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It never fails. I pour myself something to drink and suddenly one of my children is “dying of thirst” and needs to take a swig. It’s guaranteed that half my drink will disappear, unless it’s mineral water. Then there’s impressive sputtering and gagging followed by an outraged “Why are you drinking THAT”!
Good question. To tell you the truth, I’m not sure. Somewhere along the way I convinced myself that the minerals in this water are good for me. But are they? And how many minerals and which ones do I need, anyway?
Of course I know about calcium, which builds stronger bones and helps prevent osteoporosis. My family has long used zinc nasal spray and lozenges to fight off colds. And I’ve heard the news reports touting beyond-the-basics doses of selenium to fight cancer, and chromium to control diabetes. But my local health food store is packed with all sorts of other mineral-laden products phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, copper; boasting of amazing powers. I figure it would behoove me to find out what’s in my “healthy” water and to educate myself about minerals. The anticancer potential of selenium, in particular, piques my interest, because I have a family history of lung, breast, and colon cancer. And since I’m now perimenopausal, I’d like to be sure I?m getting the right mix of minerals to keep my bones strong and my mood stable.
My mineral research first takes me back 5,000 years to the Bronze Age, where I discover that “taking the waters” whether drinking or bathing in mineral-laden spring waters was a common form of therapy for disease. Hot spring waters and muds are still medically sanctioned in much of Europe and Japan. But most of us in the United States, even if we’re mineral water drinkers and spa-goers, don’t take the medicinal benefits of minerals very seriously.
We ought to, says Elson Haas, a physician in San Rafael, California, and author of Staying Healthy With Nutrition. Sure, vitamins have gotten more attention over the years as their health benefits made headlines (Vitamin C prevents scurvy! Vitamin B1 cures beriberi!). But minerals are just as critical to our physical and mental health. In fact, they may be even more important than vitamins, says Haas.
Minerals are a basic part of all cells, particularly blood, nerve, and muscle cells, as well as of bones, teeth, and soft tissue. They control the actions of enzymes and certain hormones, and they provide necessary materials to build and maintain our bodies. Zinc activates the enzyme that enables the body to use vitamin A, for instance, to promote good vision. Without zinc and A working together, a deficiency resulting in night blindness could eventually develop.
Since almost all of the minerals and vitamins in our body do this sort of complicated dance, it’s important that you don’t fall short. Minerals, in particular, aren’t easily absorbed, they sometimes compete with each other and with vitamins, and they have a hard time moving from the gastrointestinal tract to the blood, says Haas. “Even in the best of times, if you’re getting enough minerals and your digestive system is functioning properly, minerals will only be moderately well absorbed,” he says.
By Anne Krueger