Know Your Nutrients: The Minerals, Part One

By James A. Jackson, MT (ASCP), Ph.D.

Minerals are also known as elements and metals. The planet earth is the ultimate source of all metals. All known elements are present at some level of concentration throughout the natural environment. They are present in minerals, plants, and animals and their beneficial and harmful effects have been present since life began.

Magnesium is often cited as the element most deficient in modern diets.

According to Drs. O. Selinus and F. Frank (Medical Geology in Environmental Medicine, 2002), Mother Nature is a great polluter. In 1991, the volcano Pinatubo erupted. In just two days the volcano ejected about 10 billion tons of magma and 20 billion tons of sulfur dioxide. This event released 2 million tons of zinc, 1 million tons of copper, and 5,500 tons of cadmium into the surface environment. Millions of tons of ash spread over thousands of square miles and probably contained all the elements in the Periodic Table.

Some of the elements are essential to life; the body cannot make them. These are hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, copper, zinc, phosphorous, sulfur, and iodine. Other elements released are regarded as toxic, or harmful. Some of these harmful elements are arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, mercury, lead, radon, and uranium. As Dr. Selinus and Frank reported, “It is important to remember there are on an average 60 volcanoes erupting on the surface of the earth at any given time and about 3,000 active submarine volcano vent fields on the ocean floors.” All of these contribute to the essential and harmful elements in the earth.

At The Center, our doctors know that a lot of diseases or conditions are directly related to a deficiency of essential elements, or in some cases an excess of some of the harmful or “toxic” elements. As co-learners here, you have probably had the doctor review some of your laboratory data and point out the results of the mineral tests to you. A selenium, zinc, magnesium, copper, calcium, or chromium may have been part of your laboratory testing profile.

It is important to know the levels of these minerals. As explained before, they are “essential” which means your body cannot make them. You must obtain them in your diet or as supplements, and you must be able to digest and absorb them. At the Bio-Center Laboratory, we can measure these nutritional and/or toxic elements in the whole blood, red blood cells, serum, hair, and/or urine. These minerals, as well as others, are tested in the upcoming Health Hunter/Beat The Odds panels on April 1 and 2. Let us look at some of these elements:

MAGNESIUM: Magnesium is often cited as the element most deficient in modem diets. In one study of electrolytes, 47% of 1,033 patients were found to be low in magnesium. Magnesium is involved in over 300 enzyme reactions as a necessary co-factor. The normal adult human body (the mysterious 70 kg or 154 pound person) contains 21 to 28 grams of magnesium. Of this, about 60% is in the bone, 20% in the skeletal muscle, 19% in other cells, and about 1 % in extracellular fluid.

Low serum magnesium (hypomagnesemia) may be caused by chronic alcoholism, childhood malnutrition, lactation, malabsorption, acute pancreatitis, hypothyroidism, chronic glomerulonephritis, aldosteronism, digitalis intoxication, prolonged intravenous feeding, renal tubular reabsorption defects, and in those taking chlorothiazides, ammonium chloride, or mercurial diuretics for congestive heart failure. A low serum magnesium may cause hyperirritability, tetany, convulsions, electrocardiographic changes, hypertension, heart attack, cardiac dysrhythmias, coronary vasospasm, and premature atherosclerosis.

A high serum magnesium may occur in dehydration, severe diabetic acidosis, Addison’s disease, and immediately following a heart attack. Also, any kidney condition that causes increased retention of magnesium (uremia) may also increase serum magnesium. RBC magnesium correlates well with bone magnesium, while hair is probably a better indication of high magnesium levels in the body.

Some sources of magnesium are soybeans, shrimp, wheat germ, whole grains, molasses, clams, cornmeal, spinach, oysters, crab, peas, liver, beef, and green vegetables (actually, it is the chlorophyll in the green vegetables). The RDA for magnesium is 420 mgs. If supplementing with a pill, remember that calcium should also be taken in a ratio of 2 calcium to 1 magnesium.

ZINC: Zinc is second to iron as the most abundant trace element in the body, with about 2 grams being present in a 70-kg adult. Tissues and fluids especially rich in zinc are prostate, semen, liver, kidney, hippocampus (brain),retina, bone, and muscle. Zinc can be measured in RBCs, serum, hair, and/or urine. The RBC content of zinc is about 1 o times that of plasma or serum.  Zinc is similar to magnesium in that it is an important part of 300 enzymes in different species. It is estimated that zinc is involved in about 100 enzymes in the brain alone. Zinc also has a role in protein synthesis and in gene expression. It is also important in growth, wound healing, fertility, healthy skin, taste buds, and testicular growth.

Approximately 20% to 30% of ingested dietary zinc is absorbed. Absorption takes place in the first and middle part of the small intestine. Diets high in proteins stimulate zinc absorption, while diets low in protein have the opposite effect. Also, zinc absorption is enhanced by the amino acids lysine, cysteine, glycine, and histidine. Diets high in fiber decrease the absorption of zinc. Oral contraceptives increase the need for zinc. Western diets generally supply 10 to 15 mg/day of zinc.

In experimentally induced mild zinc deficiency, the symptoms were low sperm count, weight loss, increase in blood ammonia, and lower tolerance to alcohol. Moderate zinc deficiency is characterized by growth retardation in children and adolescents, hypogonadism (small testes), mild dermatitis (skin problems), poor appetite, delayed wound healing, mental lethargy (sluggish thinking), poor dark adaptation, and impaired immunity. Severe zinc deficiency includes severe dermatitis, alopecia (loss of hair), weight loss, diarrhea, neuropsychiatric disorders, recurrent infections, and death, if not treated.

Zinc deficiency may be associated with certain diseases or conditions. Some of these are alcoholism and intestinal diseases such as ulcers, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, sprue, intestinal by pass surgery, gluten sensitivity, enteropathy, and regional enteritis. Pregnant women are at higher risk for acquired zinc deficiency because of the higher uptake of zinc by the fetus and placenta. As mentioned before, zinc is required for normal fetal development and influences pregnancy outcomes.

The RDA for zinc is 11 mg/d. Good sources of zinc include oysters, herring, clams, wheat germ, bran, oatmeal, liver, nuts, beef, lamb, peas, chicken, and carrots.