Calcium in milk is a vital micronutrient

What Do Minerals Do for Your Body?

Minerals like dietary calcium, potassium, magnesium and phosphorus are called "micronutrients"—but there's nothing "micro" about them when it comes to the role they play in your health. Adequate intake of these and other minerals is essential for immune system health, sturdy bones, healthy blood pressure and overall well-being.

In fact, the word "micronutrient" doesn't mean they aren't important; it means that, just like with vitamins, the body needs nutrients like magnesium, potassium and phosphorus in smaller amounts than macronutrients like protein, carbs and fats. While you might need less calcium, than, say, carbohydrates, that doesn't mean you should chance not getting enough.

So, why are minerals vital for whole-body health? Here's the lowdown on these necessary nutrients—plus a "cheat sheet" listing the most important minerals, their health benefits and food sources.

What are minerals?

Minerals are life-sustaining compounds that are naturally present in soil and water. Like vitamins—except for fat-soluble vitamin D—your body (and other living organisms) cannot produce minerals, so you must get them from your diet.

We get the minerals in our diet from plants and animals. The mineral chain starts with plants absorbing minerals from the soil; then, animals get their minerals by eating plants (fish get them from water) or by eating other animals that eat plants. So, when you're enjoying a hefty salad with roasted potatoes and a juicy steak, you're not just getting proteins, carbohydrates and fats; you're also getting minerals and vitamins.

Why are minerals important?

Simply put, staying healthy would not be possible without minerals. A lack of micronutrients, including the essential minerals, can negatively impact overall health. And by the same token, healthy mineral levels can enhance your well-being.

Pro tip: Take a quiz to find out which minerals and other essential nutrients should be in your supplement routine.

What do minerals do?

These nutrients act as helper molecules, assisting enzymes (or specialized proteins) in biochemical reactions that regulate:

  • Blood pressure
  • Nerve cell signaling
  • Digestion
  • Immune system
  • Metabolism and energy production
  • Sleep and stress management
  • Bone mass, muscle contraction, and more

If this sounds like a lot, it is! To simplify things, it's safe to say that minerals serve four main purposes within the body:

  • Structure—One of the main functions of minerals is that they help form and maintain the structure of our bodies, including in cells, proteins, bones, organs, glands, and more.
  • Chemistry—Minerals are vital for biological processes that depend on biochemical reactions. For example, magnesium is crucial in ATP (cellular fuel) production; selenium and iodine are essential for thyroid hormone and thyroid function; the body needs zinc for immune health.
  • Whole-body health—Minerals help maintain healthy mineral levels in the body, which are necessary for optimal health. When the body doesn't have enough magnesium, for example, it can affect cardiovascular and metabolic health.
  • Communication between nerves—Minerals are essential for nerve signaling. Sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium are vital for every nerve and other cells to perform optimally.

Minerals vs. Vitamins: Are They Different?

Vitamins are fat-soluble and water-soluble compounds that are more complex than minerals. Some vitamins, like vitamin C or B vitamins, are produced by living organisms (not your body, though).
For example:

  • Folate (or folic acid), a B-vitamin, is produced by leafy greens like spinach and chards.
  • Vitamin C is produced by fruits like cantaloupe or oranges, and vegetables like broccoli.
  • Vitamin D is one of the few vitamins our bodies can produce.
  • Vitamin A is found in carotenoid-rich foods like beets and carrots; beta-carotene, one of the active compounds in colorful-root vegetables, can be converted to vitamin A.
  • Vitamin K is produced in small amounts by the bacteria in our gut.

Vitamins are classified in two groups:

  • Water-soluble vitamins

    : Vitamin C, vitamin B complex (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, pyridoxine, biotin, folate or folic acid, and cobalamin.)
  • Fat-soluble vitamins

    : Vitamin D, vitamin A, vitamin K and vitamin E.

As mentioned above, minerals originally come from rocks and dirt, so living organisms can't produce them. While it's not ideal or recommended, in theory, you could get some of your minerals by eating rocks—your teeth may not be happy about it!

Plant foods absorb minerals from the Earth, and their mineral content depends on the quality of soil. In other words, soil depletion affects the mineral and vitamin content in your fruits and veggies, resulting in less nutrient-rich foods than in years past.

Essential minerals: Major minerals vs. trace minerals

As you probably guessed by now, essential minerals are nutrients necessary for a long and healthy life. Both major minerals and trace minerals (or microminerals) are equally indispensable for your health; the only difference is how much the body needs each one.

  • Macro minerals

    : Your body needs them in larger amounts. They include calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, chloride, sulfur and phosphorus.
  • Trace minerals

    : Your body needs these in very small amounts. Iron, selenium, manganese, copper, iodine, cobalt, zinc, fluoride, molybdenum, chromium, fluoride.

Good sources of minerals? List & good sources

You're probably familiar with calcium, potassium, magnesium, sodium and phosphorus, but there are a total of 16 minerals. They are classified by the quantity needed to sustain health and well-being.

Major Minerals Food source Health benefit
Calcium Dairy products; canned fish with bones like sardines; green vegetables like broccoli Dietary calcium is essential for healthy teeth and bones; helps muscles contract and relax; crucial for nerve signaling, blood clotting, blood pressure, and to support the immune system.
Magnesium Nuts and seeds; leafy vegetables; seafood; dark chocolate; artichoke Bone health; protein and energy production, muscle contraction, nerve signaling, and metabolic and immune health.
Potassium Fruits, legumes, vegetables and dairy Helps maintain fluid balance, nerve signaling, and muscle contraction.
Sodium Salt and foods made with added salt, soy sauce, coconut amino acids; also in processed foods, milk, breads, and unprocessed meats Also helps maintain fluid balance, nerve signaling, and muscle contraction.
Chloride Salt, soy sauce, coconut amino acids; canned and packaged foods can contain large amounts; dairy products, breads, meats and vegetables contain smaller amounts The human body needs chloride to maintain fluid balance, and stomach acid.
Sulfur Found as part of protein in foods like fish, meats, eggs, poultry, milk, nuts and legumes Essential for proteins throughout the body, including every tissue type and organ; it's also vital for hair and specialized proteins (enzymes) that regulate your natural detoxification process.
Phosphorus Meat, fish, poultry, eggs, milk and processed foods; small amounts in meats, breads, vegetables and unprocessed meats Necessary for bone mass and teeth health, energy production; helps maintain acid-base balance.
Trace Minerals Food source Health benefit
Chromium Unrefined organ meats like liver, brewer's yeast, whole grains, nuts, cheeses This trace element helps with insulin regulation and blood sugar levels
Copper Legumes, nuts and seeds, whole grains, organ meats, drinking water Needed for iron metabolism and enzyme function
Manganese Plants and plant-based foods like tofu Manganese is needed for enzyme function
Molybdenum Legumes and grains; leafy greens and green vegetables, milk and organ meat like liver This trace element is also needed for enzyme function
Iron Organ meats; red meats; fish; poultry; shellfish like clams; egg yolks, legumes; dried fruits; dark and leafy vegetables, fortified foods like bread and cereals Needed for energy production and blood circulation; it's part of hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carry oxygen
Iodine Seafood, iodized salt, and dairy products Iodine is an essential component of thyroid hormone; your thyroid regulates growth, development, and metabolism.
Selenium Meats, seafood and grains Powerful free radical scavenger, aka antioxidant
Zinc Meats, fish, poultry, wholegrains and colorful and green vegetables Zinc is a central part of many enzymes; helps regulate gene expression, cell signaling, hormone release, and sperm production.

Mineral supplements vs. food sources: Is there a difference?

Choose nutrient-dense foods as your primary source of minerals and other nutrients your body needs. The natural composition of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, fibers, polyphenols, and water make real food ideal for mineral absorption—plus, you're biologically designed to absorb minerals and vitamins from your foods.

If you find it challenging to eat enough whole healthy foods like green veggies, fish or seafood, or there are other factors that inhibit adequate mineral absorption from your foods, you may want to consider adding a supplement to complement your healthy choices.

Pro tip: Want a mineral-rich diet? Eat balanced meals like the ones in the Mediterranean Diet that include a variety of vegetables, seafood and lean protein while limiting processed, refined and highly sugary foods.

What do mineral supplements do?

Mineral supplements can help you bridge any nutritional gaps by providing essential minerals in a convenient form. It's not always easy to meet the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of minerals your body needs to thrive just by eating a balanced diet—that's why a mineral supplement can help.

How to choose high-quality mineral supplements

Look for brands you can trust and that are transparent about the quality, purity and efficacy of their products, and offer a certificate of analysis. Always ask about how they source their ingredients, and when possible, choose organic or Non-GMO supplements—doing so will ensure every ingredient in the formula meets strict guidelines when sourced, and that there aren't any harmful additives in the products you purchase.

Who should take mineral supplements?

If you're concerned your diet may lack major or trace minerals, finding a supplement that works for you can go a long way. But remember: supplements are meant to complement your lifestyle choices, not replace them. Speak with your doctor before adding supplements of any kind to your daily habits.

References

By: Jessica Monge, Health & Wellness Writer

Jessica Monge has a bachelor's degree in biological sciences & neuroscience and a master's degree in comparative studies and related languages from Florida Atlantic University. She worked as a tutor, freelance writer and editor before joining Life Extension as a Copywriter.

Scientifically Reviewed By: Michael A. Smith, MD