Do You Need a Mineral Boost?

These people do. See if you need help, too.

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,” he says. “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.

What’s more, many of the hazards ubiquitous in modern life—from drug interactions to stress—can further throw off the body’s delicate mineral balance. Antacids and tetracycline can inhibit absorption of iron; cough syrups and chronic stress can decrease levels of magnesium. Aspirin, laxatives, and barbiturates interfere with calcium utilization. Sadly for me, caffeine—my favorite little addiction—seems to wreak havoc on the absorption of almost everything good for me. But my biggest problem, as is true for most Americans, is diet.

Since our bodies don’t manufacture minerals, we have to get them from plants grown in mineral-rich soil or from the organ meats of animals that eat such plants. (Most of the mineral waters we swill contain only negligible amounts of minerals, so they don’t add much to our daily intake.) While there is some debate about whether our soil is as mineral-rich as it once was, there is no question that Americans don’t eat enough vegetables and grains to meet our basic mineral needs, says nutrition expert Elizabeth Somer, author of numerous books including Nutrition for Women: The Complete Guide. “If we were eating the eight to ten daily servings of broccoli, blueberries, and deep-colored nutritious foods we’re supposed to, we’d be fine,” she says. “But 99 out of 100 of us don’t meet the minimum standards.”

And it’s become increasingly clear that when we don’t get the basic amounts of minerals our bodies need, we can suffer shortfalls that affect our health. A person with recurring colds may have a zinc deficiency, for instance. Replace the zinc and the immune system should get stronger, resulting in fewer colds. Thinking of a one-a-day pill as insurance against ailments like this makes a lot of sense, which is why most experts recommend taking a daily multivitamin/multimineral supplement. And the Recommended Daily Allowances (RDAs) provide basic guidance on what should be in that pill. But those numbers are really just a starting point.

Mineral needs can vary dramatically from one person to the next depending upon what you eat, how active you are, your life stage, and family health history. A woman of childbearing age may need to pay more attention to iron, for example, while a perimenopausal mom may need to get extra calcium.

And people at high risk of certain major health problems—cancer, diabetes, and high blood pressure among them—may want to consider therapeutic doses, well above the RDA of certain minerals, to help ward them off. For instance, if you’re at risk for heart disease, it’s possible that you need more magnesium. Researchers at the University of California found that supplementing with magnesium for six months led to dramatic improvements in various cardiac risk factors, including hypertension and congestive heart failure. In another study, megadoses of chromium (1,000 micrograms a day) lowered blood glucose levels 15 to 19 percent in people with Type 2 diabetes. Selenium supplementation in the amount of 200 mcg per day has been shown to reduce the risk of prostate, lung, and colorectal cancers.

As for me, I plan to pay much more attention to the contents of my multivitamin/multimineral supplements, and to make sure I get more calcium and magnesium, which should help both my bones and my mood. I’m also going to take selenium each day to cut my chances of developing the cancers that have dogged my family. And I’ll probably keep guzzling my mineral water. I know the negligible amounts of minerals in it can’t compensate for the fact that I eat more Kit Kats than kale—but at least it’s better than diet cola, which I now know is leaching important minerals from my body. And “Mom’s nasty water” is one thing I know won’t disappear from the refrigerator when I’m not looking.

Mineral Profile #1

Stress Queen

Thirtysomething working mother of two who takes multitasking to new heights.

  • Theme Song: “I Am Woman, Watch Me Hyperventilate.”
  • Suffers from fatigue, migraines, high blood pressure, diet cola addiction.

“Caffeine intake is going to further deplete minerals from a woman who may already be out of balance thanks to stress. If you go into the stress nutritionally well armed—with a multivitamin/multimineral and adequate amounts of calcium and magnesium—you’re much better able to cope.” —Elizabeth Somer, M.S., R.D., author of Nutrition for Women, Salem, Oregon.

Supplements to consider*:

  • For her cola habit: Colas are high in phosphorus, which in excess can throw calcium levels out of whack, possibly causing a calcium deficiency. To reach the RDA for calcium, supplement with 500 mg. (And ditch the colas!)
  • For the headaches: There’s evidence that a low magnesium level may trigger migraine and tension headaches. A supplement of 300 mg may help.
  • For fatigue and stress: If you’re not already taking magnesium, a magnesium/vitamin E combo (250 mg of magnesium and 100-400 international units of E) has been shown to be calming and may promote sleep.
  • For blood pressure: 2.5 grams a day of potassium have been shown to bring numbers down.

*Aim for these numbers. Some you can get from a one-a-day; for others you’ll need a separate pill.

Mineral Profile #2

Weekend Warrior

50-year-old sometime athlete who loves bicycling and cold beer with lime.

  • Has family history of prostate problems, heart disease.
  • Thinks sweat is an aphrodisiac.

“This person needs cancer and heart disease protection, and minerals to rebuild the body he abuses once a week. I’d also look at replacing minerals lost in sweat.” —David B. Wood, naturopath, Trinity Family Health Clinic, Lynnwood, Wash.

Supplements to consider*:

  • To reduce the risk of cancer: Research at the National Cancer Institute and elsewhere has consistently shown that selenium can help ward off several forms of cancer; some of the strongest evidence is for prostate cancer. Studies have shown a decreased incidence among men who take a daily selenium supplement of 200 micrograms (mcg). The Prostate Cancer Research Institute recommends organic selenium supplementation in the 400-800 mcg range.
  • To replenish minerals lost during workouts: Athletes have been shown to have lower blood levels of zinc than sedentary people. In one study comparing the performance of athletes who ate low-zinc (3 milligrams) and high-zinc (18 mg) diets, the high-zinc group bested the low-zinc one.
  • To protect the heart: Some evidence suggests magnesium may be helpful. From supplements, aim for a maximum of 350 mg per day.

*Aim for these numbers. Some you can get from a one-a-day; for others you’ll need a separate pill.

Mineral Profile #3

Perimenopausal Mom

Plump 47-year-old woman who sits at a desk all day.

  • Suffers from mood swings and sugar cravings.
  • Has a family history of diabetes.

“Osteoporosis is one of the main concerns for the perimenopausal or menopausal woman. Hormone control is another. Vitamins and minerals can go a long way to help this woman feel better without medication.” —Elizabeth Somer, author of Nutrition for Women.

Supplements to consider*:

  • For osteoporosis: A study in The New England Journal of Medicine found that taking 1,000 milligrams of supplemental calcium a day slowed bone loss in postmenopausal women by 43 percent. Another study showed that calcium supplementation reduces the risk of osteoporotic fractures by 25 to 70 percent among older women. The calcium citrate-malate and calcium carbonate forms are well absorbed, especially when taken with meals. Magnesium deficiency also may play a role in osteoporosis, according to some studies. 350 mg of magnesium daily will help calcium do its job, by enhancing its absorption; so will 10 mcg of Vitamin D.
  • To balance blood sugar levels and mood: Research has shown that 200 to 400 mcg of chromium helps keep blood sugar stable and may reduce sugar cravings. The calcium/magnesium combo may also lessen mood swings.

*Aim for these numbers. Some you can get from a one-a-day; for others you’ll need a separate pill.

Mineral Profile #4

Young & Restless

25-year-old city slicker who won’t eat animals, but thinks organic mac-and-cheese is nutritionally swell. Suffers from PMS, high heels, high ideals.

“Any vegetarian is going to have to watch his or her mineral balance. We don’t need meat to get adequate minerals, but a junk-food diet and a frenetic lifestyle make it less likely that this person is getting what she needs.” —Elson Haas, physician, Preventive Medical Center of Marin, San Rafael, Calif.

Supplements to consider*:

  • To make up for meat: A vegetarian may wish to supplement to reach a daily total of 25 mg of iron and 30 mg of zinc.
  • To ease PMS: 200 mg a day of magnesium and 1,200 mg a day of chewable calcium in carbonate form can reduce monthly symptoms.

*Aim for these numbers. Some you can get from a one-a-day; for others you’ll need a separate pill.

Covering Your Bases

For meeting basic mineral requirements, Elizabeth Somer is one of many nutrition experts who recommend that men and women take a daily multivitamin/ mineral supplement with meals—plus pills with two crucial nutrients that most multis don’t cover.

“If you don’t want to calculate mineral RDAs (Recommended Daily Allowances), which aren’t on supplement bottles, just look at the Daily Value listed and aim for 100 percent of almost everything,” Somer says. But, she says, no single pill can supply enough magnesium and calcium; to do so, they’d need to be the size of a golf ball.

That’s why she advises either “multidose” supplements meant to be taken throughout the day, or a one-a-day multi along with separate magnesium (250 mg) and calcium (500 mg) supplements. (If that sounds like too many pills, a one-a-day supplement is better than nothing, she says.)


By Anne Krueger

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