Upgrade your knowledge, part 2 - Minerals & trace elements

Essential nutrients

Minerals are inorganic compounds that the body needs as essential nutrients to function properly. Minerals are one of the four groups of essential nutrients, along with vitamins, essential fatty acids and essential amino acids. Minerals are involved in numerous biochemical processes in the body. Without minerals, vitamins cannot function.

We distinguish macrominerals, of which we need a larger amount daily, and microminerals or trace elements, which occur in small amounts in the body. Of these, we need a small amount daily. Like vitamins, minerals and trace elements cannot be synthesized in the body. That is why they are called essentials. We get minerals from plant or animal foods or from drinking water. 

From big bang to supernovas to first solid forms

In the distant past, minerals did not exist in the cosmos. Solids could not possibly have formed in the superheated maelstrom after the Big Bang. Nor could they ever have survived it. Only when some giant stars, supernovas, were formed and they exploded, were all the other chemical elements synthesized and blown into space. Only then, in the expanding, cooling gaseous star envelopes, could the first solid pieces of minerals have formed.

Co-evolution with biology

It is known that among the ingredients of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago, there were only about 12 minerals (crystalline compounds). Now there are more than 4,400 mineral species on Earth. And there are probably many more to be discovered. The origin of at least two-thirds of the more than 4,000 known mineral species on Earth is directly or indirectly related to biological activity.

They arose as a result of co-evolution with biology. So the origin of life, about 4 billion years ago, had a major impact on the evolution of minerals. Co-evolution is the process by which species evolve in interaction with each other, so to speak, in that a change in one species triggers an evolutionary response in another and vice versa.

Microorganisms and plants accelerated the creation of various clay minerals. In oceans, for example, the evolution of organisms with shells and mineralized skeletons created thick layered deposits of minerals such as calcite.

The building blocks of all life

All life on earth today consists of six building blocks namely oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur. The four main structural elements in the human body - oxygen, hydrogen, carbon and nitrogen - are not usually mentioned as important minerals. Nitrogen, for example, is considered a mineral for plants. These four elements together make up about 96% of the weight of the human body by weight. The major minerals, macrominerals and trace elements, make up the rest. Some minerals are even called ultra trace elements; of these we need even less in our bodies.

How do we get minerals?

Most inorganic compounds taken up by living organisms are simple in nature. For example, plants absorb dissolved elements in the soil. Herbivores and omnivores then eat these plants, and thus minerals "rise" up the food chain. Various animal species may also eat soil (geophagy) or use mineral sources, such as licks, to ingest minerals not available through other food sources. Humans get minerals by eating plant and animal foods and through drinking water.

How are minerals released?

Bacteria and fungi play an essential role in the release of minerals. Cobalt, for example, a component of B12, is available for use by animals only after it has been processed by bacteria into complex molecules. Minerals are utilized by animals and microorganisms in the process of biomineralization, forming bones, shells, eggshells, exoskeletons and mollusks.

Also in water - oceans, freshwater, groundwater and glacial meltwater systems - minerals are recycled by bacteria scattered throughout the soil. Minerals rise up the marine food chain from bacteria and phytoplankton to flagellates and zooplankton, which are then eaten by other marine life. In terrestrial ecosystems, fungi have a similar role to bacteria. They mobilize minerals from matter inaccessible to other organisms and then transport these nutrients into local ecosystems.

Macro and micro minerals

As mentioned, our bodies cannot synthesize minerals. This makes minerals and trace elements essential nutrients that we must obtain from external sources. The five most important minerals in the human body are calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium and magnesium. All remaining elements that occur in the body are called trace elements. The trace and ultra-trace elements that have specific biochemical functions in the body include sulfur, iron, chlorine, cobalt, copper, zinc, manganese, molybdenum, iodine and selenium.

The function of minerals: electrolytes and catalyst of enzyme systems
Minerals play an important role in the growth, maintenance and repair of tissues. Minerals are also involved in the body in muscle contraction, in the conduction of nerve impulses, in energy management, fluid balance and PH regulation. In part, minerals are built into cells, enzymes, tissues, vitamins and hormones. In addition, they do their work as individual components. They perform so-called structural and functional roles, in the form of electrolytes.

Trace elements act primarily as catalysts in enzyme systems; some metal ions, such as iron and copper, participate in oxidation-reduction reactions in energy metabolism. Iron, as a component of hemoglobin and myoglobin, also plays a crucial role in oxygen transport.

Are all trace elements essential?

Trace elements or trace metals are present in smaller amounts in our bodies than macrominerals. Whether all trace and ultra-trace elements are also essential is still under debate. Some are known to be essential. Others may be essential, but there is still insufficient evidence for this. There are also different opinions about the essential nature of different ultra-poor elements, even based on the same data. For example, there is no scientific consensus on whether chromium is an essential trace element in humans. The United States and Japan consider chromium an essential nutrient, but the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) assessed chromium as non-essential in 2014.

Optimal intake

A problem in identifying efficacy in the body is that some elements are harmless at low concentrations but are ubiquitous. Thus, their efficacy cannot be adequately proven because deficiencies are difficult to reproduce. Ultra-poor elements such as silicon and boron are known to play a role in the body, but their exact biochemical nature is still unknown. Others, such as arsenic, are suspected to play a role in health, but there is weaker evidence for this.

All trace elements are toxic if taken at sufficiently high levels for long enough. The difference between optimal intake and toxic intake of essential trace elements is large for some elements, but much smaller for others. Minerals are thus on the one hand essential and crucial for the proper functioning of the body, but on the other hand they involve intakes of milligrams and more often micrograms. At least twenty minerals are now known to support biochemical processes and mechanisms of action in the body.