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Micronutrients

Knowing about nutrients and the different types of nutrients is important because they perform different and unique functions in our body, which are all essential in a balanced diet because they work together and contribute to our good health.  Most of us are aware of the some of the roles that vitamins and minerals play in our body but what are they actually and what about herbals, probiotics, enzymes? This section gives an overview of what you need to know about these nutrients and more.

1. Herbals or botanicals1

Dietary supplements made from botanicals or plant extracts that are used to maintain good quality of life or support good health are sometimes called herbals or botanical supplements, or phytomedicines. A plant, plant extracts or plant part can be valued for its nutritional, health, medicinal, therapeutic benefits, flavour, and scent or aroma. Herbs and spices are a subset of botanicals.

 

The active ingredients vary depending on the plant part used (flower, root, seeds, nuts, bark, branch), plant form (dried, pill, extract, tincture, tea), plant species (rooibos, cranberry, lycopene, saw palmetto, turmeric, ginger, ginseng, and milk thistle) and each with varying strengths, purity, quality, strength, identity, and composition.

2. Vitamins2-4

Vitamins are a group of organic micronutrients that are needed for normal cell function, growth, and development. There are 15 vitamins in total and 8 of these come from the B-group of vitamins. Vitamins are grouped into two categories: fat-soluble and water-soluble vitamins.

 

Fat-soluble vitamins dissolve in fat and are stored in the body’s liver, fatty tissue, and muscles. The four fat-soluble vitamins are vitamins A, D, E, and K. These vitamins are absorbed more easily by the body in the presence of dietary fat.

 

Water-soluble vitamins are not stored in the body so, you need a fresh supply of these vitamins every day. The nine water-soluble vitamins are vitamin C and all the B-complex vitamins:

  • Vitamin B1 (thiamine)
  • Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
  • Vitamin B3 (niacin)
  • Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid)
  • Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)
  • Vitamin B7 (biotin)
  • Vitamin B9 (folic acid or folate)
  • Vitamin B12 (cyanocobalamin)

 

There are two vitamin-like nutrients, also needed by the body such as:

  • Choline
  • Carnitine

 

Any unused, leftover, or excess amounts of micronutrients may be removed from the body through the urine, stools, tears, sweat, breath, and genital secretions, producing distinctive changes in the smell, colour, taste, texture, or appearance of these body excretions.

3. Minerals2-3,16

If the word “mineral” makes you think of rocks, you’re right! Minerals are inorganic elements that come from soil and water and are absorbed by plants or eaten by animals. The minerals are used by the body for growth, development, movement, energy production, and maintenance of internal homeostasis (internal stability). There are 16 different minerals that are known to be needed by human bodies, which are grouped as macro-minerals and trace elements.

 

Macro-minerals are those found in larger quantities (±100 mg to one gram) in the body and needed in larger amounts in the diet. Calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, phosphorus, chloride, sulphur are seven macro-minerals.

 

Trace minerals are found in smaller quantities in the body and are needed in small amounts in the diet. These nine trace minerals include zinc, selenium, chromium, copper, iodine, iron, molybdenum, fluoride, and manganese.

4. Amino acids5

Amino acids function as the building blocks of proteins. Think of amino acids as the individual beads on a necklace. Proteins facilitate many chemical reactions that occur within cells in the body including maintenance, growth, repair and rebuilding of our cells and muscles. They also provide many of the structural elements of a cell, and they help to bind cells together into tissues.

 

There are about 500 amino acids identified in nature and 23 amino acids that function as building blocks of proteins. Nine of these amino acids are considered essential as the human body cannot produce them on its own and must be consumed in the diet or supplements including histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.

 

Five are considered non-essential in that they can be made by the human body. The non-essential amino acids are alanine, asparagine, aspartic acid, glutamic acid, and serine.

 

Some experts recognise these two as the 21st amino acids, selenocysteine and pyrrolysine.

 

The remaining seven protein-building amino acids are conditional, being essential only at certain life stages or in certain disease states. For example, when the body goes through trauma or stress from injury, sepsis, surgery, these amino acids become conditionally essential, or conditionally indispensable.5 Your body overworks during periods of recovery and needs all the assistance it can get from these amino acids; arginine, cysteine, glutamine, tyrosine, glycine, ornithine, and proline.

5. Vitamin hormones and hormone-like nutrients6,7

Did you know that Vitamin D is more of a multifunctional hormone or pro-hormone (than a vitamin) because it has the chemical structure of a steroid molecule, that is similar to the adrenal hormones as well as sex hormones and is derived from cholesterol.

 

There are various forms of vitamin D. It starts out as a cholesterol molecule, which we can call vitamin D1. Near the skin’s surface, it gets converted to vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) in response to sunlight exposure. Then it gets transformed by activating enzymes in the liver to vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) and lastly by the kidneys to its most active form, vitamin D4 (Calcitriol).6

 

Saw Palmetto berries, red clover, evening primrose oil, chickpeas, lentils, soybeans, and soy products such as tofu, miso, and tempeh are the rich source of isoflavones, estrones and phytoestrogens, or plant-based oestrogens which are weak chemicals that can mimic or act like hormones in the body. They are being used to help ease hormonal imbalances or depletion, particularly following advanced ageing.7

 

First discovered in the 1950s, plant sterols, sterolins and stanols which include plant hormones like beta-sitosterol or sitostanol amongst others are being used to maintain or support immunity, heart, and digestive health.7

6. Fatty Acids8,9

Fatty acids are a subunit of fats, oils, waxes, and all other categories of lipids, except steroids and more than 70 have been recognised in nature. There are four types of fatty acids:

  1. Saturated fats are liquid in heat but become solid at room temperature or when cold, they raise LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) and may increase the risk of heart disease. Examples include shortening, butter, margarine, ghee, suet, lard, sausage/boerewors dripping, coconut oil and palm oil.
  2. Trans fats are rare in nature but have been widely used in processed foods, not only to make them shelf stable, but also to enhance the flavour and texture or consistency as well as to cut costs. They are made when liquid oils are turned into solid fats, either natural (such as lard) or artificial (industrially produced) such as fried foods, shortening, sausage/boerewors dripping, cream and coffee creamers. Each time the oil is reused, the trans-fat content gets even higher. Trans fats are generally unhealthy along with saturated fats from which they are derived.
  3. Monounsaturated fatty acids: Sometimes called MUFAs, monounsaturated fats are found in plant foods, such as nuts, avocados, canola, sunflower or olive oil, and other vegetable oils and are healthier than saturated- or trans fats.
  4. Polyunsaturated fatty acids are also known as PUFAs, these fatty acids have important health benefits for your heart, brain, skin, eyes, mood, energy, and metabolism. Omega-3-6-9 fatty acids belong to this group.
7. Biotics11

Studies have shown that a healthy and diverse gut flora (microbiome) is important for good health. Our gut flora consists of multiple and different microscopic species, such as bacteria, yeast, fungi, archaea, viruses, and protozoa that occupy the lining of your digestive tract. Some are helpful (commensal), while certain ones are living in peaceful coexistence (symbiotic), and others may be harmful (pathogenic).

 

Each person’s gut flora is individually as unique as a fingerprint, with good and bad microorganisms. Your gut flora develops and changes throughout your lifespan. For example, a newborn’s microbiome is initially influenced by whether they were born by vaginal birth or via c-section as well as by whether they were breastfed or formula fed. As babies start to eat solid foods, their microbiome changes again and diversifies further. Over the course of your life several factors will influence your microbiome, such as your diet, lifestyle, stress, travel, antibiotic and drug use, and more.

 

Your microbiome is constantly shifting and evolving. It is not only about balance, but about your unique microbial balance. When your gut flora is in harmony (which can be easier said than done for many!), you experience better health in terms of improved digestion, a healthy gut barrier, immunity, protection from harmful foreign particles, healthy weight, and less risk for allergies, food sensitivities and various health conditions including diabetes, skin, and heart disease.

 

A “Biotic” supplement is any product designed to act as fuel to support bacterial growth (prebiotic) or is a bacterium itself (probiotic).10,11 It influences the bacteria that resides within the colon (large intestine), and provide health, nutritional and therapeutic benefits.11 Biotic supplements are divided into three categories:

  • Prebiotic supplements are usually fermentable fibres but are characterised by growing and supporting the gut flora in the colon. In short, prebiotics provide food that the bacteria in your intestines thrive on and encourage their growth and diversity. Types of prebiotics include psyllium, inulin, fructans, arabinogalactan gum (larch tree), wild-crafted slippery elm bark powder, and pectin. 10,11
  • Probiotics are ingested bacteria that then reside in and alter the overall bacteria population of the colon. Most, if not all, probiotics sold as dietary supplements are measured in Colony Forming Units (CFU). The most used probiotic strains in supplements are Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus, Saccharomyces, Streptococcus, Enterococcus, Bacillus, Escherichia, and Pediococcus, which come in varying strengths and may be used individually or in combination. 10,11
  • Symbiotics are the bioactive compounds that are formed after the probiotic bacteria consume prebiotics or other microbes that you’ve ingested. Some examples include short chain fatty acids, enzymes, vitamins (such as vitamin B and K), amino acids, and antimicrobial peptides. While these compounds are considered “waste byproducts, they offer various health benefits and have both prebiotic and probiotic properties.10,11
8. Fibre12

Fibre (also known as roughage) is the part of plant food that is not digested. It stays in your gut and is passed in the stools (faeces) which allows waste to be passed through the bowels with ease. Popular fibre supplements include bran, oats, shredded wheat, barley, inulin, ispaghula husk (psyllium), pectin, lignin, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, pulses, wholegrains, fruits, and vegetables amongst some others.

 

While fibre is not a replacement for a healthy, varied, and balanced diet, if you struggle to meet the daily recommendation of 30g dietary fibre,12 supplements are a good option as a top-up for you. Fibre needs fluid to work, so have plenty to drink when you eat a high-fibre diet or when taking fibre supplements. This is to prevent a blockage of the gut, stomach cramps, gas, bloating and hard, dry stools, which are common symptoms of eating high fibre without adequate fluid. This might include water, ice-cubes, sugar-free squashes, herbal teas, and fruit juices.

 

Increasing your fibre intake has been shown to improve the population of good or helpful bacteria in your gut, known as the microbiome or gut flora. Many studies have linked a varied or balanced microbiome with a healthy digestion, immune system, cholesterol, blood sugar levels, heart as well as mental health and weight control.

9. Enzymes13

Enzymes used in dietary supplements are named by adding the suffix “-ase” to the name of the substrate that modified which include substrates such as pepsin and trypsin. Enzymes may also be of either chemical-base, animal, plant, yeast, fungal, or bacterial origin. There are two types of enzymes commonly used as dietary supplements: systemic and digestive enzymes.

 

Digestive enzymes are used to support the body’s digestive and absorption processes. Examples include amylase, protease, lipase, lactase, maltase, sucrase. Other natural forms can be derived from pawpaw, pineapple, mango, avocado, bananas, ginger as well as from fermented products like sauerkraut kefir, and kimchi. 

 

Systemic or metabolic enzymes seek to restore balanced or “normalcy” to the body functions (like body temperature, pH, water balance, sleep, immunity, breathing, detoxification, energy, reproduction, hormones, blood clotting, inflammation among thousands of other roles) and support good health and wellbeing.

10. Coenzymes or cofactors13

Did you know that certain vitamins and minerals are considered to be “assistants” or “helper molecules” as they are coenzymes or cofactors which are required essentials for enzymes to function properly. Examples of coenzymes or cofactors include Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), vitamin C, B-complex vitamins, zinc, iron, magnesium, chromium, and calcium. Vitamin C is a coenzyme to produce the connective tissue collagen. This is why people who have a vitamin C deficiency may experience connective tissue problems such as dry wrinkled skin, muscle weakness and fatigue, joint pain, easy bruising, swollen or even bleeding gums due to poor collagen and connective tissue formation.

References:

  1. Allessandra Durazzo, Massimo Lucarini and Michael Heinrich (12 January 2023). Frontiers in Pharmacology: Dietary Supplements, Botanicals and Herbs at The Interface of Food and Medicine. Accessed 6 December 2023 Available from: https://www.frontiersin.org/research-topics/18013/dietary-supplements-botanicals-and-herbs-at-the-interface-of-food-and-medicine

  2. Restore Mason JB, Booth SL. Vitamins, trace minerals, and other micronutrients. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 26th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 205.

  3. Markell M, Siddiqi HA. Vitamins and trace elements. In: McPherson RA, Pincus MR, eds. Henry’s Clinical Diagnosis and Management by Laboratory Methods. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2022:chap 27.

  4. MedlinePlus [Internet]. Bethesda (MD): National Library of Medicine (US); [updated 2023 Jan 19]. Vitamins. Accessed 8 December 2023 Available from: https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002399.html

  5. Kangsen Mai, M. Xue, G. He, S.Q. Xie, Sadasivam J. Kaushik, (2022). Chapter 4: Protein and amino acids, Fish Nutrition, 4th edition (pages 181-302). Accessed 6 December 2023 Available from: https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-819587-1.00012-4

  6. Reichrath J, Lehmann B, Carlberg C, Varani J, Zouboulis CC. Vitamins as hormones. Horm Metab Res. 2020 Feb;39(2):71-84. doi: 10.1055/s-2020-958715. PMID: 17326003. Accessed 8 December 2023 Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17326003/

  7. Kevin Martinez and Jennifer Huizen (24 June 2021). Medical News Today: Natural hormone replacement therapy: How it works. Accessed 8 December 2023 Available from: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/natural-hormone-replacements

  8. Brett White (15 August 2021) Dietary Fatty Acids: Am Fam Physician. 2021;80(4):345-350 Accessed 8 December 2023 Available from: https://www.aafp.org/pubs/afp/issues/2021/0815/p345.html

  9. Christine Mikstas and Wendy C Fries (3 February 2023). WebMD: Top Foods High in Fatty Acids. Accessed 8 December 2023 Available from: https://www.webmd.com/diet/foods-high-in-fatty-acids

  10. Salminen S, Collado MC, Endo A, Hill C, Lebeer S, Quigley EMM, Sanders ME, Shamir R, Swann JR, Szajewska H, Vinderola G. The International Scientific Association of Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) consensus statement on the definition and scope of postbiotics. Nat Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2021 Sep;18(9):649-667. doi: 10.1038/s41575-021-00440-6. Epub 2021 May 4. Erratum in: Nat Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2021 Jun 15; Erratum in: Nat Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2022 Aug;19(8):551. PMID: 33948025; PMCID: PMC8387231

  11. Debbie Steinbock (d30 March 2023) Mindful Family Medicine: The “Biotic” Trio: Prebiotics, Probiotics & Postbiotics Accessed 8 December 2023 Available from:  https://mindfulfamilymedicine.com/the-biotic-trio-prebiotics-probiotics-postbiotics/

  12. Lambeau KV, McRorie JW Jr. Fiber supplements and clinically proven health benefits: How to recognize and recommend an effective fiber therapy. J Am Assoc Nurse Pract. 2020 Apr;29(4):216-223. doi: 10.1002/2327-6924.12447. Epub 2020 Mar 2. PMID: 28252255; PMCID: PMC5413815. Accessed 8 December 2023 Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5413815/

  13. Kara Rogers (25 July 2023). Encyclopedia Britannica: Coenzymes. Accessed 8 December 2023 Available from: https://www.britannica.com/science/coenzyme.

  14. Jeremy R. Townsend, Trevor O Kirby, Philip A. Sapp, Adam M. Gonzalez, Tess M. Marshall, Ralph Esposito (12 October 2023). Nutrient synergy: definition, evidence, and future directions. Frontiers in Nutrition: Volume 10. Accessed 8 December 2023 Available from: https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2023.1279925

  15. Expert Group on Vitamins and Minerals (2003). Safe Upper Levels for Vitamins and Minerals Available online: https://cot.food.gov.uk/sites/default/files/vitmin2003.pdf

  16. Rohini Radhakrishnan and Shaziya Allarakha (je;a). MedicineNet: 16 Essential Minerals. Accessed 8 December 2023 Available from: https://www.medicinenet.com/16_essential_minerals/article.htm