micronutrients: vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals
Micronutrients are the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients required in smaller amounts for the body to perform at it’s peak ability. Here is a brief breakdown, although I will go into more depth on some of these in later articles, based on their importance in fitness, health, nutrition, and wellness.
- Vitamin A
- When people think of Vitamin A, they usually think of eye health. This is just one benefit. Vitamin A is also involved in skin and hair health, and may play a role in immunity. Along with vitamins D, E, and K it is a fat soluble vitamin. Beta carotene is a precursor to vitamin A and found in high quantities in starchy vegetables like carrots, sweet potatoes, and other orange/red vegetables. It is also found in meat products.
- Thiamine is used in biologic processes in the body that produce energy. If you can go way back to high school, you may remember that thiamine was an essential element in the Krebs cycle that eventually leads to the production of ATP (aka energy for the body). Without thiamine, lactic acid will build up in the body as thiamine is a cofactor for pyruvate dehydrogenase, and lactate is a breakdown product of pyruvate. Lactate build up from thiamine deficiency itself is rarely seen as thiamine deficiency is very rare. Thiamine is found in whole grains, animal products, nuts, legumes, and many fortified foods such as cereals.
- Riboflavin is used in many processes that support cellular and tissue function. It is found in whole grains, fortified foods, and vegetables.
- Niacin is an essential component of the molecule NADH and NADPH, which are enzymes involved in numerous cellular functions involved in energy production. Niacin is found in fortified packaged foods , tuna, some vegetable and other animal sources. Severe deficiency causes a disorder called pellagra, which is rarely if ever seen in developed countries, and is characterized by dermatitis, dementia, and diarrhea. Less severe deficiencies lead to fatigue, skin and mouth lesions, and anemia.
Pantothenic Acid (B5)
- Pantothenic acid is another element important in energy production during the formation of ATP from the oxidation of carbohydrates, protein, and fat. It is found in many fortified foods along with mushrooms, liver, dried egg yolks and sunflower seeds
- Vitamin B6 is important in the development of nervous system function, blood cell production, and is involved in the metabolic processes that oxidize proteins and carbohydrates to produce energy. B6 is found in potatoes, rice, bananas, nuts.
- Vitamin B12 is involved in growth and development of the nervous system and in the production of blood cells. Those suffering B12 deficiencies can develop anemia due to low hemoglobin levels which subsequently leads to fatigue. Defieciencies can also cause paresthesias and other neurologic issues. Animal products are the most abundant sources of vitamin B12, along with foods fortified with B12.
- Folic acid is involved in cellular division and DNA and protein production. It is found in dark leafy green vegetables and fortified foods. It gained its claim to fame in being essential at high doses during pregnancy to prevent neural tube defects as it plays a crucial role in neurologic development. It is also involved in blood cell growth, and deficiencies can lead to megaloblastic anemia when blood cells cannot divide normally.
- Vitamin C is categorized as an antioxidant. It also is involved in bone, teeth, and gum health (remember scurvy?). Vitamin C is found in citrus fruits
- Vitamin D is important for teeth and bone health as it is required for calcium absorption. It is also important in skin health and immune function as well. Vitamin D can be synthesized in the skin with exposure to sunlight. It is found in dairy, fortified foods, tuna, salmon, egg yolks, and mushrooms.
- Vitamin E aids in preventing cell damage. It is found in seeds, nuts, and vegetable oils.
- Vitamin K
- Vitamin K is known for aiding in blood clotting, but is also very important to bone health along with nerve and muscle function. It is found in dairy, fortified foods, leafy green vegetables, sardines, oysters, almonds, and legumes.
- Sodium is an extracellular cation that is highly involved in cellular functions and muscle contraction. It regulates fluid balance and hydration levels, and helps maintain a safe balance of cellular fluid in the brain as well. It is part of sodium chloride, or table salt, and is abundant in most foods.
- Potassium is an abundant intracellular cation and an important electrolyte that is essential for cellular processes, cardiac function, and muscle contraction. Imbalances and low potassium levels contribute to cramping and fatigue seen in high performance athletes. Altered potassium levels are also a cause of cardiac arrhythmia. High potassium foods include potatoes, tomatoes, bananas and oranges.
- Calcium is most widely known for its importance in bone health. It is also an important micronutrient involved in skeletal muscle and cardiac contraction. It is found in dairy products such as milk, yogurt, and cheese. It is also found in foods such as broccoli, spinach, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
- Magnesium is involved in numerous cellular functions involved in muscle and nerve function, protein synthesis, and energy production. Good sources of magnesium include spinach, nuts, avocado, bananas, legumes, and fortified cereals.
- Iron is a component of hemoglobin and is therefore required for oxygen transport throughout the body and the formation of blood cells. It is found in animal proteins, legumes, leafy green vegetables, fortified cereals and whole grains.
- Zinc is a mineral that aids in wound healing. It is also used in many enzymatic functions in the body, and is more recently been found to aid in immune function. It is found in whole grains, dairy, and legumes.
Proposed benefits of phytochemicals
- Improved cardiovascular health
- Improved glycemic control
- Neurologic protection
- Reduced cancer risks
Phytochemicals are naturally occurring compounds in fruits and vegetables that have protective health benefits beyond those found in the vitamins and minerals already found in those food sources. Tens of thousands of phytochemicals have been identified. Some of the more researched ones include flavonoids, isoflavones, and anthocyanidins. Clinical trials have been performed, and others underway, looking to discern how these phytochemicals may benefit health. There have been findings suggestive of improved cardiovascular health, reduced cancer risk, improved insulin sensitivity in type 2 diabetes, and protection against neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease. Proposed mechanisms include: stimulation of the immune system, reducing inflammation, preventing DNA damage and aiding DNA repair, reducing oxidative cell damage, regulating intracellular signaling of hormones and gene expression, and activating insulin receptors. This just adds to the multitude of reasons to include fresh fruits and vegetables in any balanced diet as this is where an abundance of these phytochemicals are found.