What Are Minerals and Why Are They Essential for Our Survival on Earth?

Earth is our primary life support system. It’s been our home for a little less than a million years, but long before the early signs of human civilization, there was already a tight connection between the geosphere and the biosphere.

From microscopic bacteria to prehistoric lizards, mice, and our eldest ancestors — every life form on Earth has depended on minerals. Today, our lives also depend on the delicate balance of minerals found in the human body.

When we think of minerals, we generally picture hard rocks or durable objects. That is a valid image, but it’s not how minerals are found in our bodies – although they do contribute greatly to our strength resilience.

There are thousands of minerals on earth and, 200 or so of which were produced by human activity. Not all these minerals are essential for our survival. The ones that are (called essential minerals) can be split into two categories:

  • Major minerals, which can be found in large quantities in the body: calcium, chloride, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and sodium;
  • Trace minerals, which are found in small amounts, but are just as important: chromium, copper, fluoride, iodine, iron, manganese, molybdenum, selenium, and zinc.

Each of these minerals is essential for the normal and healthy function of our bodies. For example, calcium helps keep our bones and teeth strong, magnesium helps maintain a healthy nervous system, while iron supports many vital functions, such as the immune system and gastrointestinal processes. What’s important to note about all these minerals is that we hardly ever notice their benefits, but we do notice when one of them is a little off balance.

When we don’t get enough of a certain mineral, or too much of it, that can quickly trigger a chain reaction and endanger vital processes, because the actions of minerals within our bodies are interlinked.

Where do our bodies get minerals from?

The human body is a resilient, well-adapted machine, capable of many things, including producing essential chemicals. Minerals, however, aren’t one of them. Our bodies can’t produce minerals naturally, so we have to get them from our diet.

Image credits: Katie Smith.

The Earth’s crust already contains these minerals, but obviously, we can’t chew on the crust to get our daily intake. Instead, we rely on plants hat absorb these minerals from soils — that is where the bulk of our mineral intake comes from.

Meat can also carry important minerals, but according to recent research, a plant-based diet is sufficient for your mineral needs. Having a balanced diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, lean protein, whole grains, and unsaturated fats, should cover all your nutrient needs, so unless your doctor tells you otherwise, there’s no need to hit the supplements.

For millions of years, people have been able to get their minerals from the foods they ate and even from certain natural supplements. In different parts of the world, different cultures have found ways to supplement their mineral intake. People in the Himalayas, for example, still use shilajit (a tar-like substance reported to contain over 85 minerals in ionic form) to compensate mineral shortcomings. In the modern world, however, things have changed dramatically.

Should you be taking supplements?

The most potent minerals you can get come from food. However, things aren’t always that simple.

The supplement market is huge and you probably already have a few pills, powders, and syrups stashed in your bathroom cabinet. The marketing can be very convincing, but doctors warn that taking supplements when you don’t need to can lead to health problems — too much of a good thing can be bad.

If your body functions as it should, you already get the right amount of minerals in your bloodstream — overcompensating with supplements can have serious adverse effects.

Taking too much calcium, for instance, can cause kidney stones, while excessive zinc supplementation can interfere with immune functions. This is why you shouldn’t take supplements unless your doctor ordered blood tests and they notice a deficiency. Otherwise, you could be doing more harm than good. Why do mineral deficiencies appear and how can you fix them? Every person has unique nutritional needs and factors such as age, gender, existing health conditions, and even your job can influence the recommended mineral intake.

Athletes, for instance, need more nutrients than less active people, and pregnant women may also require an increase in mineral intake. People often assume that a specific mineral deficiency is caused by something that’s wrong with them, but this may not always be the case. One study from the University of Texas showed that fruits and vegetables from modern crops are becoming less nutritious because of current agricultural practices.

The over-increasing food demand has made farmers use advanced growth practices, but fruits and vegetables haven’t managed to keep up and so can’t produce nutrients fast enough. Additional factors such as pollution, bad soil quality and excessive use of fertilizer also play a big role. So, even if you do eat your veggies every day, science says that you’re getting fewer nutrients than your grandparents did. Another study also found that the amount of vitamin C we get from eight oranges, our grandparents got from one.
Deficiencies are also caused by a bad diet. That is, a diet that’s too low in calories or that includes too much fast food and not enough fruits and vegetables. This is why going on a diet should be approached with care because you might be depriving your body of essential nutrients.

Similarly, allergies, dietary intolerance or lifestyle choices such as going vegan can cause an imbalance if you don’t find a healthy alternative to get these minerals. Mineral deficiencies are common in seniors, who frequently show a lack of appetite or are unable to chew effectively. Medication, chronic health conditions and surgery are also responsible for deficiencies.

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