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Mighty minerals

Your essential guide to the best minerals for your health by Jill Bell, from health store Well and Good in Midleton, Co Cork

To a gardening expert yellowing leaves on a plant may indicate lack of magnesium, and a farmer will be well aware of the minerals that his or her animals need to promote fertility. However, as humans, though we understand the importance of calcium and iron, knowledge of our own bodies' needs for minerals often goes no further than the advice of Bord Bia to drink milk and eat steak. In general we have been more concerned and knowledgeable about vitamins than minerals, but this may be changing.

Crucial calcium

Calcium, like magnesium, is essential for healthy bones and teeth. We tend to forget that bone is living tissue and needs nourishment, not just from calcium but from a whole gamut of minerals including zinc, potassium, copper, phosphorus, boron (especially post-menopause as boron helps to replace oestrogen when it comes to calcium deposition).

As well as being the main bone mineral, calcium is also important for healthy blood pressure, muscle health, nerve function and for blood clotting. Fortunately it is easy to find in adequate amounts in a healthy diet, even for vegetarians and vegans.

Everyone knows dairy provides a rich source of calcium, but calcium also comes from nuts (especially almonds), chia seeds, sesame and sunflower seeds. Nut butters and tahini from ground sesame seeds are useful sources for dairy-free kids and adults. Other sources of calcium include canned sardines and salmon with bones, tofu and endamame, green leafy vegetables (except spinach and chard), legumes soaked overnight, sweet potatoes and squash, dried figs, as well as almond, soy and cashew milks.

Iron man and woman

If a gardener can tell a plant lacks magnesium by looking at it, a human often shows they lack iron by becoming paler than usual. Lack of energy can be the result of lack of red haemoglobin which is made by iron to transport oxygen round the body. Bear in mind, however, that symptoms of too much iron can mimic the symptoms of too little in the body. Other functions of iron include the production of hormones, collagen, neurotransmitters and amino acids.

It's common knowledge that iron is found in red meat (especially liver), eggs and seafood, and for vegans and vegetarians good sources are beetroot, dried fruit, broccoli, kale and dark leafy green vegetables except spinach, beans (soaked overnight), tomatoes, sweetcorn and tofu. If taking an iron supplement, ensure it's a user-friendly bisglycinate form, not constipating or one that causes tummy issues.

Mighty magnesium

Magnesium is an ingredient in many effective brands of supplements aimed at relieving anxiety and promoting relaxation. It is also important for the function of muscles, including the heart. It can relieve leg cramps, restless legs, cramping associated with pre-menstrual tension and promotes peristalsis in the bowel muscle to ease constipation. It helps to regulate blood pressure, and by dilating blood vessels can be useful for migraine sufferers.

This wonder mineral is involved in over 300 enzyme reactions which make our body tick. The best food sources of magnesium are nuts, especially almonds and cashews (try nut butters), and dark green leafy vegetables, seafood, wholegrains, legumes, and a little dark chocolate or cacao nibs as a treat.

Zesty zinc

Zinc helps to make proteins and DNA, bolsters the immune system and helps blood to clot. It's an antioxidant, is involved in metabolism, bone formation, skin health and wound healing, supports the senses of taste and smell, and is important for fertility and children's growth and development. Major food sources of zinc include meat, seafood, nuts and seeds, legumes soaked overnight, tofu, eggs and quinoa.

What's the best magnesium supplement for you?

"Modern lifestyles can create a big drain on our magnesium reserves," says Chris Newbold from Biocare. "Magnesium levels can be easily depleted, especially by stress, erratic eating patterns, high sugar diets, or overtraining. Some common medications, such as acid blockers used for reflux, can also reduce absorption of magnesium.

"Many of us may need additional magnesium support, but it is important to remember that not all magnesium is equal. It's important to choose the best form for your specific needs.

Magnesium citrate – a well absorbed, gentle form that delivers a good amount of magnesium per capsule. A great choice for general magnesium supplementation when you want a higher dose.

Magnesium glycinate – glycine is an amino acid used for a number of important proteins in the body, including haemoglobin in red blood cells or creatine in the muscle. It supports the nervous system, reducing stress and promoting sleep, and improving memory, attention and learning.

Magnesium malate – malic acid is a natural compound that is important for energy production. It's been found to reduce tiredness, tenderness, pain and fatigue in fibromyalgia. So magnesium malate may be a better choice for those people with energy and fatigue issues.

Magnesium taurate – taurine is an amino acid used to create bile which helps with the absorption of fats in the digestive tract and detoxification of toxins. Magnesium with taurine can be helpful for people with liver or heart problems, poor gallbladder function and reduced fat digestion or those with high stress levels or insomnia."

Other important minerals

Selenium is a powerful antioxidant, important for immunity and the prevention of chronic disease, and as a co-factor in the production of the antioxidant glutathione.

Sodium and potassium are important for balancing fluid in the body. Both support muscle contraction, while potassium also benefits bones and blood pressure.

Iodine in the form of iodide converts T4 into the active T3 thyroid hormone thyroxine.

Copper is involved in making red blood cells, nerve function, blood sugar control and mopping up free radicals.

Manganese is important for bone formation, connective tissue maintenance, energy metabolism, immune and nervous system function.

Chromium helps to maintain normal blood sugar levels.

It's clear that minerals are readily available in a normal healthy diet, and some foods contribute a wide variety of minerals. However, food is only as rich in nutrients as its source. Plants grown in exhausted, mineral-poor soils cannot provide us or the animals that feed on them with anything like the nutrients which can be absorbed from richer pastures - an overwhelming reason to buy organic whenever possible!

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