Why Overlooking Minerals is a Huge Mistake

Pink salt in a scooper

MP sat down with Joy Stephenson-Laws, the founder and executive director of Proactive Health Labs, a national nonprofit health education organization dedicated to ensuring people have the information and tools they need to get and stay healthy.

She also is also the author of “Minerals: The Forgotten Nutrient, Your Secret Weapon for Getting and Staying Healthy.

MP: What are minerals, and why are they important?

JL: Minerals are one of the six essential nutrients that our bodies need to function. The others are fats, carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, and water. While each has its role in ensuring our bodies function at their best, none is more important than the other. If our bodies don’t get enough of any of the critical nutrients, they simply won’t function at their best, and we increase the risk for disease or other medical problems.

The primary role of minerals is in helping our bodies carry out their daily functions and processes most efficiently and beneficially possible. There literally is no bodily process, on either the cellular or systemic level, that can operate at its best, or even continue to operate efficiently, for that matter, without the right amounts of minerals. For this reason, minerals can have a significant impact on blood pressure, weight management, cancer prevention, depression, pain, PMS, and digestion, to name a few.

Two-time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling once commented that “You could trace every disease and every ailment to a mineral deficiency.” Of course, this statement may be a slight exaggeration to the extent that it fails to account for genetic disorders, but it gives an idea of minerals’ importance.  Unfortunately, most people, including many healthcare professionals, tend to overlook the critical role minerals play in helping us get and stay healthy. 

It is also worth mentioning that there are the more commonly known minerals of sodium, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, sulfur, and calcium when it comes to nutrition. But “trace” minerals are also important, though we need them in much smaller amounts. Trace minerals include iron, chromium, copper, zinc, iodine, manganese, and selenium.

Minerals are essential to our overall health. So, why do you think they’ve been overlooked in so many proactive health plans?

That’s a great question and one that I often asked myself as I was doing my research and learning about how critical minerals are to good health. I wondered how something so important could receive such little prominence, or at least attention, in the healthcare community. Of course, we always hear about carbs and how they give you energy and provide fuel for your brain and muscles. We hear a lot about protein and how we need it to build strong muscles, hair, skin, and nails. Then there are fats. We’ve been told about the importance of eating healthy fats and avoiding bad fats. Vitamins are, of course, a staple, with many of us taking a multivitamin and choosing vitamin-rich fruits and veggies to stay well. Finally, water is a no-brainer; we’ve been told about the importance of hydration since elementary school!

On the other hand, much of our knowledge of minerals revolves around the A-listers, calcium, and iron. We all have heard about calcium since childhood and how we need calcium for strong bones. In addition, women are encouraged to make sure they eat enough iron because they require more than men. But calcium and iron are only two of the many mineral superstars our bodies need to thrive.

There are many other critical minerals that you hardly ever hear about, such as zinc, copper, selenium, potassium, and magnesium, to name a few.  So, why don’t we know or hear more about them? The answer, in my view, is that minerals simply are neither as “sexy” nor as “mediagenic” as vitamins. 

But it wasn’t always the case that minerals played only a supporting role in the nutrient sextet.  They really can be credited with starting research into the relationship between nutrients and health.  Consider, for example, that around 400 years ago, a farmer in Epsom, England, tried to give his cows water from a well, but they refused to drink it because of its bitter taste. But the farmer noticed the water seemed to heal scratches and rashes. So naturally, the fame of soaking in an Epsom salt (magnesium sulfate) bath began to spread. At that time, magnesium was famous but without a name.

Fast forward to the 19th century, when a famous English chemist named Sir Humphry Davy isolated magnesium, along with potassium, sodium, and calcium, using electrolysis (electric voltage and current to separate minerals). Davy’s discoveries earned him international recognition and an invitation from Napoleon to visit France. It was there that he was presented with a recently discovered substance that had been isolated from seaweed. Working in his hotel room, Davy studied this new mineral and gave it the name iodine (named after the Greek word for violet because of its purple-colored vapors).

Mineral discoveries like these continued throughout the centuries, coinciding with research on the other classes of nutrients I mentioned – proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Vitamin research flourished in the early 1900s, leaving minerals to fizzle out of the public spotlight. Instead, vitamins walked the red carpet of the scientific papers, debuting alphabetical names and important health functions. Nobel prize-winning work unveiled vitamins A, B1, B2, B6, B12, C, D, E, and K.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Which minerals can provide entrepreneurs with the most benefit?

Magnesium…

How can magnesium help boost morale?

Among all its other health benefits, magnesium has gained a reputation in some health circles as nature’s version of a “chill pill.” This is primarily because various studies have shown that magnesium deficiency may lead to depression and anxiety. Other research indicates that chronic stress can reduce magnesium in your body, which, in turn, may trigger anxiety and depression. So, team members with low magnesium levels may find themselves trapped in a vicious, self-reinforcing cycle of anxiety, stress, and depression. As you can imagine, all of these can contribute to low morale in the workplace (whether at the office or while working from home as most people not on the frontline have been doing during the pandemic and may well continue doing afterward).

Of course, asking your teams to take more magnesium to improve their morale is only one part of the equation since no mineral or nutrient is a “magic bullet” that can magically fix any underlying, endemic problems a company may have that could impact morale. For example, if the work environment itself is what human resources managers and psychologists call “toxic,” no amount of magnesium will turn disgruntled, unproductive employees into happy, productive ones. 

That said, I would suggest that managers take concrete steps to help ensure their employees get the nutrition they need to be mentally and physically at their best. These should not be isolated activities but rather be a key element of an ongoing employee wellness program focused on having a lasting impact on employees and a higher probability of reducing the consequences of mental and physical health issues in the workplace. To do this, they need to include a personalized, ongoing education component. Unfortunately, most programs today focus on short-term actions that produce quick results. Still, they do very little, if anything, to create the attitude and behavior changes that result in long-term benefits. 

Only education, which is not focused on immediate gratification or “quick hits,” can do this. This education needs to give employees important health information in a way they will understand, address their personal needs, and readily apply it in their daily lives. A key element of this education is helping employees know what is going on with their bodies through comprehensive testing. This could include nutritional, stress level, genomics, and other key metrics. Armed with this information, companies can then help their employees get healthier physically and emotionally and stay healthier.

What foods can be worked into our daily diets to ensure a steady consumption of magnesium?

There are so many delicious, healthy foods that contain magnesium that it should be easy for you to get the magnesium your body needs without ever getting bored with your food choices. These include leafy green vegetables such as spinach, wheat germ, oat bran, avocados, salmon, bananas, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Foods with high fiber content are also good magnesium sources, so you can get a double benefit if you go the higher fiber route. You also should be able to find cereals fortified with magnesium at your local supermarket. And tap water, mineral water, and often bottled waters will also contain magnesium. For your planning, the recommended daily allowance for magnesium is 400-420 mg for men and 310-320 mg daily for women.

Is it possible to consume too much magnesium? If so, how can it hurt our health?

It most definitely is possible to get too much magnesium, and this excess can negatively impact your health. Symptoms include low blood pressure, nausea, coma, lethargy, lung failure, coma, paralysis, and heart problems. Causes of having too much magnesium are over-supplementation, kidney disease, intestinal disease, and physical trauma that can upset the balance of magnesium in your body.

Pink salt on a spoon with pink salt around

Sodium and Potassium…

What are some of the key functions sodium and potassium serve?

I once read that sodium and potassium are like “yin and yang” since as one goes up, the amount of the other goes down and vice versa. Working together, they help our bodies maintain healthy volumes of blood and other fluids. However, potassium is found primarily inside our cells and sodium outside of them. If they are not in perfect balance, conditions such as high blood pressure, muscle spasms, irregular heartbeat, or confusion can result.

They each also have their roles in helping our bodies function at their best. In the case of sodium, this mineral, which admittedly has gotten a bad rap, helps engineer every human cell’s actions. Every human action—eating, thinking, running, working—depends on adequate sodium. An enzyme in the body pumps sodium and potassium ions across the membranes of every single cell. This pumping of tiny, charged atoms creates electrical gradients that power everything that makes us living creatures.

Potassium, which is most often associated with bananas, helps keep blood pressure under control and may help reduce kidney stones and bone loss as you age. It also may help decrease your risk for stroke. One recent study showed a link between white veggies and lower stroke risk, which is thought to be because of the veggies’ high-potassium content. Potassium is also used to build proteins, break down, and use carbohydrates to help fuel your body, build muscles, control the heart’s electrical activity, and maintain the proper pH balance in the blood. In the brain, potassium helps nerve cells communicate with each other and other parts of the body. In the muscles, potassium helps to tell the muscles when to contract.

What foods can be worked into our daily diets to ensure a steady consumption of sodium and potassium?

In addition to the salt found on almost every home dining room and restaurant table across the county, sodium can also be found in such foods as chicken, seafood, processed foods (which are usually very high in sodium), meat, and brined or pickled vegetables such as pickles, olives, and sauerkraut. You may also be surprised to learn that beverages often have a lot of sodium. Even home water softening systems can add too much sodium to drinking water, as it’s a replacement for “hardening” agents, like calcium and magnesium. The recommended daily allowance for sodium in the United States is 1,500 mg – and even lower if you try to better manage your blood pressure.

Potassium is plentiful in figs, dried fruits (prunes and dates), nuts, avocados, bran cereals, lima beans, broccoli, peas, tomatoes, potatoes (especially their skins), sweet potatoes, winter squash, citrus fruits, cantaloupe, bananas, and kiwi. Dried apricots contain more potassium than fresh apricots. Milk and yogurt are also excellent sources of potassium, as well as soy products and veggie burgers. Red meat, chicken, and fish such as salmon, cod, flounder, and sardines are also good sources of potassium. While potatoes are the highest source of dietary potassium, the addition of salt should be limited. The recommended daily allowance of potassium is 4.7g a day. 

Is it possible to consume too much sodium or potassium? If so, how can they hurt our health?

It is possible to consume too much of either. However, doing so can increase health risks from too much of these minerals themselves and because any imbalance between them can be harmful to your health.

Symptoms of too much sodium include confusion, weakness, and fatigue, leading to seizures. Chronically excessive sodium is associated with high blood pressure. The effects of too much potassium include nausea, heart rhythm problems, and even heart block.

Iron…

Why is Iron Important to the Human Body?

Iron is a critical mineral that every single cell in your body needs. It is needed to make hemoglobin, a component of your red blood cells that delivers oxygen to all the cells in your body. Without adequate iron, your body can’t carry enough oxygen to your vital organs. Low iron levels may also leave you feeling quite tired. Not having enough iron is called iron-deficiency anemia, which is the most common form of anemia.

What foods can be worked into our daily diets to ensure a steady consumption of iron?

There are two types of iron – heme and non-heme. Heme iron is rich in lean meat and seafood. This is more bioavailable, meaning your body can use it better. Non-heme iron is found in nuts, grains, vegetables, and other fortified products. The bioavailability (the amount that gets absorbed) of iron from diets mixed with meat and seafood is about 14-18 percent and about 5-12 percent in vegetarian diets. Examples of iron-rich foods include beef liver, chicken, chickpeas, kidney beans, oysters, tofu, dark chocolate, tuna, turkey, cashews, broccoli, raisins, and potatoes. Absorption of iron happens in the gut, and vitamin C enhances it. So, eating vitamin C-rich foods when trying to build up your iron will help.

For adults ages 19-50, women generally need 18 mg/day (27 mg during pregnancy and 9 mg when lactating), and men need 8 mg/day. The iron requirement for women ages 51 and up drops to 8 mg/day, just like men.

Is it possible to consume too much iron? If so, how can it hurt our health?

The adage “too much of a good thing” applies to iron because an excess of this mineral can cause health problems.  These include upset stomach, constipation, nausea, abdominal pain, and faintness.  In extreme cases, having too much iron in your system can cause organ failure, coma, convulsions, and even death.

What are the top three most important minerals not mentioned above, and why?

Since all minerals are important, it’s difficult to pick and then rank three.  But, if I had to, my top three choices to follow magnesium, sodium, potassium, and iron would have to be:

Calcium…

Is probably one of the most well-known and important minerals for your body. It is a mineral that is found abundantly on the earth in rocks. As a result, the soil in which food grows is likely to be calcium-rich, and many foods naturally have calcium.

About 98 percent of your body’s calcium is stored in your bones. It keeps bones and teeth strong, but it does other helpful things as well. For example, calcium plays an essential role in blood clotting, muscle contractions, and nerve impulse transmission. Studies further show that calcium plays a role in blood vessel contraction and dilation, which affect blood pressure. Women need sufficient calcium to prevent osteoporosis.

Your body does not naturally make calcium, so you must get it from other sources, meaning dietary and/or calcium supplements. Great dietary sources of calcium include yogurt, tofu, spinach, oranges, kale, broccoli, salmon, and yogurt. You should target 1,000 mg daily.

Zinc

Is an essential mineral that helps keep your body functioning properly. It has many important functions in the body and can address many health issues, from the common cold to malaria. It plays a crucial role in helping wounds heal quickly and properly. If taken before or after surgery, studies show that zinc will help to speed recovery time and reduce post-operation complications. According to the Centers for Disease Control, inadequate zinc levels may cause undeveloped sex organs, birth defects, and stunted growth in males. Zinc also plays an important role in helping the immune system fight off bacteria and reducing the incidence of colds. In addition, it is required for proper taste and smell.

Zinc is very important for men because prostatic fluids have high concentrations of zinc. It has been reported that zinc may be an effective treatment for low testosterone in men. Zinc deficiency reportedly produces sexual health issues like impotence, infertility, and poor sexual development. There is some support that the prostate enlargement that comes with age is related to low zinc and that regular zinc supplementation may prevent this problem. 

Foods containing good zinc sources are oysters, red meat, poultry, chia seeds, beans, almonds, walnuts, pistachios, pecans, tofu, broccoli, oatmeal, and spinach. Most people can get their daily recommended amount of zinc from the foods they eat. This is the best way to get your daily zinc because it is more easily absorbed this way. You should target getting 11 mg daily if you are a man, 8 mg daily if you are a woman.

There is a very simple test to see if you have enough zinc in your system. Grab some liquid zinc from your local health store and swish a tablespoon around in your mouth.  If you immediately get a strong unpleasant or metallic taste in your mouth, then you probably have an adequate amount of zinc in your system. However, if the zinc tastes like water or even sweet, you may be deficient. Without enough zinc in your diet, you may experience a decreased sense of taste.

Selenium

This is a natural trace element that can be an essential micronutrient or a toxin, depending on the dose consumed. This mineral wasn’t always known to be an essential nutrient. Before the 1950s, veterinary scientists thought it was a toxin because it was related to livestock-related illnesses. This may have been due to an excess of selenium in the soil or the feed.  But in more recent decades, it has become clear to scientists that animals and humans need selenium and may even have anti-cancer effects.

Selenium is part of the amino acid selenocysteine, which occurs in 25 different selenoproteins. Selenoproteins play critical roles in reproduction, thyroid hormone metabolism, DNA synthesis, oxidative damage, and infection protection. Not getting enough selenium can make it more likely that you may suffer from cardiovascular disease and infertility if you are a man.

Seafood and organ meats are the richest food sources of selenium. Other sources include muscle meats, Brazil nuts, cereals, and other grains, and dairy products. Both men and women need about 55 mcg of selenium a day.

The consumption of soda, alcohol, coffee, and water with low mineral content and a lack of mineral-rich foods contributes to mineral deficiencies. Besides eating mineral-rich foods and taking supplements, how can we combat mineral deficiencies without implementing significant lifestyle changes?

I use some great diet “hacks” to maximize the nutritional value of what my family and I eat that I would like to share with you. They are very easy, don’t require any significant lifestyle changes, and some can be great fun to do with friends and family members. In no special order, they are:

Farmers’ Markets

I am lucky that I live in a part of the country where there are farmers’ markets year-round. They’re great for getting outside and changing up an often-mundane trip to the grocery store. It’s also great to support local businesses that offer fresh, healthy foods. It can also be beneficial to bring your child to a farmers’ market. Seeing the array of colorful, fresh produce and learning where these foods come from can empower children. Instead of seeing fruits and vegetables as foods they must eat, they may see them as foods they want to eat. The tasty, free food samples also add to the fun.  

Cooking Methods…

I am a big advocate of preparing meals at home since I know exactly what I am eating and control the portions. One important thing to remember is removing almost all nutritional value from your food if you do not cook it correctly. If you are used to well-done meats and vegetables that are boiled until they droop, it may take a little effort to get used to a healthier way of cooking. For me, this means steaming vegetables and removing them from the steamer while they are still crisp to minimize the leaching of minerals and other nutrients. I also bake, braise, roast, or broil any meats after trimming visible fat.

Organic/Natural Foods…

If I had to pick nutrition public enemy number one, it would be processed foods. Once, I read that if you cannot read the ingredient list on a product, you should not buy it. That means it is pretty devoid of nutrients and full of things that will not make you healthier. I also tried to determine where the food was grown and what kind of farming was used. These can also impact the nutritional value. Organic and natural foods often may cost a little more, but it is worth it to have foods with greater nutritional value.

Lifestyle…

Since our lifestyle choices can impact how well our bodies absorb, metabolize, store, and use minerals and other nutrients, I do my best to make choices that will not undermine the nutritional value of my food. For example, I avoid sodas since the phosphoric acid used in many of them can cause essential healthy bone minerals such as calcium and magnesium to get pushed away, allowing phosphate to take their place, resulting in osteoporosis. Another culprit is alcohol because its diuretic effect can flush minerals and nutrients out of our bodies. Last but not least, I try to reduce my stress as much as possible since stress increases cortisol levels, which may interfere with mineral absorption.  

Being Mindful of Antinutrients…

I also keep in mind that combining specific foods can reduce their overall nutrient value by making it harder for my body to absorb certain nutrients. Others may enhance absorption. A good example is an iron. Research shows that dairy products (which contain calcium), tea, coffee, and soy products may make it harder for your body to absorb iron. Conversely, eating foods high in vitamin C, such as citrus and vegetables, can greatly increase iron absorption. Additional foods that enhance iron absorption are those rich in beta-carotene, such as spinach and peaches, and honey and black-strap molasses.

View this article in the December 2021 issue of MP. Learn more about foods and cooking at MP Kitchen.