What the HECK Are Micronutrients? Plus, Here Are the Top 5
You are probably well aware of the macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Three simple ones to remember. But you might be less familiar with the wide world of micronutrients and how they benefit the body. What are micronutrients? And which ones are most important to support and sustain an active lifestyle and a strong, healthy body?
What Are Micronutrients?
“Micro” means small, and along those lines, micronutrients are “essential elements required by organisms in small quantities throughout life to orchestrate a range of physiological functions to maintain health.” 1
Practically speaking, micronutrients include what we more commonly refer to as vitamins and minerals. Humans (and other animals) require a number of these vitamins and minerals, and the amounts needed are generally relatively miniscule — ranging from microgram to milligram amounts. Even though they’re only required in small amounts, they are vital to development, disease prevention, and well-being.
Vitamins are divided into two forms: water-soluble (which includes the B-complex vitamins and vitamin C) and fat-soluble (like vitamins A, D, E, and K). Minerals are divided into microminerals, which we need larger amounts of (e.g., calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, sodium, and potassium) and trace minerals, which we need in trace amounts (e.g., iron, copper, iodine, and zinc).
Because our bodies are unable to create these nutrients, when they are not supplied by our diets, we can find ourselves suffering malnutrition, which can manifest in numerous health complications. They’re called “essential” as we must get these nutrients from foods, supplements, or a combination of the two. 2
Deficiencies, for example of iodine and Vitamin D, affect billions of people worldwide. While it’s true that severe vitamin and mineral deficiencies are rare in this country (as in most developed countries), most of us eat less than optimal amounts—often significantly less.
The micronutrients our bodies require are: 3
- Chromium (although this is disputed)
- Vitamin B1 (thiamin)
- Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
- Vitamin B3 (niacin)
- Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid)
- Vitamin B6 (pyridoxin, pyridoxal-5-phosphate, pyridoxamine)
- Vitamin B7 (biotin)
- Vitamin B2 (folate)
- Vitamin B12 (cobalamin)
- Vitamin A (retinol and provitamin A carotenoids)
- Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)
- Vitamin D (ergocalciferol, cholecalciferol)
- Vitamin E (tocopherols)
- Vitamin K (1: phylloquinone; 2: menaquinone)
5 Micronutrients That Make a Massive Impact
While we only need small amounts of micronutrients, they have a big impact on every part of our bodies. They’re necessary for producing enzymes, hormones, and proteins, for example. When we have enough, our bodies function well, and we feel energetic, vital, and healthy. If we’re lacking a micronutrient, on the other hand, we can experience a wide variety of repercussions, including (but not limited to) fatigue, decreased physical and mental performance, and increased risk for disease. Researchers are still learning more about optimal levels of many of these nutrients. 4
While not necessarily representative of the entire population, one study from the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found athletes were often deficient in: 5
Iodine: Essential for proper thyroid function and the production of thyroid hormones, 6 iodine is a very common nutrient deficiency. It can lead to an enlarged thyroid gland, increased heart rate, shortness of breath, and weight gain. Some of the best dietary sources are fish, seaweed, dairy foods, and eggs. And of course, many countries have added it to salt (iodized salt), which has significantly decreased the risk of deficiency. 7
Vitamin D: Virtually every cell in our bodies has a receptor for Vitamin D. Of course, the natural way to optimize levels of vitamin D is through sun exposure, and not surprisingly (considering the overarching lack of time spent outdoors), a large percentage of the U.S. population appears to be deficient. Symptoms, however, may be subtle and may not show up for years. Eventually, those who aren’t getting enough may experience weak muscles, bone loss, and an increased risk of bone breaks. It can also dampen immune function. Food sources are limited but include fatty fish and egg yolks.
Zinc: Zinc is necessary for over 300 enzymes and has a wide range of functions—from proper immune function to hormone production (including testosterone) to wound healing to weight loss and more. 8 It’s found in beef, oatmeal, spinach, and pumpkin seeds.
Vitamin E: This vitamin is well known for its antioxidant properties, as it helps prevent oxidative damage, which can impact heart health, the aging process, and athletic performance. 9
Other research indicates athletes may need to “pay particular attention to their intake of iron, calcium, and the antioxidant vitamins.” 10
The essential mineral iron, for example, is the main component of red blood cells. The more absorbable form of iron (called “heme” iron) is found in red meat, while non-heme iron can be found in plant foods like kidney beans, pumpkin seeds, broccoli, and kale. An iron deficiency is one of the most common micronutrient deficiencies worldwide, affecting over 25% of the population. 11 A deficiency can lead to anemia 14, which may cause weakness, a weakened immune system, decreased brain function, and tiredness. It’s important to note, however, that just as many people have too much iron, which can also be just as harmful. Balance is important—you can have too little or too much.
Calcium is another essential micronutrient, especially for healthy bones and teeth. It also plays a key role in heart health and nerve signaling, and a lack of calcium can lead to soft bones and osteoporosis. 12 While it’s found in many foods like bone-in fish, dairy products, and dark green vegetables, a significant percentage of the population is deficient.
The best way to ensure you’re getting enough of these micronutrients is by consuming a diet loaded with vegetables, fruits, quality proteins, and healthy fats. Yet even then, you may not be guaranteed to get everything you need. The foods we eat are no longer as nutritious as they once were due to modern farming techniques (e.g., modern soil is relatively nutrient-deplete) and long-distant transit, for example. Many experts, therefore, recommend a quality multivitamin/mineral supplement to help ensure micronutrient gaps are filled and optimal levels are achieved. 13