Nervous system abnormalities

• Garlic odor on skin/breath Sodium

Sodium is the principal cation (positively charged ion) of the extracellular fluid. (Potassium is the main cation of the intracellular fluid.) We need both sodium and potassium to maintain an electrochemical gradient across cell membranes. This gradient must be tightly regulated to have healthy nerve impulse transmission, cardiac function, and muscle contraction.

Thus, our body controls sodium carefully with the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system and antidiuretic hormone (arginine vasopressin).

Most foods have some sodium. Processed foods generally have a lot. Clients eating

a lot of processed foods will almost certainly be getting much more sodium than they need.

When sodium levels drop too low, a condition known as hyponatremia. But in general, high blood sodium usually results from excessive water loss; low blood sodium usually comes from more fluid retention. It’s involved in:

• Absorbing chloride, amino acids, glucose, and water

• Regulating extracellular fluid status, blood volume, and blood pressure

• Maintaining the electrochemical gradient Not getting enough can result in:

• Nausea and vomiting

• Headache

• Cramps

• Fatigue

• Disorientation

Getting too much can result in:

• Increased fluid volume and edema

• Nausea and/or vomiting

• Diarrhea and/or abdominal cramps


Sulfur is the third most abundant mineral element found in our body, and is part of three important amino acids: cysteine, methionine, and taurine.

Since we get sulfur from foods containing protein, deficiency is rare unless someone is following a very strict, low-protein, plant-based diet or has some type of malabsorption

syndrome. It’s involved in:

• Acid-base balance

• Antioxidant

• Liver detoxification

• Collagen synthesis

We get it from:

• Protein-dense foods (e.g., meat, seafood, eggs)

• Garlic and onions

• Cruciferous vegetables


Zinc from animal sources is usually more bioavailable than that from plant sources. Plant sources may contain zinc compounds that are not easily broken down, or that

interfere with zinc absorption. Taking too much zinc can result in copper deficiency.

The amino acids cysteine and methionine can improve zinc absorption. Excessive dietary folate, supplemental iron, dietary calcium, and dietary phytates can impair zinc absorption.

It’s involved in:

• Growth and development

• Neurological function

• Reproduction

• Immunity

• Apoptosis (programmed cell death)

• Acting as a catalyst in chemical reactions

• Cell structure and health

• Gene expression

• Cellular signaling and hormone release

• Nerve impulse transmission We get it from: • Beans and legumes (including peanuts)

• Nuts and seeds

• Whole grains (especially quinoa, rye, and wild rice)

• Seafood (especially oysters)

• Lamb & Beef

• Pork

• Poultry (especially dark meat)

• Eggs

• Wild game

• Mushrooms Not getting enough can result in:

• Delayed growth and sexual maturation

• Poor wound healing

• Low immunity

• Skeletal abnormalities

• Night blindness

• Hair loss

• Loss of appetite

• Acne (possibly)

• Dry eyes

Getting too much can result in:

• Nausea and/or vomiting

• Abdominal pain

• Diarrhea

• Blocking copper absorption ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Phytonutrients and micronutrients Plants and fungi are cool. They’re the original chemical masters, turning soil, water, and (in the case of plants) sunlight into thousands of organic compounds. Over millions of years, plants and fungi have evolved things like:

• pigments that turn them all shades of the rainbow;

• chemicals that repel pests and pathogens; • chemicals that fight diseases;

• chemicals that attract helpful animals such as bees;

• chemicals that protect against environmental damage;

• chemicals to store nutrients; and even

• chemicals that help them communicate with each other (yes, plants and fungi do communicate… though they’re not exactly philosophers). Many of these chemicals have potential nutritional benefits for us. (And some are

potent poisons.)

Phytonutrients are found in plants (the prefix “phyto” comes from the ancient

Greek phyton or plant).

Myconutrients are found in fungi such as mushrooms (the prefix “myco” comes from the ancient Greek mykes, or mushroom). Some traditional Northern diets also include lichen, which is a symbiotic organism made up of algae / bacteria and fungi. Lichen is now used as a vegan source of vitamin D3.

Like vitamins and minerals, phytonutrients and myconutrients don’t directly

give us energy. Yet they do help keep us healthy and thriving. We know of over 10,000 phytonutrients and myconutrients so far, and discover new ones all the time. We don’t know what all of them do. But we do know that eating a lot of different plants and certain kinds of fungi is good for us.

Phytonutrients and myconutrients do many different things.

• They scavenge free radicals as antioxidants.

• They influence hormonal function. For instance, isoflavones in soy and lignans in flax can mimic estrogen in the body. Liver enzymes that block estrogen action can be upregulated by indoles, a phytochemical found in cruciferous vegetables. If you use progesterone cream, it may have come from wild yam.

• They help with DNA repair.

• They help fight bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens, as well as prevent them from getting a foothold (e.g., the proanthocyanidins found in cranberries can actually inhibit certain pathogens from adhering to cell walls, potentially preventing urinary tract infections). Some chemicals in plants may also help repel pests such as mosquitos.

• They lower inflammation.

• They lower blood clotting and coagulation.

• The inhibit fat synthesis and storage.

This is just a brief overview. We have yet to discover many of the wonders of

nature’s medicine pharmacy. Phytonutrients and myconutrients work in complex ways. For example, some work by mildly stressing cells in the body, ultimately making them stronger by building internal defense mechanisms (this is called hormesis). Given this complexity

and how little we still understand, the best sources of phytonutrients and myconutrients are, as always, whole foods rather than supplements.


Zoonutrients are the cousins of phytonutrients and myconutrients. As their

the name implies they’re found in animal foods. These include compounds such as:

• carnitine

• creatine

• carnosine

• conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)

These and other zoonutrients can do many things, such as:

• suppress tumor growth;

• lower our risk of heart disease;

• support healthy brain function;

• help us build stronger, more powerful muscles;

• lower oxidation

• prevent glycation of blood cells. As with phytonutrients and myconutrients, zoonutrient substances can be complex, and interact in many ways in our bodies. Often, zoonutrients in whole foods (such as

meat or dairy) act quite differently than similar nutrients in supplements.

Zoonutrients will depend significantly on the animal’s diet, environment, and age. The healthiest animals raised in the best conditions (such as pastured beef or chickens,

or wild-caught fish) will usually have the most nutrients.

As you can probably guess by now, nature is quite the biochemistry whiz. We’ve just scratched the surface of what there is to know about vitamins, minerals, and the

vast array of chemical compounds in plant, fungi, and animal foods. And, as you’ll note, a diverse, varied diet of whole foods is the best way to get these incredible compounds. In upcoming units, we’ll teach you how to help your clients eat more of these nutrient-rich foods. In conclusion, micronutrients are essential for maintaining overall health and well-being. While they may be small in quantity, their impact on the body is significant. However, it is important to remember that not all Micronutrients are created equal and their sources and absorption rates can vary. Moreover, it is crucial to consult with a healthcare professional before taking any vitamins or minerals, especially if you have a medical condition or are experiencing any symptoms. This marks the end of our Basic Nutrition series. Stay tuned for more informative articles on a variety of important nutrition topics coming soon!

4 views0 comments
bottom of page