Micronutrients are one of the significant groups of nutrients our body needs. They include minerals and vitamins. Vitamins are necessary for immune function, energy production, blood clotting, and other functions.
Meanwhile, minerals play an essential role in bone health, growth, fluid balance, and numerous other processes. This article provides a comprehensive overview of micronutrients, their functions, and the implications of deficiency or excess consumption.
What Are Micronutrients?
The term micronutrients are used to describe minerals and vitamins in general. Macronutrients, on the other hand, include fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. Our body needs smaller amounts of micronutrients relative to macronutrients. That’s why they’re designated “micro.”
We must obtain micronutrients from food since our body cannot produce minerals and vitamins — for the most part. That’s why they are also referred to as essential nutrients.
Vitamins are organic compounds made by animals and plants which can be broken down by acid, heat, or air. On the other end, minerals are inorganic, exist in water or soil, and cannot be broken down.
When we eat, we consume the vitamins that animals and plants created or the minerals they absorbed. The micronutrient content of every food is different, so it’s best to eat various foods to get enough minerals and vitamins.
A sufficient intake of all micronutrients is necessary for optimal health, as each mineral and vitamin has a specific role in our body . Minerals and vitamins are vital for immune function, growth, brain development, and several other important functions .
Depending on their function, specific micronutrients also play a role in fighting and preventing disease.
[Read: 11 Essential Vitamins & Minerals]
Health Benefits of Micronutrients
All micronutrients are essential for the proper functioning of our body. Consuming an adequate amount of the different minerals and vitamins is crucial to optimal health and can even help combat disease.
This is because micronutrients are part of practically every process in our body. Moreover, specific minerals and vitamins can act as antioxidants. Antioxidants can protect against cell damage that has been linked with certain diseases, including Alzheimer’s, cancer, and heart disease.
For instance, research has linked an adequate dietary intake of vitamin C and vitamin A with a lower risk of few types of cancer.
Getting enough of some vitamins can also help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. A review of 7 studies established that adequate dietary intake of vitamins A, C, and E is linked with a 12%, 17%, and 24% decreased risk of developing Alzheimer’s, respectively .
Particular minerals can also play a role in fighting and preventing disease. Studies have linked low blood levels of selenium to a higher risk of cardiac disease. A review of observational studies established that cardiac disease’s risk decreased by 24% when selenium’s blood concentrations increased by 50%.
Furthermore, a review of 22 studies noticed that adequate calcium intake decreases death risk from cardiac disease and all other causes. These studies indicate that consuming adequate amounts of all micronutrients — specifically those with antioxidant properties — provides substantial health benefits.
However, it’s not clear whether consuming more than the suggested amounts of specific micronutrients — either from supplements or foods — offers additional benefits.
Micronutrient Toxicities and Deficiencies
Micronutrients are required in specific amounts to perform their unique functions in our body. Getting too little or too much of a mineral or vitamin can lead to adverse side effects.
Most healthy adults can get a sufficient amount of micronutrients from a balanced diet, but some common nutrient deficiencies affect specific populations.
- Vitamin D: Roughly 77% of Americans are deficient in vitamin D, mostly due to lack of sun exposure.
- Vitamin B12: Vegetarians and vegans may develop vitamin B12 deficiency from abstaining from animal products. Senior individuals are also at risk due to decreased absorption with age.
- Vitamin A: The diets of children and women in developing countries often lack adequate vitamin A.
- Iron: Deficiency of this mineral is prevalent among preschool children, vegans, and menstruating women.
- Calcium: Close to 10% and 22% of women and men over 50, respectively, don’t get adequate calcium.
The symptoms, signs, and long-term effects of these deficiencies depend on each nutrient but can be detrimental to our body’s optimal health and proper functioning.
Micronutrient toxicities are less prevalent than deficiencies.
They are most likely to occur with generous doses of the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) since the nutrients can be stored in our fatty tissues and liver. They cannot be excreted from our body like water-soluble vitamins.
Micronutrient toxicity generally develops from supplementing with extreme amounts — rarely from food sources. Symptoms and signs of toxicity fluctuate depending on the nutrient.
It’s essential to note that excessive consumption of specific nutrients can still be fatal even if it does not lead to apparent toxicity symptoms.
One investigation surveyed over 18,000 individuals with a high risk of lung cancer due to asbestos exposure or past smoking. The intervention group received 2 types of vitamin A — 30 mg of beta-carotene and 25,000 IU of retinyl palmitate a day .
The trial was stalled ahead of schedule when the intervention group showed 28% more lung cancer cases and a 17% greater incidence of death over eleven years compared to the control group.
The most potent and safest way to get adequate mineral and vitamin intake appears to be from food sources. More studies are needed to understand the long-term effects of toxicities and supplements fully. However, individuals at risk of specific nutrient deficiencies may benefit from taking supplements under a doctor’s supervision.
If you’re interested in taking micronutrient supplements, consider products approved by a 3rd party. Unless otherwise directed by a medical practitioner, be sure to avoid products that contain “mega” or “super” doses of any nutrient.
The term micronutrients refer to minerals and vitamins, which can be divided into macro minerals, trace minerals, and fat- and water-soluble vitamins. Vitamins are needed for immune function, energy production, blood clotting, and other functions, while minerals benefit fluid balance, bone health, growth, and other processes.
To get a fair amount of micronutrients, aim for a balanced diet containing a variety of foods.