Trace Minerals and Nutrition
By Staci Gulbin, MS, MEd, RD
Staci Gulbin is a registered dietitian with BumpVitamins.com. Staci is also a freelance writer, health editor, the founder of LighttrackNutrition.com, and the author of The High-Protein Bariatric Cookbook.
Staci has graduate degrees in Biology, Human Nutrition, and Nutrition Education from New York University and Columbia University, respectively. She has treated thousands of patients across many wellness arenas such as weight management, fitness, long-term care, rehab, and bariatric nutrition.
Although a person may only need minerals in small amounts each day for optimal health, it doesn’t mean they are any less important than other nutrients. In fact, minerals are vital to many processes in the body from the muscles and bones all the way to the heart and brain (1).
There are two types of minerals which include macro minerals and trace minerals (1,2). Macro minerals include those such as calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, and sodium (1). On the other hand, trace minerals, which you need even smaller amounts of than macro minerals, include iron, manganese, copper, iodine, zinc, cobalt, fluoride, and selenium (1,2).
It’s these trace minerals that most adults need less than 100 milligrams (mg) or less of daily for healthy function of the body and mind (2). Read below to learn more about some well-known trace minerals and how they benefit your health.
Leafy greens, animal meats, beans, and legumes are all great food sources of iron. Most adults only need between 8 and 18 mg of iron daily (the higher end for pre-menopausal women), while pregnant women need a bit more at 27 mg daily (3).
Without enough iron, you are at higher risk of developing a condition known as iron-deficiency anemia. This type of anemia can cause symptoms such as (4):
- Difficulty concentrating
Iron is a vital part of hemoglobin, which is a red blood cell protein that transfers oxygen from the lungs to the tissues of your body (3). It’s also important for growth, brain development, and producing some hormones.
There are two types of iron known as nonheme and heme iron. The difference between the two is that heme iron, found in lean meats and seafood, is more bioavailable than the nonheme iron found in plant-based foods (3). This means that the body can absorb heme iron better than nonheme iron. You can increase the bioavailability of nonheme iron by consuming vitamin C in your daily diet.
If your doctor finds that your iron levels are low, then they may place you on an iron supplement to help you reach healthy levels. If you take iron supplements, be sure not to take them with milk, caffeine, antacids, or calcium supplements since it can interfere with absorption (5).
Although you may not hear much about manganese in the news or on most health blogs, it’s keeping busy in your body every day. This trace mineral plays a role in vital processes like helping amino acids and carbohydrates become more usable for energy in the body (6). Not to mention the vital roles manganese plays in the immune response and blood clotting.
Most adults need about 1.8 to 2.3 mg of manganese daily, with those breastfeeding women needing a bit more at 2.6 mg daily (6). Manganese deficiency is rare, but if present could cause problems in bone health and glucose tolerance.
When you think of copper, a vision of pennies may come to mind. However, copper has many important functions other than part of coin composition (7). Copper is a trace mineral that plays a vital role in iron metabolism, energy production, and connective tissue synthesis (8).
Most adults need about 900 micrograms (mcg) of copper daily, with pregnant and breast-feeding women needing 1300 mcg daily (8). Copper deficiency is rare, but if present may cause symptoms like bone defects, anemia, and increased risk of infection.
Known well for its presence in most salt products, iodine is a trace mineral that is a vital part of the thyroid hormones thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3) (9). In turn, proper thyroid hormone function plays an important role in processes in the body like protein synthesis and metabolism regulation.
Most adults need about 150 mcg of iodine daily, with pregnant women needing 220 micrograms and breastfeeding women needing 290 mcg daily (9). Iodine deficiency can lead to conditions such as hypothyroidism, or underactive thyroid, as well as goiter, and in severe cases, intellectual disability.
Pregnant women, people who do not use much iodized salt in their diet, as well as vegans who eat few dairy products, seafood, or eggs, may be at risk for iodine deficiency.
You may know zinc from its role in some cold medicine lozenge products, but there’s so much more to zinc than this. This trace mineral plays a vital role in immune function, wound healing, and protein synthesis (10).
Most adults need about 8 to 11 mg of zinc daily, with breastfeeding women needing 12 mg daily (10). Zinc deficiency is rare, but if present can lead to conditions like growth issues, impaired immune function, and loss of appetite.
Selenium is an essential trace mineral for humans that plays vital roles in thyroid hormone metabolism, reproduction, and DNA synthesis (11). Most adults need about 55 mcg of selenium daily, with pregnant women needing 60 mcg and breastfeeding women needing 70 mcg daily.
Deficiency of selenium is very rare in the United States and Canada (11). However, those most at risk for such a deficiency are those living with HIV and people undergoing kidney dialysis.
The Bottom Line on trace minerals
Trace minerals are essential to your body’s internal and external health, your life literally depends on them. However, be sure, just like other vitamins and supplements, that you don’t overdo it, because these potent nutrients can cause harmful side effects if you consume them in excess.
For example, research shows that in excessive amounts, iron can cause constipation, nausea, vomiting, and reduced zinc uptake (12). Experts also report that excessive intakes of zinc can also cause nausea and vomiting as well as reduced copper intake.
Therefore, if your doctor reveals that you have a low level of trace mineral in your body that requires use of a daily supplement, be sure to follow label dosage and healthcare provider instructions for mineral intake. And be sure to talk to your healthcare provider before you increase dosage of any vitamin or mineral supplement on your own to ensure your safety.
- Medline Plus (last reviewed April 2, 2015) “Minerals.” https://medlineplus.gov/minerals.html
- Tako, E. (2019). “Dietary Trace Minerals.” Nutrients, 11(11), 2823. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11112823
- National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements (updated February 28, 2020) “Iron.” https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-HealthProfessional/
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (accessed November 18, 2020) “Iron-Deficiency Anemia.” https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/iron-deficiency-anemia
- Cleveland Clinic (accessed November 18, 2020) “Oral iron supplementation.” https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/14568-oral-iron-supplementation#:~:text=You%20shouldn’t%20take%20iron,orange%20juice)%20to%20increase%20absorption.
- National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements (updated June 3, 2020) “Manganese.” https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Manganese-HealthProfessional/
- S. Mint (accessed November 18, 2020) “Fun Facts related to the Penny.” https://www.usmint.gov/learn/kids/coins/fun-facts/category/penny
- National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements (updated June 3, 2020) “Copper.” https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Copper-HealthProfessional/
- National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements (updated September 16, 2020) “Iodine.” https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iodine-HealthProfessional/
- National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements (updated July 15, 2020) “Zinc.” https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/
- National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements (updated March 11, 2020) “Selenium.” https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Selenium-HealthProfessional/
- Wooltorton E. (2003). “Too much of a good thing? Toxic effects of vitamin and mineral supplements.” CMAJ: Canadian Medical Association journal = journal de l’Association medicale canadienne, 169(1), 47–48.