The 6 Major Minerals and Where to Find Them

Minerals, like vitamins, are necessary for the proper functioning of our bodies. You've probably seen mention of minerals your whole life, but what exactly do these minerals do? What happens if you don't get enough? Since we are learning that a daily multivitamin is not the ideal way to get most of your minerals, let's look at the foods which contain these important nutrients, as well as potential problems related to either a deficiency or excess.

We will begin by explaining the difference between "major" minerals and "trace" minerals, and then look separately at the importance of calcium, chloride, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and sodium for a healthy body.

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The Major Minerals Our Bodies Need

Major minerals are essential for your body to function.
You need these major minerals for your body to function properly. Marcus Butt/Ikon Images/Getty Images

We often refer to minerals as being major minerals or trace minerals. The six major minerals are the ones that are present in our bodies in the largest amounts. When it comes to health and normal body functions, dietary minerals are every bit as important as vitamins. They're necessary for many processes in your body, especially fluid balance, maintenance of bones and teeth, muscle contractions, and nervous system function.

For the most part, it's not too difficult to get sufficient amounts of these minerals from the foods you eat, and as long as you eat a healthy balanced diet, you should be getting enough of all six of these essential nutrients. That said, there are medical conditions as well as some medications that could lead to either a deficiency or an excess of the mineral. Most of these minerals are also sold as dietary supplements, but due to possible problems with an excess, should only be taken under a physician's guidance.

The major minerals include:

  • Calcium
  • Chloride
  • Magnesium
  • Phosphorus
  • Potassium
  • Sodium

Let's look at each of these major minerals in more detail, including what they do in your body, and what foods you should eat to make sure you are getting an adequate intake.

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Calcium

Dairy products are rich in calcium.
Calcium is needed for bones, muscles, nervous system function, and blood clotting. Carlos Gawronski/Getty Images

Calcium is probably best known for preventing osteoporosis, but it's necessary for much more than strong bones and teeth. Your body also needs calcium for blood clotting and normal nervous system and muscle function.

In general, a healthy diet includes an ample amount of calcium. People with some disorders, however, such as inflammatory bowel disease may not absorb enough of this mineral. Those who are on corticosteroids for autoimmune conditions or asthma may similarly lack enough calcium. In addition, those who have a milk allergy or lactose intolerance may need to make sure they are getting calcium from other foods.

Calcium is found in the largest amounts in dairy products, such as milk, cheese, and yogurt. But if you aren't a milk drinker, there are plenty of other foods which contain calcium. Calcium is also found in nuts, green leafy vegetables, and fortified foods such as breakfast cereal. 

Calcium supplements are one of the most popular dietary supplements and may be recommended for some people, especially postmenopausal women. But it's important to talk to your doctor, as elevated levels can cause problems such as painful kidney stones. Supplements are not recommended for people with some medical conditions, and they may also interact with some medications.

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Chloride

Tomato juice with celery is a good source of chloride.
Chloride is important in maintaining fluid balance throughout your body. Nicholas Eveleigh/Getty Images

Chloride is an interesting major mineral. Your body needs it to create gastric juices and it's found right alongside sodium in the fluid surrounding the cells. In fact, chloride works together with sodium to help keep your body fluids in balance. 

Dietary chloride is found in table salt (sodium chloride) and many vegetables, including celery and tomatoes. There's rarely any reason to take chloride supplements.

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Magnesium

Nuts and seeds are rich in magnesium.
People with medical conditions such as diabetes, alcohol abuse, and celiac disease are at risk for low magnesium levels. View Stock/Getty Images

Magnesium is necessary for biochemical functions that control many actions in your body, including proper muscle contractions and nerve impulses. It's also necessary for blood sugar control, regulation of blood pressure, and maintaining healthy strong bones. 

Magnesium deficiency is uncommon, but certain medical conditions can predispose a person to low levels. Gastrointestinal conditions such as Crohn's disease and celiac disease, alcohol abuse, and diabetes may cause a deficiency. Some medications (such as antibiotics and diuretics) can also lead to a deficiency.

Symptoms of magnesium deficiency can be uncomfortable and may include fatigue, weakness, numbness or tingling of your arms and legs, muscle cramps, and abnormal heart rhythms. Severe magnesium deficiency can also lead to deficiencies in calcium and potassium as well.

Magnesium is found primarily in nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes and dark green vegetables. It's also found in yogurt, salmon, fortified breakfast cereal, bananas, and potatoes.

Although magnesium deficiency appears to be rare, magnesium supplements are fairly common and are often combined with calcium. Magnesium supplements have sometimes been recommended for the prevention of migraines or for the relief of minor anxiety, but again, it's important to talk with your doctor first.

While a deficiency of magnesium can cause symptoms, getting too much magnesium (usually by way of supplements) can lead to nausea, diarrhea, a change in mental status, and other symptoms.

5
Phosphorus

grilled meat
Phosphorus is needed for normal nerve and muscle function. Berkant Sezer / Getty Images

Phosphorus is important for bone growth and normal cell membrane function. It works along with B-complex vitamins to convert the foods you eat into energy that your body needs for all your daily activities. It is stored in bones.

A  deficiency of phosphorus is relatively uncommon, and is usually associated with medications such as calcium carbonate supplements and antacids. A deficiency severe enough to cause symptoms is rare, and typically only happens with extreme malnutrition.

Phosphorus is found in foods that are high in protein such as meats, nuts, seeds, and legumes.

Taking phosphorus supplements isn't necessary, and, in contrast, an excess amount of phosphorus is actually linked to a higher risk of death overall. Phosphorus toxicity (too much phosphorus) is very uncommon, but has been found with conditions such as severe kidney disease.

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Potassium

Vegetables are rich in potassium.
Potassium is important throughout your body, and a deficiency may cause serious abnormal heart rhythms. Jasmina/Getty Images

 Potassium is needed for normal nervous system function, muscle contraction, and can have a profound effect on your health. Proper levels of potassium are also extremely important in maintaining a normal heart rhythm, and either a deficiency or excess of this mineral can result in life-threatening arrhythmias or respiratory failure.

Potassium is found in the fluid inside your cells so it's essential for normal fluid balance throughout your body. Potassium can also counteract the impact of sodium on blood pressure.

Either a high or a low level of potassium can result in problems. A low potassium level (hypokalemia) can result in dangerous arrhythmias, and usually requires intervenous potassium in the ICU if levels are seriously low. An elevated potassium level (hyperkalemia) can likewise cause abnormal heart rhythms. 

Potassium-rich foods include fruits and vegetables (such as bananas and potatoes), as well as legumes, milk, nuts, and meats. You may be able to find potassium supplements, but don't take them without speaking with your medical doctor first.

With kidney disease, potassium levels may need to be monitored and a low-potassium diet instituted.

7
Sodium

Salt is high in sodium.
Robert Llewellyn/Getty Images

Sodium works along with chloride to maintain fluid balance outside the cells. Sodium intake is important for regulating blood pressure. Sodium deficiency is rare, and in fact, getting too much sodium is a much more widespread problem. Consuming too much sodium may elevate blood pressure in some people.

Sodium is found along with chloride in table salt and it's naturally found in small amounts in a variety of foods. But, most sodium comes from processed foods that contain salt or preservatives made with sodium. 

Bottom Line on the 6 Major Minerals

The 6 major minerals listed here are important for healthy bodily functions ranging from muscle contractions (including the heart muscle), to fluid balance, to nervous system function. A healthy diet will generally provide adequate amounts of these minerals, but certain medications and medical conditions could lead to either a deficiency or excess. This is noted most often with potassium, which can lead to dangerous heart arrhythmias due to both low or high levels.

Fortunately, if you have medical conditions (or take medications) which predispose you to either a deficiency or excess of one of the major minerals, your doctor should make you aware of this and do periodic blood tests of your levels.

Sources:

Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Center, Oregon State University. "Phosphorus." 

Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Center, Oregon State University. "Potassium." 

Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Center, Oregon State University. "Sodium (Chloride)." 

National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements. " Calcium Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet."

National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements. "Magnesium Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet."