Minerals are essential to life, but they’re becoming less available to us in our food. This article, which follows on from “Weeds: Real Nutrition, for Free,” explores why.
Minerals – Vitally Important For Health
Minerals are essential to life.
The secret to keeping your bones flexible, your spirits high, your sleep deep, and your elder years free of chronic problems can be summed up in a single word: minerals.
Susun Weed, “Mineral Rich Herbs”
Here are some examples of why we need minerals and how our bodies use them.
- We need calcium for construction and maintenance of bones and teeth as well as assisting in blood coagulation and acting as an electrolyte (helping nerves send signals and muscles contract).
- Magnesium is involved in the uptake of calcium and potassium, in regulating muscle and nerve function, making protein, building bone and tooth enamel, synthesising DNA, metabolising carbohydrates, and regulating blood sugar levels and the acid-alkaline balance in the body.
- Phosphorus is essential, among other things, for bone and tooth formation.
- Red blood cells can’t function properly without iron, and iron is also important for cellular respiration.
- Magnesium, copper, selenium, zinc, iron, manganese and molybdenum are important co-factors in the structure of enzymes and are needed in numerous cellular functions.
- We need iodine to make thyroid hormones, which control metabolism, influence the cardiovascular system and the immune system, and help maintain calcium homeostasis (balance).
- Sodium, potassium and chlorine are important in the maintenance of the balance between cells and the fluid that surrounds them.
I don’t know about you, but reading up on this kind of thing makes me very motivated to pay attention to what I’m eating, in an effort to give my body what it needs.
Giving our bodies what they need can be done in two ways that I know of: via the food we eat, and via supplements.
Since the former is what we’ve evolved with and the latter is a relatively new experiment, I like to go with the food option as much as possible.
But in the world we live in today, that brings up some challenges.
Minerals Are Becoming Less Available In The Soils That Grow Our Foods
Soil health directly impacts availability of nutrients in the plant foods we eat. And as farmers, gardeners, and permaculture practitioners know, soil health is declining around the world.
Natural ageing of soils
Australian soils in particular are some of the oldest in the world. They’ve been sitting around for a very, very long time[i], and in all that time there has been water washing over and through them, dissolving and removing nutrients like phosphorous, calcium and potassium[ii].
There are natural processes by which leached minerals can be returned to the soil, but soils can only benefit from these natural processes if they’re managed regeneratively.
Ploughing, absence of soil cover, and use of chemical fertilisers
Ageing is one process, a very slow one, that removes minerals from soil.
Modern farming does the job a lot faster.
The complex interactions between the roots of living plants and the microorganisms in the soil are the means by which minerals and other nutrients are made available to plants (and to those who eat the plants).
Without a dense covering layer made up of a complex community of living plants, decaying plant matter, and teeming microorganisms, soil health suffers and nutrition plummets[iii].
Ploughing destroys plant roots, loosens organic matter so that it washes away more readily, and rapidly destroys soil microorganisms.
The loss of soil life means that even if minerals are present, they’re unavailable to the plants we eat.
And if ploughing weren’t enough, there are chemical fertilisers.
“Fertiliser is good for the father and bad for the sons.”
– Dutch saying
What that saying means is that the first time you use chemical fertilizers to boost crop yields, everything looks wonderful. But progressively, synthetic fertilizers undermine soil health and an addiction is set up: more and more chemical fertilizers are needed to sustain the same harvests, because the soil is becoming more depleted with each passing season[iv].
Food Selection And Preparation Choices Effect Mineral Absorption
A number of things can limit our uptake of minerals even when they’re available in our food.
The presence of good quality fats in our diet, adequate digestive acids, and the ways we prepare plant foods before eating them all have a big impact on how much of the minerals that are in our food are available to us for digestion and assimilation.
We need adequate good quality fats in our diet
Good quality fat (not from polyunsaturated vegetable oils[v]) is needed for absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K). Fat is also essential for cell construction, nerve function, digestion, and for the formation of the hormones that regulate everything from metabolism to circulation.
The membranes of all cells are composed of fat molecules, and the quality of the fats we eat affects our cells’ ability to allow the right things to pass through their walls and to block other things. Our brains are composed of more than 60% fat and cholesterol[vi].
The glandular system that regulates the messages sent to the intestinal mucosa require fat-soluble vitamins to work properly. The intestinal mucosa also needs fat-soluble vitamins and adequate dietary cholesterol to maintain its ability to give passes to only those substances we need, while at the same time keeping out the things we don’t need[vii].
(This article explains why we need fats and explains which kinds of fats, and this one helps bring balance and sanity to the discussion of how much and which kinds particularly in terms of saturated fats.)
We need adequate digestive acids
Low hydrochloric acid in the stomach or an over-alkaline environment in the upper intestine means poor digestion and poor absorption of minerals.
Digestive acids tend to decline with age and also with the various digestive upsets we experience as a result of poor eating, and which pharmaceutical medicine addresses with antacids.
Appropriate food preparation to neutralize anti-nutrients
The human digestion system lacks the features that would enable us to digest plant foods easily without preparing them in some way first.
Depending on who you listen to, that might mean that we were meant to eat mainly or only meat, or it might mean that we’ve been cooking or processing our food in various ways for a very, very, long time[viii] – long enough for our digestive anatomy to have adapted to more easily digestible foods.
The presence of various anti-nutrients in many plant foods are one of the reasons why plant foods become a lot more digestible for us if we process or cook them in some way before trying to eat them.
Anti-nutrients are substances produced by plants as a form of protection against being digested before they can reproduce. They can contribute significantly to nutritional deficiencies.
- Plants in the Cruciferous family (like cabbage, broccoli, brussel sprouts and kale), when raw, contain goitrogens that may interfere with thyroid hormone production, which has ramifications for metabolism along with many other functions[ix].
- Some leafy green plants contain oxalic acid, which directly block calcium and iron absorption.
- Grains, legumes, nuts (any form of seed from which a new plant will grow) contain phytic acid and other protective substances, which prevent digestion and enable the seed to sprout after it has passed through a digestive tract. Some of these substances block digestive enzymes and others combine in the intestinal tract with calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc to form insoluble phytates that are then passed through the body without being digested.
- Tannins (found in tea, wine, chocolate, some fruits, nuts, legumes, grains) may bind with ionized minerals in the digestive tract and prevent them from being absorbed.
Diets high in sugars and refined carbs = mineral deficiencies
Diets high in refined carbohydrates can lead to mineral deficiencies. The obvious reason for this is that such a diet lacks minerals in the first place but on top of that, metabolizing these sugars and keeping blood sugar levels stable after we eat them also uses up minerals, particularly magnesium.
This article explains how a diet high in sugar can seriously deplete or reduce the absorption of specific vitamins and minerals, resulting in deficiencies even when our overall intake might otherwise be adequate.
Part 3 of this Series, coming soon, will explore what you can do to increase the minerals available in your food, and also to increase your ability to digest them.
[i] During the last ice age (around 20,000–26,000 years ago) many land masses were covered by ice sheets, which scraped away the soil as they moved over the continents. As the exposed fresh rocks weathered, new and nutrient rich soils were created. Australia wasn’t covered in ice, so our soils have been sitting around for much, much longer.
[iii] https://extension.oregonstate.edu/news/secret-life-soil, https://fertilgold.com/2018/04/04/microorganisms-the-living-engine-of-soil-part-1/, https://groedibles.com/2012/01/whats-in-a-teaspoon-of-soil-the-care-and-feeding-of-your-precious-soil-food-web/
[iv] https://foodprint.org/issues/industrial-crop-production/?cid=804, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/soil-depletion-and-nutrition-loss/, https://grist.org/article/2010-02-23-new-research-synthetic-nitrogen-destroys-soil-carbon-undermines/,