The minerals found in the human body: why are they important and what are they for?
Iron, magnesium, selenium, zinc, iodine, calcium, copper: read more about the functions and benefits of all the main minerals found in the human body.
Minerals are inorganic compounds essential for our organism as they are involved in numerous cell processes that are fundamental to living, such as carrying oxygen to tissues, the formation of teeth and bones, maintenance of the immune system and all processes involved in the production of energy.
The human being is not able to autonomously produce minerals, and therefore the only way to keep the right levels in our body is via food and water. Minerals are also easily eliminated via sweat or urine, and for this reason regular input by means of a balanced diet is vital to ensure constantly the right levels in the body.
What are minerals for?
Functions and benefits of the main microelements and macroelements present in the human body
Mineral salts are divided into macroelements and microelements, depending on the quantities found in our body. Let’s see which minerals are present in larger quantities in our body, what they are for, where they are found and how to make sure we keep the right amount of nutrients through a healthy balanced diet.
Iron is a microelement, with around 3-4 g present in the body, needed for the synthesis of fundamental proteins such as haemoglobin, found in red blood cells and responsible for carrying oxygen to organs and tissues, or myoglobin, a protein that supplies oxygen to the muscles to enable contraction. Iron also intervenes in cell respiration processes and in the metabolism of nucleic acids, as well as playing a key role in the immune defence.
Among the types of food richest in iron is undoubtedly meat, and in particular red meat, liver and offal. Iron can also be found in dark green leaf vegetables, legumes, egg yolk or in chocolate, but less is absorbed from these sources. It is worth noting that Vitamin C also helps the absorption of iron into the body, and therefore it is recommended to combine food sources rich in this vitamin with iron-rich sources, for example by squeezing lemon juice onto meat or vegetables.
Symptoms commonly indicating iron deficiency include asthenia, fatigue, pallor, breathlessness, vertigo and dizziness, headaches and irritability.
Magnesium is a macroelement, with quantities ranging from 22 to 26 g in the body, of which more than 50% is found mineralised in the bone. In our organism, magnesium is a co-factor for more than 300 enzymes and is therefore involved in a great number of processes, from the synthesis of neurotransmitters essential in our central nervous system, to the production and release of cell energy. What’s more, as magnesium acts in balance with calcium, it also contributes to the control of fundamental processes such as muscular contractions, heart beat, coagulation and blood pressure.
Sources particularly rich in magnesium include green leafed vegetables, legumes, cereals and bananas, the recommended daily intake is 300 mg.
Signs of magnesium deficiency are usually cramps, physical and mental fatigue, irritability and insomnia.
Selenium is a microelement with renowned anti-oxidant properties, found in abundance in fish and offal. In our body, it is involved in the synthesis of thyroid hormones, immune responses and enzymatic reactions (above all in the activity of the enzyme glutathione peroxidase). Thanks to its ability to protect cell membranes from oxidation, selenium also offers protective action for cardiovascular diseases.
Symptoms Selenium deficiency include cardiomyopathy, myositis, alteration of the thyroid hormone metabolism, nausea, vomiting, hair loss, dry skin and erythema.
Zinc is another microelement, with amounts of around 1.4 to 2.3 mg found in our body. This mineral is involved in numerous functions of the cell metabolism supporting the catalytic activity of over 100 enzymes; it also modulates the immune system functions, is involved in the wound healing process, in DNA synthesis and in cell division and growth.
The food where zinc is most present are meat, red and white, oysters, mushrooms, cocoa, walnuts and egg white.
The main symptoms of zinc deficiency include: skin rash or dermatitis, nail dystrophy, alopecia, glossitis, impaired wound healing, reduced growth, change in taste and smell, insulin resistance and overload of iron. Keeping Zinc to normal levels is therefore essential and this applies even more so during the flu seasons, because Zinc, thanks to its immunomodulatory properties, can protect our organism against infection.
Calcium is an essential macroelement for cell physiology and its transfer through the membranes acts as a signal for many cell processes, such as muscular contractions and the transmission of nerve pulses.
The main sources of calcium are found in milk and dairy products in general, and although the recommended daily intake depends on gender and age, the average daily dose is around 800g, and thus it is important to include these products in our daily diet.
The main area where calcium is stored in our bodies is in the bones and teeth, and so low intake in the long term can, as a main consequence, lead to the development of osteoporosis, with the risk of bone fractures. The most common symptoms related to calcium deficiency include muscle cramps, backache, bone and joint pain.
Iodine is a microelement present in very small quantities in our body (15-20 mg). Its main function is as an essential component in thyroid hormones, and therefore indirectly acts in all functions regulated by these hormones, such as skeletal development and the central nervous system, body temperature control and the metabolism of sugars, fats and proteins.
The food products most rich in iodine are fish and seaweed, but given that a normal diet does not often guarantee sufficient intake for the body’s needs, both the Ministry of Health and the WHO recommend the use of iodised salt in place of normal table salt.
The main consequences of iodine deficiency are due to a reduction in thyroid function, and include negative effects in development and growth, as well as a risk factor for intellectual development disorders.
Copper is a microelement, which is found in quantities of around 100 mg in our organism, but it plays a key role in the central nervous system and in haematopoiesis, i.e. the process for the production of blood cells. Also, copper and copper-dependent enzymes are co-factors in numerous oxidation-reduction reactions, and are involved in the production of energy, the metabolism of iron, in neurotransmission and in the growth of connective tissue. The anti-oxidant function of copper is also very important, to limit the risks associated with free radicals.
The food products most rich in copper are offal, above all liver and kidney, and the daily intake of this element for adults is between 1.5 and 3 mg.
Copper deficiency can lead to anaemia, bone de-mineralisation, alteration of immune defence, and increased risk of cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases.