The Importance of Micronutrients for Optimal Health


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“The main difference between vitamins and minerals — the two types of micronutrients — is their origin,” says Malkani. “Vitamins are produced by plants or animals, while minerals come from inorganic, or nonliving matter, which can then be ingested or absorbed by living organisms,” adds Malkani.

Also there’s a difference in numbers. “There are 13 known vitamins while there are dozens of essential minerals,” says Palumbo. One thing they have in common: “Both need to be replenished regularly through food or supplements,” says Palumbo.


“A vitamin is a chemically organic substance essential for regulating both the metabolic functions within the cells and the biochemical processes that release energy from food,” says Palumbo.

If that sounds complicated, worry not — examples can help make it a little clearer. “Folate works together with vitamin B12 to form hemoglobin [a protein that transports oxygen, according to Mount Sinai] in our red blood cells,” says Malkani. “Vitamin D regulates how much calcium is in the blood and promotes the absorption of calcium and phosphorus to help build and maintain bone, while thiamin [vitamin B1] enables the body’s cells to produce energy from carbohydrates,” adds Malkani.

Thus, these vitamins have big — and necessary — jobs within the body. And there’s more. “Certain vitamins, such as vitamin C, also function as antioxidants,” says Palumbo. Antioxidants fight free radicals, which are molecules that form when you’re exposed to things like tobacco smoke, according to the Mayo Clinic.

As MedlinePlus notes, vitamins can be divided into two categories. The first is “fat-soluble,” and these vitamins are stored in places like the liver, fatty tissue, and muscles. Examples are vitamins A, D, E, and K. The other group is “water-soluble.” These are not stored in the body, and examples are vitamin C as well as the B vitamins (except for vitamin B12, which can be stored in the liver for years).

Here are the essential vitamins your body needs, according to MedlinePlus:

  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin B1 (thiamine)
  • Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
  • Vitamin B3 (niacin)
  • Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)
  • Vitamin B12 (cyanocobalamin)
  • Pantothenic acid (B5)
  • Biotin (B7)
  • Folate (folic acid or B9)
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin K


Here’s the lowdown on minerals. “Minerals are inorganic substances which are essential for a wide range of vital processes from basic bone formation to keeping the digestive system and heart functioning properly,” says Palumbo.

When you stub your toe, it is the exiting of minerals, including sodium, potassium, chloride, and calcium, that enables your brain to receive the message that you feel pain in your toe, says Malkani, citing past research.

As for their roles in the body, calcium, for example, is part of our body’s structure, like our teeth and bones, says Palumbo. And the other minerals? “Iron has numerous functions, most importantly serving as an essential part of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in your blood throughout your body, providing energy,” says Palumbo. Then there’s iodine. “Iodine is part of our thyroid hormones, which regulate the rate at which our bodies use energy,” adds Palumbo.

Magnesium, meanwhile, helps to regulate a number of bodily functions, says Palumbo. “These include helping make proteins in the body, producing energy, and regulating blood glucose levels,” Palumbo says.

There are two main types of minerals: macrominerals, which you need in larger amounts (like calcium and potassium), and trace minerals, which you need in smaller amounts (like zinc and manganese), notes MedlinePlus.

The following are the key minerals your body needs in small amounts to operate at its best, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Harvard Health Publishing:

  • Calcium
  • Phosphorus
  • Potassium
  • Sodium
  • Chloride
  • Magnesium
  • Iron
  • Zinc
  • Iodine
  • Sulfur
  • Cobalt
  • Copper
  • Fluoride
  • Manganese
  • Selenium
  • Molybdenum

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