The Importance Of Micronutrients in Creating and Maintaining Health
In the last post we looked at the macronutrients, carbohydrates, proteins and fats, and the particular types and amounts you need daily to create a healthy diet. I mentioned the importance of micronutrients, the essential vitamins, minerals and enzymes contained in the macronutrients, but as the post was getting quite long, I decided to give them a post to themselves.
Micronutrients are so called because, although they are essential for creating and maintaining health, we only require small amounts. They provide their raw materials that enable the body to perform hundreds of roles, from creating chemicals that send messages between organs, to building and healing tissues, repairing damaged cells and enabling other essential bodily processes. Most of these micronutrients have to be ingested because the body cannot make them. Also they have to be taken in the right amounts since too much of one micronutrient can lead to illness either by damaging body cells or by depleting another micronutrient, while too little may also lead to disease.
Vitamins are organic compounds, essential to normal metabolism, that are present in foods but may be easily destroyed by heat, air or acid. Thus, the vitamins in foods may be depleted when the food is stored, exposed to air, or cooked. Vitamins come in two types: water-soluble and fat-soluble.
Water-soluble vitamins are easily absorbed into the bloodstream when the body ingests and breaks down the plants containing them, but many of them need to be consumed on a daily basis. These vitamins are involved in keeping tissues healthy, building collagen and cells, and in energy creation and the release of energy from foods. Most of these vitamins should be ingested at least every few days, if not daily.
Vitamins in the water-soluble category are: Vitamin C, and Vitamins B1 (Thiamin), B2 (Riboflavin) , B3 (Niacin) , B5 (Pantothenic Acid) , B6 (Pyridoxine), B7 (Biotin), B9 (Folate/Folic Acid), and B12 (Cobalamin).
Fat-soluble vitamins are found in naturally fatty foods, such as fatty fish and oils, are stored in the liver and the fat tissues in the body and withdrawn when needed. Fat-soluble vitamins act in synergy with one another, and travel through the bloodstream attached to proteins. They may require the presence of certain minerals such as magnesium and zinc, and of other nutrients including carbohydrates in order to act.
Fat soluble vitamins include: Vitamin A (Retinol, beta-carotene); Vitamin D (D3 known as cholecalciferol), Vitamin E (Alpha Tocophérol), and Vitamin K. Because the body stores these vitamins, overdose is more likely than with the water soluble vitamins.
Taking in too much or too little of these vitamins can lead to health problems and disease. Overdose is unlikely when foods containing natural forms of the vitamin are ingested, but fortified foods could lead to vitamin overdose if several containing the same added vitamins are eaten regularly. The safest way to get the fat-soluble vitamins is through a varied diet of natural foods that contain them.
It is now becoming clear that vitamins cannot be seen in isolation. Vitamins act in synergy with one another, and with other nutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins and fats, and the minerals magnesium and zinc.
Therefore, it is best to get these vitamins from a balanced diet. However, since most people do not eat a balanced diet, many health-care professionals recommend also taking a multi-vitamin every day. Added vitamins are also helpful because much of the produce found in grocery stores is vitamin-deficient. Growing conditions, prolonged travel times from field to the store, and long exposure to light and air while in the store, zaps the vitamin level of many vegetables and fruit found on super-market shelves. However, if you eat a wide variety of organically grown produce in season and buy it fresh from the farm, you likely do not need a vitamin supplement.
Pregnant or nursing women, and those trying to become pregnant, should consult a qualified health care professional to see what vitamin supplements they should take. Fetal and infant abnormalities can be caused by levels of certain vitamins that are too high, or too low.
Minerals are inorganic substances that are required in many essential functions that keep the body working properly. Certain minerals in the body (sodium, chloride, potassium, calcium and magnesium) are dissolved in water and known as electrolytes; they are responsible for creating electrical impulses that transmit messages between cells. Other minerals, known as trace elements, because only very small amounts are required, are iron, zinc, chromium, cobalt, copper, fluoride, iodine, manganese, molybdenum, and selenium. Although only small amounts are needed, these trace minerals are as critical as the electrolytes. The best way to get minerals is through eating a varied diet containing plant and animal foods, sea-food, nuts, and unrefined grains. If you restrict your diet is any way, it is a good idea to consult a nutritionist to ensure you are getting the minerals you need.
Enzymes are made up of amino acids (proteins) and facilitate chemical reactions in the body, with a different enzyme required for each specific reaction. There are more than 3,000 different enzymes in the human body, each with a specific task. Most of these enzymes are made by the body, but all natural foods contains enzymes, so the more of these you eat, the less work your body has to do to create the enzymes from scratch.
Some of the thousands of reactions that enzymes are involved in include: breaking down food in the mouth, stomach and intestines, getting the nutrients into your cells, building cell walls, creating energy, carrying away toxic wastes, absorbing oxygen, constructing new enzymes, regulating hormones, reducing inflammation, fighting infections…and the list goes on…and on. Sometimes the body fails to create the enzyme required for a specific reaction, For example, if someone’s intestinal cells do not produce lactase, the enzyme responsible for breaking down the lactose in milk into glucose, the person will not be able to digest milk, and will be termed lactose-intolerant.
Similarly, many modern so called ‘foods’ cannot be broken down by enzymes into forms that the body can use for nutrition, because the body does not recognise them as food as they move down the digestive tract. Genetically modified foods and most, if not all, processed foods fall into this category. If the body is not getting the nutrition it needs, then presumably it will be challenged in making the 3,000 enzymes needed for all bodily processes.
Other problems arise because although enzymes are found in raw fruits and vegetables, the growing conditions of non-organic commercial farming, plus the prolonged time it often takes to get the crop from the field to the table, depletes them. Cooking will also destroy enzymes. Enzymes in the body may also be depleted by alcohol and certain drugs, and many enzymes require vitamins and minerals in order to do their work. For example, magnesium is required in 300 enzyme reactions.
One answer to many of these problems is to eat organic food, to eat much of it raw, and to incorporate enzyme-rich foods into your diet. These include certain fruits (avocado, grapes, kiwi, mango, papaya, and pineapple); freshly sprouted edible seeds, beans and lentils; coconut oil and extra-virgin olive oil; honey; and organic unpasteurized dairy (milk and yoghurt).
By eating a variety of real food, grown organically and locally whenever possible, and by paying attention to get the micronutrients you require, you will maximize your health and well-being.