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What Are Micronutrients? A Review of Essential Nutrients

Micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals required by your body. Unlike macronutrients, you only need minuscule amounts of micronutrients to maintain good health. Micronutrients are essential to the production of enzymes, hormones, proteins, and other products created by your body. Some micronutrients have a specialized role, while others fulfill a broad range of functions.

Micronutrients are incredibly important for health and wellness. Mineral deficiencies can have lasting, detrimental health consequences in children and adults of all ages. Unborn children and older adults are especially susceptible to micronutrient deficiencies, which is why many nutritional supplements are optimized for specific age groups and many staple foods, like flour, are fortified with vitamins and minerals.

However, you might be surprised to learn that food fortification can be misleading as it’s often accomplished with synthetic vitamin variants. These manufactured vitamin forms often lack the cofactors and nutrients required for proper absorption in the body. As always, it’s best to obtain naturally occurring vitamins and minerals from quality, whole-food dietary sources to ensure your body can properly utilize these essential nutrients.

What Are Vitamins?

Vitamins are organic compounds primarily derived from food that the body needs in small amounts. With the exception of vitamin D, vitamins cannot be produced by the organism that requires them. Vitamins serve a variety of purposes. Some, like vitamins A, C, and E, are antioxidants. Others, like the B vitamins, are vital for fetal brain development and healthy brain aging.[1, 2] There are two categories of vitamins—fat-soluble and water-soluble.

Fat-Soluble Vitamins

Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble vitamins. Your body stores fat-soluble vitamins in fatty tissues for reserves in case you don’t meet your daily recommended intake. These vitamins are best consumed with healthy fats to ensure absorption.

Vitamin A

Vitamin A is essential for eye and brain health. It also regulates growth and keeps the immune system healthy. Plant sources are the safest method of meeting your daily vitamin A requirement. Consumption of vitamin A from animal sources could lead to vitamin A toxicity.[3]

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is both a hormone and a micronutrient. Though it’s famous for its role in preserving and promoting bone health, it also helps keep your respiratory system healthy, enhances your mental and emotional well-being, and keeps your immune system functioning at peak efficiency.[4, 5]

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is a powerhouse antioxidant. The various forms of the vitamin all have similar antioxidant properties, but one in particular, alpha-tocopherol, is what the body prefers most. Vitamin E protects delicate lipids from oxidation and, in the case of food, rancidity. Its actions protect your DNA by stopping free radicals from damaging the fragile structure of your chromosomes.

Vitamin K

Vitamin K is named after the German spelling of coagulation (koagulation) because it activates the proteins in blood that are responsible for clotting.[6]

Water-Soluble Vitamins

In humans, the water-soluble vitamins are limited to the B-complex vitamins and vitamin C. These vitamins need to be replaced on a daily basis because they are not easily stored in the body. Rather, the body excretes excess water-soluble vitamins in urine.

B-Complex Vitamins

The B-complex vitamins include thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), folic acid (B9), and cobalamin (B-12). These vitamins regulate therelease of energy in cells (metabolism), serve as cofactors, and affect mood and immune health. Additionally, a healthy microbiome is essential because some probiotics actually generate B-vitamins in the gut.

Vitamin B-12 and B9 are vitally important to brain health.[7] Research into the role of vitamin B-12 suggests it’s a powerful force in preserving memory and cognitive function as you age.[2]

Vitamin C

Vitamin C’s role as an antioxidant is well known (and highly marketed), but it has other roles, too. Vitamin C is incredibly important for growth and healing. The strength of connective tissue and bones and skin elasticity all depend on sufficient levels of vitamin C. It also enhances the absorption of iron from food in the small intestine.[8]

What Are Minerals?

In general, minerals are inorganic, naturally occurring substances. In your diet, they are important nutrients that enable your cells to carry out essential functions. Minerals are divided into macrominerals and trace minerals, also known as microminerals. Predictably, your body requires macrominerals in much larger amounts than the trace minerals.


The macrominerals include magnesium, sulfur, and the electrolytes: potassium, calcium, sodium, chlorine, and phosphorous. Most people get much more sodium chloride (table salt) than they need—to the detriment of their health. While some salt is essential, you don’t need nearly as much as most Americans consume. Try to limit your salt intake whenever possible.


Magnesium is not one of the celebrity micronutrients, but it is essential to many vital processes. It plays an important role in metabolism, acting as a cofactor in hundreds of chemical reactions in the body. Magnesium is also vital to proper bone formation and the synthesis of genetic material.[9]