Micronutrients: The Big Picture

Our bodies are busy every minute of every day, working constantly to renew and replenish the cells, muscles, bone, skin, blood and nerves that make up our extraordinary human body. You might have seen illustrations showing the body as a kind of factory full of tiny staff hard at work – it’s not that far off from the truth!

But the factory needs fuel from outside. Our bodies cannot alone produce the necessary amounts of the many raw materials they need.

There are dozens of vitamins and minerals that we have to supply from outside to keep things ticking along with the right balance.

These substances – known as micronutrients – come from the food we eat or from nutritional supplements we take to complement our overall diet.

Why do we call them micronutrients? To contrast them with the macronutrients we need in more substantial quantities: the carbohydrates, proteins and fats that the body requires in larger amounts.

However, although we need less in quantity of the vitamins and minerals, they are absolutely essential for optimum health. The subject is fascinating and complex: the combinations of numbers, letters and codes can be mind-boggling, but if you have time to explore a little more about the core minerals and vitamins, you can find yourself in greater control of your physical well-being.

Essentially, vitamins are organic substances, which help to regulate the processes of the body, often working in conjunction with enzymes.

Minerals are inorganic – they can’t be broken down – and play a key role in maintaining our bodies’ structure, nerves and muscles, and regulating the level of fluids.

Vitamins and minerals work together with a delicate choreography. Some combinations are powerfully beneficial, others can counteract each other. That’s why the more knowledge you have about each key vitamin and mineral, and their potential combinations, the more you can understand how to make the most of them.

Most of us know something about the basic vitamin groups: the alphabet of Vitamins A, B, C, D, E and K. Lack of vitamin C – present in fruits like oranges, blackcurrants and guavas as well as broccoli and sprouts – was what used to cause scurvy amongst the crew on long sailing journeys and explorations. Lack of vitamin D, best gained from sunlight although also fish such as salmon, herring and mackerel, led to rickets, a condition we thought had been confined to history but which recently saw a rise.

Vitamin A supports our immune function and vision (milk and dairy products, pumpkin, spinach and carrots are foods rich in A), while the group of B vitamins, from B1 or thiamin through to B12, cyano-cobalamin, broadly help break down carbohydrates and support energy levels.

Perhaps Vitamins E and K are the least well-known. E, tocopherol, can help support the body in reducing the effects of oxidative stress; nuts, seeds and vegetable oils are strong sources. K is also good for the blood, as well as the kidneys and bones, and is found particularly in greens like spinach and soybean oil.

The key minerals can be split into the major minerals – including calcium (the one we all know about, for building bones and teeth), magnesium (enzyme systems), potassium (nerve impulses) and sodium (for balancing water levels) – and trace minerals. Only very small quantities of the trace minerals are needed but they still deliver essential support, like iron which helps transport oxygen or zinc that improves the ability of the blood to clot.

There is information aplenty – and in great detail – online. If you go to a respected source like a government health site, there will be solid, sensible descriptions of each vitamin and mineral and advice on how best to use them.

Above all, it is always worth taking notice of the daily recommended amounts, especially if you are planning to take supplements to support your all-round diet. And do remember that supplements are precisely that: an additional source of vitamins and minerals, never a replacement option – a great way to complement your all round wellbeing.