Overshadowed by the popularity of vitamins, minerals are just as important to health.
If a popularity contest were held for nutrients, vitamins would be the clear winner. With cover stories in Time magazine and near-weekly articles in The New York Times, recognition of vitamins has moved from the fringe of our culture to the mainstream.
And, if there were nutritional stepchildren they would probably be minerals. These are dietary elements most people don’t think about, yet more than a dozen are essential to health.
The major minerals are calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and sodium. The trace minerals, which are needed in very small quantities, include zinc, chromium, manganese, iron, copper, selenium, iodine, molybdenum, sulfur and cobalt.
Like vitamins, minerals work as catalysts to trigger thousands of normal biochemical processes essential for growth, healing and well being. But unlike some vitamins, no minerals are produced by the body.
To give minerals “equal rights” status to vitamins, consider some of the recent medical reports describing how minerals help prevent osteoporosis, memory loss, cancer and heart disease.
The role of calcium deficiency In osteoporosis has been recognized—and de bated needlessly—for decades. The most common medical treatment for osteoporosis in post-menopausal women is estrogen, but the hormone increase cancer risk. To put the arguments to rest, Drs. J.A. Kanis and R. Passmore, writing in the British Medical Journal (1989; Vol. 298: 137, 205) keenly observed, “Even if calcium were only one percent more effective than placebo (dummy pill) in reducing the incidence of fractures, it would prevent more than 1000 fractures a year in Britain.”
In a review of the medical literature on osteoporosis and calcium deficiency, Christopher Nordin, M.D., of the University of Adelaide, South Australia, and Robert Heany, M.D., of Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, argued that the disease could be prevented through increased consumption of milk products or calcium supplements. Writing in the British Medical Journal (1990; Vol. 300: 1056) as well, they pointed out that “the evidence suggests that a significant component of the osteoporosis which affects so many post-menopausal women in the West is attributed to a relative, or absolute inadequacy, of calcium intake and hence is potentially and easily preventable.”
Boron, a mineral long known to be essential for plants, appears to help calcium metabolism in both men and women. In fact, a boron deficiency may explain why some people eating calcium-rich diets still suffer from osteoporosis.
While calcium and boron help the bones, iron and zinc feed the mind. Harold Sandstead, I _.D, of the University of Texas, Galveston, gave 30 milligram supplements of iron or zinc to 26 women deficient in these minerals. After taking the supplements, the women increased their scores on the Wechsler Memory test by an average of 10 percent—and some by up to 20 percent.
Speaking at the April 1990 meeting of the federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Atlanta, Dr. Sandstead noted that iron and zinc also improved memory in different ways. Iron improved short-term recall of verbal information, whereas zinc improved the ability to associate word pairs, according to a report in Science News (May 4, 1991).
Several minerals—manganese., zinc and selenium—are necessary for normal _unction of the immune system. Manganese and zinc, in particular, stimulate production of superoxide dismutase (SOD), a powerful antioxidant that fights free radicals.
Free radicals are chemical renegades that destroy cell membranes and lead to cellular aging and death. When enough cells die, the body as a whole ages—a normal process, but one that can be accelerated or decelerated through nutrition.
A recent study at the Institute of Sports Medicine at Beijing Medical University, People’s Republic of China, showed that exercise in creased zinc requirements and, consequently, the risk of zinc deficiency. The animal study was prompted by the discovery that some of China’s best athletes were zinc deficient, even though they consumed the recommended dietary amounts of the mineral.
Calcium and selenium also play a role in cancer prevention. Diane Birt, Ph.D, of the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, has pointed out that people consuming large amounts of calcium-rich dairy products have reduced rates of colon cancer. In addition, people living in sunnier climates also have a lower incidence of colon cancer. Exposure to sunlight helps the body produce vitamin D, which is needed for calcium metabolism.
With respect to selenium, Dr. Birt observed that controlled scientific studies indicate the incidence of cancer decreases as selenium intake increases. She added that selenium’s anticancer benefits “appear to be the strongest” when it is taken soon after the cancer develops, although evidence suggests that (selenium’s) effects on later stages of cancer may also be important.”
Some minerals reduce the risk of different forms or symptoms of heart disease, such as blood pressure, elevated cholesterol levels, and arrhythmias. For example, Komei Sate, M.D., of the Hidaka Hospital and Kobe University School of Medicine in Japan found that patients receiving calcium supplements had smaller increases in blood pressure even with high salt intake, according to an article published in the journal ‘Hypertension (March 1989).
In a study of 430 patients over 12 weeks, R.B. Singh, M.D., chief cardiologist and professor of clinical nutrition at the Moradabad Medical Hospital and Research center in Moradabad, India, confirmed that a magnesium-rich diet decreased levels of total blood cholesterol, the “bad” low-density lipoprotein cholesterol and triglycerides by just over 10 percent.
Magnesium also stimulates the sodiumpotassium-ATPase pump, which regulates much of the heart’s electrical activity. Leszek Ceremuzynski, M.D., of Warsaw’s Grochowski Hospital is among the growing number of doctors adopting magnesium to prevent or treat ventricular tachycardia, a type of arrhythmia that occurs in some heart patients. “The most striking finding was a much lower incidence of VT (ventricular tachycardia) in patients given magnesium supplements,” he wrote in the American Heart Journal (Dec. 1989).
As important as minerals are to health, they are not always easy to come by. Poor, over-farmed or inadequately fertilized soils often lack important minerals. If the minerals are not present in soil, plants can’t draw on them for their own nutritional needs.
Even foods grown on mineral-rich soil may become mineral poor as a result of modern methods of food processing and refining. Just as many vitamins grain, minerals are removed from are also removed. By the time food moves from the farm to the dinner table, the nutritional deficit increases.
Finally, your own body may be your worst enemy as far as minerals are concerned. Only a small amount of the minerals actually eaten ever become nutritionally useful. For example, only four percent of dietary iron is actually absorbed by the body; the rest gets tied up in the chemistry of digestion and is eventually excreted.
This means that some people may not be getting enough minerals in their diets. Supplements of these important, but often overlooked, nutrients may provide a form of dietary insurance.
Reprinted with permission of LET’S LIVE magazine. A year’s subscription costs $14.95. For information or to subscribe call 800-347-6969.