There are 21 essential minerals required by the human body. They are called essential as the body cannot produce them, and without them, you can become seriously ill.
Approximately 4% of the body mass consists of minerals. But how many of the essential minerals can you actually name?
Below, we will go through all 21, their main roles in the body, and reveal the best food sources of each.
What Is A Mineral?
Together with carbohydrates, proteins, fats, water and vitamins; minerals make up the 6 essential nutrient groups for the human body.
Minerals are naturally-occurring inorganic substances (i.e. they do not have a carbon atom).
There are approximately 3800 known minerals, 21 of which are essential to the healthy functioning of the human body. Some minerals such as lead are toxic to humans.
Minerals have vast and varied roles in the body including healthy growth and development, transportation, regulating heart beat, building strong bones and ensuring the nervous system functions correctly.
In the human body, minerals can be either bound to organic molecules, or in their inorganic form. They can be in two different states:
- Solid state as crystals such as bones and teeth;
- Or in solution: in ionized or non-ionized form such as blood plasma.
They can even pass from one state to another, for example, calcium, which in the case of hypocalcemia, is removed from bones (its solid crystalline form) to plasma (ionic form).
What Is An Essential Mineral?
An essential mineral is any mineral required by the body for health, that cannot be produced by the body and so has to be provided by your diet.
There are 21 essential minerals, often described as the five major minerals (calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, and magnesium); and 16 trace minerals (iron, cobalt, copper, zinc, manganese, molybdenum, iodine, selenium, sulfur, chloride, boron, silicon, vanadium, nickel, arsenic, chromium).
As the name implies, trace minerals are required in far smaller amounts (less than 100 mg/day). Each has a specific biochemical function in the human body. They are needed in such tiny amounts that the role of many were not discovered until recently, and the essentiality of some is still being debated.
The Essential Minerals And Their Role In The Body
First off, it’s important to note that no mineral is used in isolation by the body. All minerals interact with other minerals, vitamins, enzymes etc. For example, it is overly simplistic to say calcium makes healthy bones, as magnesium and phosphorus must also be present to build bones.
1. Calcium (Ca)
Found in teeth, bones and nails: Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body.
Roles of calcium in the body: Calcium is essential for the clotting of blood, the action of certain enzymes and the control of the passage of fluids through the cell walls. It is also essential to normal heart action and muscle contraction.
Symptoms of calcium deficiency: Weaker bones, delayed growth, nervous irritability and muscle sensitivity.
Good sources of calcium: Green leafy vegetables such as broccoli and cabbage, seeds, nuts, dates, oranges and tofu. Though high in calcium, dairy products are acid-forming so they are not a good source.
2. Phosphorus (P)
Phosphorus is found in bones, teeth, and the protoplasm and nucleus of every cell. It is used in more bodily functions than any other mineral.
Roles of phosphorus in the body: Phosphorus is used to build healthy bones and teeth (in combination with calcium); to metabolize carbohydrates, fats and proteins; to build nerve and brain cells.
Symptoms of phosphorus deficiency: Poor bone and teeth development, mental fatigue, feeling of depression resulting from exhausted nerve energy.
Good sources of phosphorus: Coconut, green leafy vegetables, pears, apple, avocado, dates, carrots, rice, oats, fish, legumes.
3. Potassium (K)
Roles of potassium in the body: Potassium regulates transportation in and out of cells including the removal of toxins and delivery of nutrients, regulates the heart beat, tissue elasticity, aids healing, promotes correct liver functioning and regulates nerve and muscle action.
Symptoms of potassium deficiency: Poor muscular control, poor digestion, liver problems, slow healing of sores.
Good sources of potassium: Cereals, most fresh fruit and vegetables, bananas, papaya, fish, pulses, nuts and seeds.
4. Sodium (Na)
Roles of sodium in the body: With potassium, sodium regulates exchange in and out of cells; helps maintain water balance; is required to produce digestive juices; helps eliminate carbon dioxide; aids correct nerve functioning.
Symptoms of sodium deficiency: Muscle cramp, nausea, indigestion, arthritis, rheumatism, gallbladder and kidney stones.
Good sources of sodium: Seeds, strawberry, melon, sea asparagus, fish, natural extracted salts. Note that sodium chloride (refined table salt) is a bad source of sodium and poisonous to the body.
5. Magnesium (Mg)
Roles of magnesium in the body: Required for more than 300 biochemical reactions, maintain normal nerve and muscle function, supports a healthy immune system, carbohydrate metabolism.
Symptoms of magnesium deficiency: Poor complexion, faster heartbeat, irritability, digestive disorders, soft bones.
Good sources of magnesium: Nuts (especially walnut and almonds), cereals, spinach, fish.
6. Iron (Fe)
Iron is best known for its role as a primary constituent of haemoglobin in red blood cells.
Roles of iron in the body: Transportation of oxygen and carbon dioxide around the body; building of bones and muscle tissue.
Symptoms of iron deficiency: Pale complexion, anemia, low energy levels, stunted growth.
Good sources of iron: Dark green vegetables, legumes, dried fruits, whole grain cereals, spinach, liver.
7. Manganese (Mn)
Manganese is found in the liver, kidneys, pancreas, lungs, prostrate, adrenal gland, brain and bones.
Roles of manganese in the body: Facilitates chemical reactions, carbohydrate metabolism, strong tissues and bone, helps form thyroxine, helps regulate blood sugar levels, needed for antioxidant and enzyme function.
Symptoms of manganese deficiency: Weak bones, anemia, chronic fatigue, low immunity, hormonal imbalance, infertility.
Good sources of manganese: Beans, walnut, whole cereals, green vegetables, cabbage, sweet potato.
8. Copper (Cu)
Copper is found in the heart, lungs, liver and gallbladder.
Roles of copper in the body: Copper is required primarily for the absorption and metabolism of iron.
Symptoms of copper deficiency: Copper deficiency symptoms are similar to those of iron: poor hemoglobin production, pale complexion, anemia, low energy levels, stunted growth.
Good sources of copper: Nuts and seeds, raisins, shellfish.
9. Iodine (I)
Found mainly in the thyroid gland in the throat.
Roles of iodine in the body: Used to make thyroxine which regulates some of the metabolic functions; oxidation of fats and proteins.
Symptoms of iodine deficiency: Swollen thyroid gland, goiter, low metabolism.
Good sources of iodine: Nuts and seeds, raisins, green leafy vegetables, turnip, banana, watermelon, shellfish, seaweeds, sea salt, fish, whole cereals and grains.
10. Zinc (Zn)
Roles of zinc in the body: Regulation of blood sugar, healing of wounds, transfer of carbon dioxide from tissue to lungs.
Symptoms of zinc deficiency: Poor intestinal absorption, restricted growth, prostrate problems, absence of taste.
Good sources of zinc: Nuts and seeds, shellfish, cereal products such as wheat germ. Though they contain zinc, dairy products are acid-forming so not a good source.
11. Cobalt (Co)
Roles of cobalt in the body: Cobalt helps treat illnesses such as anemia and some infectious diseases; absorption and processing of vitamin B12; aids in repair of myelin, which surrounds and protects nerve cells; helps in the formation of hemoglobin in red blood cells.
Symptoms of cobalt deficiency: Anemia, decreased nerve function.
Good sources of cobalt: Shiitake mushrooms, fish, shellfish, nuts, legumes, spinach, turnip, figs.
12. Molybdenum (Mo)
Many people have probably never heard of molybdenum, required in tiny quantities in the body, it is crucial to good health.
Roles of molybdenum in the body: Promotes normal cell function, facilitates waste removal, acts as a catalyst for enzymes, facilitates the breakdown of some amino acids, supports the production of red blood cells.
Symptoms of molybdenum deficiency: As molybdenum deficiency in humans is extremely rare, symptoms are not well established.
Good sources of molybdenum : Legumes, whole grains, nuts.
13. Selenium (Se)
Roles of selenium in the body: Supports the immune system; acts as a powerful antioxidant that fights free-radicals, especially when combined with vitamin E. Antioxidants such as selenium help fight damaging particles in the body known as free radicals.
Symptoms of selenium deficiency: Free radicals can damage cell membranes and DNA, adversely affect health and may cause premature ageing.
Good sources of selenium: Brazil nuts, seeds, fish, green vegetables.
14. Sulfur (S)
Sulfur is found in the hair, nails, cartilage and blood.
Roles of sulfur in the body: Sulfur aids digestion, waste elimination, bile secretion, purification of the system.
Symptoms of sulfur deficiency: Restricted growth, eczema, unhealthy nails and hair.
Good sources of sulfur: Cabbage, onions, garlic, leeks, avocado, strawberry, cucumber, peach.
15. Chloride (Cl-)
Chloride is a negatively charged ion in the blood, where it represents 70% of the body’s total negative ion content.
Roles of chloride in the body: Functions as an electrolyte; forms hydrochloric acid, a powerful digestive enzyme; aids digestion of metallic minerals; aids absorption of vitamin B12; helps maintain electrical neutrality across the stomach membrane; helps regulate blood pH and transport of carbon dioxide; promotes normal heart activity; aids the transport of electrical impulses throughout the body.
Symptoms of chloride deficiency: Overly alkaline blood leading to alkalosis, which is life-threatening; poor digestion; waste retention.
Good sources of chloride: Seaweeds, naturally extracted salt, olives, rye, tomato, celery.
Roles of boron in the body: Boosts bone density, activates vitamin D, effects how the body handles other minerals, boosts estrogen levels in older women.
Symptoms of boron deficiency: Arthritis, weak bones and osteoporosis, weaker muscles, poor concentration and memory loss, premature skin ageing, worsened menopausal and PMS symptoms, allergies.
Good sources of boron: Plant-based foods including nuts, legumes, chickpeas, most vegetables, bananas, avocado, broccoli, oranges, red grapes, apples, pears.
17. Silicon (Si)
Silicon is found in the pancreas, blood, muscles, skin, nerves, nails, hair, connective tissue and teeth.
Roles of silicon in the body: Strong bones, promotes firmness and strength in the tissues, forms part of the arteries, tendons, skin, connective tissue, and eyes. Collagen contains silicon, essentially holding the body tissues together.
Symptoms of silicon deficiency: Premature graying or baldness, skin irritations and rashes, possible tooth decay.
Good sources of silicon: Red wine, raisins, whole grains, bran, green beans, bananas, root vegetables, spinach, seafood.
18. Vanadium (Va)
Vanadium was named after the Scandinavian goddess of beauty, youth, and luster.
Roles of vanadium in the body: Regulation of sodium, the metabolism of glucose and lipids, aids the production of red blood cells, encourages normal tissue growth, reduces high blood sugar by mimicking the effects of insulin.
Symptoms of vanadium deficiency: May contribute to high cholesterol and irregular blood sugar levels leading to diabetes or hypoglycemia.
Good sources of vanadium: Safflower, seeds, corn, parsley, dill, green beans, carrots, cabbage, garlic, tomatoes, radishes and onions. Cooking oils such as olive, sunflower and peanut oils also contain vanadium.
19. Nickel (Ni)
Nickel is present in DNA and RNA which means it is found in every cell of the human body.
Roles of nickel in the body: Plays a major role in helping the body absorb iron; helps prevent anemia; strengthens bones.
Symptoms of nickel deficiency: Infection of the urinary tract; severe allergic reactions (usually skin rashes), anemia, hormonal imbalance, abnormal bone growth, impaired Liver function.
Good sources of nickel: Fish, most nuts and seeds, cocoa, alfalfa seeds, oatmeal.
20. Arsenic (As)
Important note: Organically-bound arsenic (or arsenate) and elemental arsenic are an essential mineral that comes from plants and animals and are not toxic. In fact, they are handled fairly easily by the body and eliminated by the kidneys. Inorganic arsenic is toxic to humans.
Roles of arsenic in the body: The biological function is not fully understood—though arsenic may have a roll in correct cardiac functioning.
Symptoms of arsenic deficiency: Unknown.
Good sources of arsenic: Seeds and nuts, grains, fruit, vegetables.
21. Chromium (Cr)
Chromium is a metallic element required in trace amounts.
Roles of chromium in the body: Regulates blood sugar; plays a role in metabolism of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
Symptoms of chromium deficiency: Fluctuating blood glucose level, fatigue, weaker bones and bone loss, high cholesterol levels, loss of concentration, poor memory.
Good sources of chromium: Whole grains, grapes, broccoli, mushrooms, fish, potato.
Non Essential Minerals
The following are occasionally referred to as essential minerals or trace elements but there is only limited circumstantial evidence of their biological necessity: Lithium, aluminium, fluoride, nickel, antimony, lead, rubidium, cadmium, stannum.
Excess and Deficiency
The toxicity of minerals depends essentially on the amount absorbed by the body. All minerals are toxic when taken in high enough doses.
The most common mineral deficiencies in humans are calcium, iron and iodine—especially in particular physiological conditions such as pregnancy.
The Best All-Round Sources Of Essential Minerals
If like me, you have eagerly read through the best food sources of each mineral, you may have noticed a recurring trend. Seeds, nuts, sea asparagus, sea weeds, apricot, avocado, banana, green leafy vegetables and seafood are all excellent sources of most essential minerals.
A healthy, balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruit and veg should satisfy your daily mineral requirements.
Here are two important considerations when evaluating a food source:
- The mineral concentration of any food can depend on the soil in which they are grown.
- To evaluate the essentiality or toxicity of a mineral (or vitamin), it is necessary to evaluate its bioavailability—the ingested portion that is actually absorbed, transported to the site of action and converted into the active form.
- The bioavailability of an element is influenced by many interacting intrinsic factors including age, sex, genotype, physiological state, nutritional status and intestinal microflora; along with extrinsic factors such as mineral form and the presence of substances that aid absorption.