What Micronutrients Matter for Health? And How to Get More of Them
In this article:
- What Are Micronutrients?
- Vitamins: Which Ones Do We Need?
- Minerals: Which Ones Do We Need?
- In Conclusion: Do Your Research!
Macronutrients—proteins, carbohydrates, and fats—get a lot of buzz in the press, especially in the health and fitness community. But it’s actually micronutrients, like B vitamins, vitamin D, and vitamins A, C, and E that give us energy, keep our skin looking radiant, and fuel our metabolisms. Additionally, minerals help keep us calm, may improve our mental health, and help us recover after hard workouts.
So what are the top micronutrients that matter for health, and how do we make sure we get enough of them each day? We answer those questions and more in our article below.
“Micronutrients” refers to vitamins, minerals, polyphenols, and other small molecules that run each of the over 500 enzymatic reactions that keep us alive each day. Our bodies usually can’t make these vitamins and minerals on their own, so it’s important to learn not only what they do, but also how we can incorporate them into our diets. As a naturopathic doctor, this is one of my areas of expertise: helping my clients fuel, heal, and optimize their bodies’ natural processes through diet.
You’ve probably heard of vitamin C, which naturally occurs in many fruits and vegetables, or vitamin D, which we get from spending time in the sun. But which vitamins should you consider monitoring in your own diet? Here are a few of the vitamins I most frequently discuss with my clients.
Vitamin A is essential for vision health, operating a strong immune system, and reproductive health. Vitamin A also supports heart, lung, and kidney function, making it essential for daily health and vitality.
Vitamin A is easy to get through your diet if you regularly eat leafy greens, vegetables like broccoli or squash, or fruits like mango and apricot. If you aren’t a veggie-lover, you can also look for a daily multivitamin that includes vitamin A (most multivitamins do).
There are multiple different “B” vitamins, and they all support our health in symbiotic ways.
- Vitamin B1 (also called thiamin) helps our bodies turn food into energy, boosting cell function. B1 is usually found in whole grains, like fortified bread or even breakfast cereals, meat, and legumes. Drinking alcohol depletes vitamin B1 and can lead to thiamin deficiency, so if you’re a big drinker, it’s important to incorporate B1 in your supplement routine each day.
- Vitamin B12 keeps blood cells healthy and hearty, and even supports the production of DNA. Foods like fish, meat, and poultry often have naturally occurring B12, but many food manufacturers also add B12 to their products (so check the labels!). A vegan source of B12 is nutritional yeast, which many of my clients love adding to all kinds of snacks and salads because it’s chock full of vitamins and tastes like cheese!
- Vitamin B2 is also called Riboflavin. Like B12, it helps to support blood cell function, and like B1, it also helps convert food into energy—so, it’s pretty important! Luckily, B2 is found in easy-to-cook foods like spinach, broccoli, lean meat (like chicken or turkey), and eggs. Again, many food manufacturers add B2 to products like cereals and bread, so be sure to check the labels!
- Vitamin B3 is very similar to B2, but B3 is called niacin. Niacin supports blood cell function and cellular respiration (converting food into energy). However, niacin is more often found in animal meat, like poultry, fish, beef, nuts, and legumes.
- Vitamin B6 is used in over 100 reactions that are involved in running our metabolisms! It’s especially important for pregnant women, as B6 is essential to the brain development of infants. B6 is often found in poultry and fish, and starches like potatoes are particularly rich in B6. Non-citrus fruits are also high in B6. Together, fruits and starchy vegetables are the primary source of B6 for most Americans.
- Vitamin B7, or biotin, helps convert macronutrients into energy. Getting B7 through your diet can be trickier than biotin’s cousins B3 and B2. To make sure you get enough B7, make sure you include vegetables like sweet potatoes, spinach, or broccoli in your daily diet. You can also get B7 from seeds, nuts, and even animal organs like the liver. Biotin is included in many hair, skin, and nail supplements because it helps these structures grow and can even keep skin looking firm and plump.
- Vitamin B9, also called folate, supports cell function in two extremely important ways. Firstly, it helps our cells create DNA, and secondly, it helps our cells divide. This makes folate one of the most important vitamins in our diets! Folate naturally occurs in foods like beef liver, leafy greens, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, fruit, fruit juice, nuts, beans, and peas. It’s also in most prenatal vitamins since it is an essential nutrient for babies as they develop their nervous systems in utero.
Vitamin C, also called ascorbic acid, acts as an antioxidant and protects cells from free radicals caused by cigarette smoke, air pollution, and ultraviolet light. Vitamin C also helps the body heal wounds, keeps skin looking bright and firm, and is essential for the first-line function of the immune system. Most Americans get their daily dose of vitamin C through fruits and vegetables, especially from citrus fruits and juices.
Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium, which in turn helps our bodies create and maintain strong bones. Vitamin D also helps transfer messages from your nerves to your brain, making it one of the “all-star” vitamins! Vitamin D is found naturally in very few foods, but a few good ones are fatty fish like trout, salmon, and tuna. However, lots of food products are fortified with vitamin D, so check nutrition labels while shopping.
Vitamin E is similar in function to vitamin C in that they both protect cells from free radicals. Vitamin E, though, is also used by the body to support the immune system and even helps widen blood vessels to prevent blood clots. Vegetable oils like sunflower and wheat germ have lots of vitamin E, as do nuts and seeds. Dark green vegetables offer some vitamin E, too.
Vitamin K supports cell health and bone strength by helping incorporate calcium into the calcium matrix of bones. Like many other essential vitamins, vitamin K naturally occurs in foods like leafy greens, vegetable oils, and even fruits like blueberries and figs. You can take vitamin K, usually combined with vitamin D, as a supplement. If you’re on blood thinners or are prone to clots, never take vitamin K without checking with your doctor first.
The National Institutes of Health define minerals (in nutrition) as “an inorganic substance found in the earth that is required to maintain health.” In theory, our food should be able to provide our bodies with all the minerals we need. However, commercial farming practices have reduced the mineral content of our soil. As a result, few foods found in American grocery stores contain enough minerals to meet our needs.
Because of this, I often recommend supplements to my clients—just to be on the safe side! Below is a description of the most common minerals I discuss with clients, and which foods naturally produce them at the highest levels.
Magnesium is essential for health and disease prevention. It’s also relaxing! The foods with the highest percentages of magnesium are unrefined (whole) grains, spinach, nuts, legumes, and potatoes—but only when prepared healthfully! If you choose to take magnesium as a supplement, be aware that overdoing it can result in diarrhea. For more guidance on which type of magnesium supplement is right for you, ask your naturopathic doctor, dietitian, or functional medicine specialist.
Researchers still don’t know everything about the function of chromium in the body, but they do know that it helps regulate blood sugar. Getting enough chromium through your diet is actually quite easy, especially if you eat meat, vegetables, and grains on a regular basis. You can also take it as a supplement.
As discussed above, calcium works together with vitamin D to build and maintain bone strength. Most dairy products are high in calcium, and many other foods (like juice and alternative milk products) are fortified with calcium, too. Before taking calcium supplements, talk with your doctor to make sure you’re not at risk of calcifying existing arterial plaque. If you smoke, you need to be especially careful with calcium, and shouldn’t take it unless your doctor tells you to.
Potassium regulates fluid balance and gives your cells energy. You need potassium to accomplish your daily routine and to push yourself during a workout! Potassium is readily found in most fruits and vegetables, especially dried apricots, bananas, and orange juice. Potassium supplements come in very low doses because high (or low) amounts of potassium can alter the electrical signaling in the heart. Ask your doctor or nutrition professional how much potassium is right for you.
Selenium is needed for thyroid hormone production, meaning it helps regulate the rate at which calories are burned by your body! Most Americans get adequate levels of selenium by eating diets rich in meat, poultry, and eggs.
Omega 3’s are fatty acids that the body uses for energy. They’re also anti-inflammatory and may support brain health. They’re easy to get from foods like fatty fish (salmon, herring, sardines, etc.), chia and flax seeds, and nut oils. Omega 3 supplements can be an easy way to get more omega 3’s in your diet if you don’t tend to consume the above foods regularly, but make sure to chat with your doctor about how much is right for you. Be sure to discontinue omega 3 supplements at least a few weeks before any major surgeries as they can interfere with blood clotting.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. They help make neurotransmitters, which help transmit information between your body and your brain. They also help build bones and upregulate metabolism. All high-protein foods, like beef, poultry, and fish, contain amino acids. If you have a hard time consuming these foods regularly, you can supplement with protein powders or collagen powders in drinks or baked goods to meet your daily needs.
Fiber isn’t necessarily a micronutrient, but it’s still very important! It can help with health conditions like allergies, heavy metal toxicity, cognitive function, asthma, skin rashes, inflammatory bowel diseases, osteoporosis, and more. Fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of fiber. They also contain a high percentage of water, which supports digestion when combined with fiber. If you choose to take a fiber supplement, consume it with a lot of water so it helps you move your bowels rather than adding to constipation.
You need to eat to have an energized, healthy, and sustainable lifestyle! Foods really can be medicine, particularly if you choose the right ones. Talk to your doctor, dietitian, or other qualified healthcare professionals if you want to delve deeper into how the foods you eat can make you feel better.
- “Dietary Supplement Fact Sheets.” National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/list-all/ Accessed January 22, 2022.
- Merz, Beverly. “Micronutrients have major impact on health.” Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School. Published February 15, 2021. Accessed January 2, 2022. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/micronutrients-have-major-impact-on-health
- National Research Council (US) Subcommittee on the Tenth Edition of the Recommended Dietary Allowances. Recommended Dietary Allowances: 10th Edition. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1989. 6, Protein and Amino Acids. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK234922/
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