What are Micronutrients?
There are hundreds of active compounds which are found naturally in whole unadulterated foods from vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and enzymes. The key take away is that nutrients do not work in isolation, but work synergistically together. When you pick up a vegetable, you are in effect choosing a range of biochemically active compounds to support your health. View your food as protection and support to keep you strong, healthy and active. Food is much more than energy, it is a powerhouse of chemicals designed to keep you metabolically in balance. There is no comparison between a ready meal and a mix of wholesome foods, as you’re about to discover.
When you begin to understand the complexity and interaction of active chemicals in your body, you begin to comprehend the advantages of wholesome natural foods. These foods contain a myriad of compounds that intricately dance with your metabolism, to provide protection against disease and support health.
Many of the chronic diseases we see today, are largely preventable through diet and lifestyle changes. Poor health is often associated with the low intake of essential micronutrients, with the cells of your immune and nervous systems being particularly susceptible. The body’s ability to maintain normal healthy functioning of your cells depends on homeostasis, its self-healing capacity. An important element of this is the supply of nutrients and each cell requires more than 40 of these, as well as protective substances called phytonutrients from plants.
Micronutrients include minerals as selenium, manganese, iodine, copper and zinc. They also include vitamins such as vitamin A, C, D, E and K, as well as the B-complex vitamins.
Minerals are present in the body in small amounts, about 4% of your body weight. These inorganic substances are essential for a range of vital processes, from basic bone formation to the functioning of the heart and digestive system. Of more than 60 different minerals in the body, only 22 are considered essential (meaning they must come from the diet and are not manufactured by the body). Of these, seven are macro-minerals (not micronutrients), which include calcium, chloride, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium and sulphur.
Vitamins are organic substances that are essential for regulating both the metabolic functions within your body’s cells, but also the processes that release energy from food. Certain vitamins are antioxidants and protect cells from damage, which helps to prevent a number of degenerative diseases. There are 13 known vitamins which can be categorised as either fat soluble (A, D, E and K) or water soluble (eight B vitamins and C). The distinction between these two categories is that fat soluble vitamins can be stored in the body for relatively long periods of time, while water soluble vitamins (except B12) remain in the body for short periods of time and need to be replenished through diet more frequently. With the exceptions of vitamins D & K, the body does not have the capacity to manufacture vitamins, so to maintain optimum health you must eat a wide variety of wholesome natural foods.
Another contributor to balance, is your ability to eliminate the toxic end products of cell metabolism. This requires a healthy circulation and good liver and kidney function, all of which rely on adequate intakes of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. Inadequate nutrition, or inadequate elimination results in cells becoming stressed, so they begin to function abnormally. If left unchecked homeostatic control is lost and eventually disease can take hold.
If you become micro-nutrient deficient, enzyme deficiency soon follows. Your enzymes digest and breakdown large food particles into smaller units. Zinc for example is required to make both stomach acid and protein splitting enzymes. If you are zinc deficient, you soon lose the ability to breakdown protein effectively, leading to large food molecules ending up in the small intestine, where they shouldn’t be. If your digestive system is not robust (also a common defect in zinc deficiency), undigested food particles can get through the intestinal wall and travel in the blood, where they are seen as invaders and are attacked. This is the basis of most food allergies.
Every time you eat a natural wholesome food, such as broccoli or an orange, you are receiving a vast cocktail of active compounds that go beyond just vitamins and minerals. These substances play an important part in your overall health, known as phytochemicals, they have a major impact on your body’s systems, helping to promote health and prevent disease. Phytochemicals are biologically active compounds in food; they are not classified as nutrients, as our lives do not depend on them, as they do vitamins and minerals. However they play a vital role in our biochemistry, in ways that affect our health as significantly as vitamins and minerals. In this sense they are often thought of as semi-nutrients.
There are over one hundred identified phytochemicals, some of which act as antioxidants, immune system boosters and hormone stabilizers. Some of the more familiar phytochemicals are allium compounds (garlic, onions, leeks, chives), the active ingredients are sulphur compounds, which are able to block the conversion of nitrites and nitrates into cancer-causing nitrosamines. By acting as an antioxidant, these compounds help to prevent both cancer and heart disease.
Phenols are potent antioxidants particularly rich in green tea. With strong cancer protective properties, their effects are been found to be more powerful than vitamins C and E.
Anthocyanidins and proanthocyanidins, which are particularly rich in berries and grapes are types of bioflavonoids, which are effective against gout and certain types of arthritis. Bioflavonoids in general have a number of beneficial roles; they act as potent antioxidants binding to toxic metals, some have an antibiotic effect, as well as anti-carcinogenic properties. They can be used to deal with capillary fragility, bleeding gums and thrombosis. Bioflavonoids also include rutin and hesperidin found in citrus fruits.
Another familiar food phytochemical is phytoestrogens, which play a protective role in binding excess oestrogens in the body or accumulated oestrogen from pesticides or plastics, reducing the amount available to sensitive tissues. These include foods such as soya (tofu and miso), citrus fruits, liquorice, alfalfa, fennel and celery. A good intake of these active compounds is associated with a low risk for breast cancer, prostate cancer, menopausal symptoms, fibroids and other hormone related conditions.
Carotenoids such as betacarotene, which is rich in carrots and other foods such as sweet potato, watercress and peas, act as important anti-aging antioxidants. Other active compounds that help protect our health include curcumin, indoles, quercetin, capsaicin, lycopene and zeanxanthin.
The variety of our diets and the avoidance of adulterated food becomes more evident, when you consider the role of these micronutrients, in everything from normal cell functioning to cell protection. It is also important to consider the wholeness of your food, which nature has packaged together. Eggs are not designed by nature to be separated into their whites and yolks, as this effects the range of available nutrients. In the same way that juicing oranges, doesn’t include the nutrients and compounds available in the flesh of the fruit. Don’t tamper with your food, or eat food that has been designed in a laboratory, rather than in nature. Your body and health will thank you.
Beth Etherington, Nutritional Therapist (BSc N. Med, mFNTP, CNHC) creator of The Sugar Hunter Program.