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Trace elements in the body

Trace elements

Trace elements constitute only 0.02% of the human body, but they are involved in various biochemical processes, including blood formation, DNA synthesis, immune functions, and hormone production. The following article explains the symptoms of trace element deficiencies and how to reverse them.

What are trace elements

Trace elements are minerals whose content in the body is measured in milligrams and micrograms. (The opposite of trace elements are macro elements, also known as macro minerals, which are needed in much higher amounts.)

Trace elements include zinc, iodine, selenium, fluorine, silicon, chromium, copper, manganese, cobalt, molybdenum, nickel, boron, bromine, arsenic, lead, tin, lithium, cadmium, vanadium, and other minerals. Only some of these elements are essential.

“Essential” means that their imbalance leads to clinical symptoms. Essential trace elements are zinc, iodine, chromium, cobalt (as a component of vitamin B12), manganese, molybdenum, copper, selenium, and iron.

“Non-essential” elements have specific biological functions, but the signs of their deficiency are yet unknown. The non-essential trace elements include boron, phosphorus, nickel, silicon, and vanadium.

Science still needs to fully understand all the functions of trace elements in the body. For example, the optimal levels of iodine, copper, zinc, selenium, and manganese are well-studied. By contrast, with aluminum, nickel, and lead, we know more about their potential toxic effect on the human body than about their positive role.

The role of essential trace elements in health and disease

Importance of trace elements in the body

Even though trace elements are found in the body in tiny amounts (as their name suggests), their role cannot be underestimated. They are present in bone tissue and tooth enamel, they are one of the components of hemoglobin, and they also help the work of the digestive and immune systems.

Despite low concentrations in the body (0.02% of the body weight), many trace elements are essential catalysts of various biochemical processes at many levels. These include:

  • Maintaining a normal pH balance.
  • Participating in the processes of blood and bone formation.
  • Maintaining osmotic pressure at a constant level.
  • Controlling of nerve conduction.
  • Setting up intracellular respiration.
  • Influencing the immune system.
  • Ensuring proper muscle contraction.
  • Constituting a part of hormones (iodine in thyroxine, zinc in insulin and sex hormones, etc.).
Nata Gonchar

Holistic Nutritionist, founder
of the project WOW Bali

TOP-10 ingredients
for your health and
balanced meal plan
Nata Gonchar

Holistic Nutritionist, founder
of the project WOW Bali

As Hippocrates said, you are what you eat. The meaning of this phrase concerns every person, who takes care of his health. The food we eat has a big impact on our vital activity, state of health and quality of life.

Nowadays healthy diet is very popular and everyone knows that he should give up junk food. But not everyone knows what he must eat except for grain, vegetables and protein food.

It's essential to diversify your diet. Every bite of food should provide you with vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that are necessary for good health.

So how can we have a proper nutrition plan?

We prepared a PDF-file to help you. It contains TOP-10 ingredients, which should be added to everyone's diet.

In terms of biological function, elements can be divided into two groups:

  • Enzyme cofactors – elements with activating, regulatory and structural-stabilizing functions. This group includes zinc, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, copper, and iron.
  • Molecular components can be found in skeletal bones, the metabolic system, etc. This group includes iodine, chromium, cobalt, and selenium.

What are Trace Elements? —Their deficiency and excess states

Trace elements promote our body’s adaptation to pathological processes. This adaptation is crucial given our environment is getting worse every year. The constant stress and lack of necessary physical activity worsen this situation further. The only way to survive, stay healthy, and adapt to these conditions is a balanced diet providing our bodies with all the required substances. This diet should contain proteins, fats, carbohydrates and all kinds of vitamins, and a whole set of valuable minerals, including trace elements.

Required intake of trace elements

It is recommended that everyone, without exception, keeps the required ratio of trace elements in their diet to maintain health and well-being. This is especially important for specific categories of people:

  • Those who actively engage in sports as intensive physical activity exhausts the body and depletes its mineral reserves. Athletes should make sure to replenish energy and nutrients.
  • Those on vegan or vegetarian diets. Animal products are a rich source of minerals in bioactive forms. These products should be replaced in the diet through plant substitutes. Additional attention should be paid to providing conditions for the proper absorption of the trace elements.
  • Children and elderly. Growing and aging organisms are in higher need of essential nutrients.
  • Those who are under a lot of emotional stress, as stress depletes the body’s reserves of vitamins and minerals.
  • Those on restrictive diets that do not provide bodies with essential elements.
  • Pregnant and breastfeeding women are particularly vulnerable because of the fetus’s and baby’s growing nutritional needs. For example, iron is a trace element that is one of the most deficient among pregnant women worldwide. The WHO estimates that about 40% of pregnant women globally are affected by anemia.

Antenatal iron supplementation

  • Those who live in cold climates and those who suffer from chronic and autoimmune diseases. These conditions create higher demands for micronutrients. Nutrient deficiencies can cause autoimmune diseases.

Metabolic disorders and nutritional status in autoimmune thyroid diseases

  • Smokers and those who drink alcohol. Cigarettes and alcohol worsen overall health and contribute to many chronic diseases which deplete nutrient reserves.
  • Those undergoing hormone therapy. Hormonal drugs deplete vitamins and minerals, for example, selenium and zinc.

Oral contraceptives and changes in nutritional requirements

The recommended dietary allowances (RDA) for essential trace elements are:

Trace elements RDA for adults RDA during pregnancy and breastfeeding RDA for infants and children RDA for teenagers
women men pregnancy breastfeeding
Copper 900 mcg 900 mcg 1000 mcg 1300 mcg 1 to 3 years old: 340 mcg;

4 to 8 years old: 440 mcg;

9 to 13 years old: 700 mcg

890 mcg
Iron 19 to 50 years old: 18 mg;

51 years and older: 8 mg

8 mg 27 mg 10 mg 1 to 3 years old: 7 mg;

4 to 8 years old: 10 mg;

9 to 13 years old: 8 mg


11 mg

Girls: 15 mg

Zinc 8 mg 11 mg 11 mg 12 mg 7 months old to 3 years old: 3 mg;

4 to 8 years old: 5 mg;

9 to 13 years old: 8 mg

Girls: 9 mg

Boys: 11 mg

Cobalt 2,4 mcg 2,4 mcg 2,6 mcg 2,8 mcg Infants: 0.5 mcg

1–3 years old: 0.9 mcg;

4–8 years old: 1.2 mcg;

9–13 years old: 1.8 mcg

2,4 mcg
Chromium Women 19 to 50 years old: 25 mcg;

51 years old and above: 20 mcg

Men up to 50 years old: 35 mcg;

Men 51 years old and above: 30 mcg

30 mcg 45 mcg 1 to 3 years old: 11 mcg;

4 to 8 years old: 15 mcg

Boys 9 to 13 years old: 25 mcg Girls 9 to 13 years old: 21 mcg

Girls: 24 mcg

Boys: 35 mcg

Molybdenum 45 mcg 45 mcg 50 mcg 50 mcg 1 to 3 years old: 17 mcg;

4 to 8 years old: 22 mcg;

9 to 13 years old: 34 mcg;

43 mcg
Selenium 55 mcg 55 mcg 60 mcg 79 mcg 1–3 years old:

20 mcg;

4–8 years old: 30 mcg;

9–13 years old: 40 mcg

55 mcg
Iodine 150 mcg 150 mcg 209 mcg 290 mcg 1 to 8 years old: 90 mcg;

9 to 13 years old: 120 mcg

150 mcg
Cobalt Safe RDA for cobalt has yet to be set because it is a part of essential vitamin B12. It is estimated that the average daily adult intake of cobalt is 5-8 mcg. Foods rich in vitamin B12 are the only source of cobalt used by the body.

Nutritional Aspects of Essential Trace Elements in Oral Health and Disease: An Extensive Review

The primary sources of trace elements can be either food or particular vitamin and mineral complexes. For the body to function correctly, it is essential to replenish trace elements systematically. Trace elements provide excellent health, improve mood and performance, delay aging, and strengthen the immune system.

Foods rich in trace elements


This is the best-known trace element and the one that is frequently found to be deficient in people. It is significant for growth and development, blood formation and oxygen transport from the lungs to all parts of the human body, DNA synthesis, and many other metabolic processes.

Iron Deficiency Anemia: A Common and Curable Disease

Iron-rich foods include:

  • Liver.
  • Red meat.
  • Poultry.
  • Fish.
  • Green leafy vegetables.
  • Legumes.
  • Nuts.
  • Oilseeds.
  • Dried fruits.

Dried fruits


Zink is essential for the cellular immunity of the skin and mucous membranes. It accelerates wound healing and prevents inflammatory skin diseases (e.g., acne, eczema, neurodermatitis, psoriasis, etc.). It is a structural part of the insulin molecule and the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH). Zinc level in the body reduces with excess consumption of refined carbohydrates and alcohol.

Zinc-rich foods are:

  • Oysters.
  • Pumpkin seeds.
  • Wheat bran.
  • Rye bran.
  • Red meat.
  • Pine nuts.


This trace element neutralizes more than 300 toxic substances and heavy metals in the body. It is necessary for thyroid hormone production.

Selene-rich foods are:

  • Garlic.
  • Brazilian nuts.
  • Wheat germs.
  • Pine nuts.
  • Coconut.


  • Oregano.
  • Golden root.
  • Maral root.
  • Ginseng.
  • Porcini mushrooms.


This is a structural component of cartilage and connective tissues. Manganese is necessary for the synthesis of insulin.

Manganese-rich foods include:


This trace element regulates carbohydrate metabolism, heart muscle function, and vascular activity.

Chromium-rich foods are:

  • Tuna.
  • Salmon.
  • Mackerel.
  • Herring.
  • Beets.
  • Shrimp.
  • Quail eggs.
  • Lentils.


Copper, like iron, plays a critical role in maintaining optimal blood composition in the formation of hemoglobin. Without copper, iron will not be able to take part in hemoglobin formation.

Food sources rich in copper are:

  • Nuts.
  • Legumes.
  • Animal liver.
  • Potatoes.
  • Sprouted wheat.
  • Seafood.
  • Fish.
  • Dried fruits (especially prunes).
  • Chocolate.
  • Garlic.
  • Eggs.
  • Fermented dairy products.

In general, copper is found in almost all iron-containing foods.


The primary function of iodine is to synthesize a thyroid hormone called thyroxine. In addition, iodine is actively involved in creating phagocytes, which are protective cells that destroy cellular debris and all kinds of foreign matter.

Iodine-containing products include:

  • Sea salt.
  • Green vegetables.
  • Iodized salt.
  • Oceanic and saltwater fish.
  • Seafood, including seaweed.
  • Onions.
  • Garlic.
  • Eggs.


  • Cod liver.
  • Beans.
  • Beets.
  • Oriental spices (especially ginger, pepper, coriander, cumin, cloves, and turmeric).
  • Carrots.
  • Cabbage.
  • Potatoes.
  • Tomatoes.


This trace mineral is essential for DNA synthesis and neutralizing toxic substances (drugs, alcohol, etc.) in the body.

Molybdenum-rich foods are:

  • Animal liver.
  • Lentils.
  • Dried peas.
  • Kidney beans.
  • Soybeans.
  • Oats.
  • Barley.


Cobalt is a component of vitamin B12, and its functions in the body are connected to that of the vitamin. Cobalt is involved in blood cell formation, antiviral and antibacterial immune response, nervous system development, and health maintenance. Cobalt is also needed for cell energy production while breaking down sugars and fats.

Food sources of cobalt are the same as those of vitamin B12 are:

  • Meat.
  • Liver.
  • Kidneys.
  • Oysters.
  • Fish.
  • Mussels.
  • Milk.
  • Shellfish.


Silicon is a structural part of skin cells, nails, and hair. This trace element is important in collagen synthesis and bone mineralization. It is also needed for the immune system’s health.

Silicon: the health benefits of a metalloid

Silicon-rich foods are:

  • Rice.
  • Oats.
  • Barley.
  • Soybeans.
  • Legumes.
  • Buckwheat.
  • Pasta.
  • Corn.
  • Nuts.
  • Eggs.
  • Seafood.
  • Dairy products.

Silicon is also found in grape juice, wine, and beer.

Signs of trace elements deficiencies

Shortage of minerals in the human body can be caused by the following factors: an improper approach to diet, consumption of poor-quality water, and living in a region where soils do not contain essential minerals or where the minerals are depleted. Trace element deficiencies can also be a side effect of medication intake. Many factors contribute to this problem, so paying close attention to the signs of possible trace element deficiencies is necessary.


Some the symptoms of iron deficiency are well-known:

  • Fatigue.
  • Pale skin.
  • Weakness.
  • Sleepiness.
  • Anxiety.

Iron deficiency can also manifest as:

  • Headache.
  • Heart palpitations.
  • Cold hands or feet.
  • Nail brittleness.
  • Hair loss.
  • Poor memory and concentration.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Chest pain.
  • Restless legs syndrome.

The most common reasons for iron deficiency are unbalanced omnivores, vegan or vegetarian diets, heavy menstrual periods, digestive issues, internal bleeding, and inflammatory disease of the intestines.

Iron Deficiency Anemia: A Common and Curable Disease


The following signs can be suggestive of zinc deficiency:

  • Irritability.
  • Fatigue.
  • Memory loss.
  • Sleep disturbance.
  • Hyperactivity.
  • Decreased visual acuity.
  • Loss of taste.
  • Mouth sores.
  • Disorders of the sense of smell.
  • Decrease in body weight.
  • Poor wound healing.
  • Skin issues: scaly skin rashes, blackheads, furunculosis, eczema, dermatitis, psoriasis, trophic ulcers.
  • Nail issues: loosening of nails, white spots on nails.

Nail issues

  • Hair issues: dull hair color, dandruff, slowed hair growth, hair loss.
  • Decreased insulin levels.
  • Delayed growth, late puberty in children (especially boys).
  • Reduced T-cell immunity, reduced resistance to infections (frequent and prolonged colds).

In addition to an unbalanced diet and impaired absorption of zinc in the intestine, a frequent cause of its deficiency is inadequate intake during increased demand periods, such as during pregnancy, breastfeeding, wound healing, and recovery from illnesses.


Some signs of deficiency are:

  • Impaired thyroid hormone production.
  • Goiter formation.
  • Swelling of the face, limbs, and torso.
  • Elevated cholesterol levels.
  • Bradycardia.
  • Constipation.
  • Mental and physical development decline.
  • Short stature, skeletal deformities.
  • Fertility problems.
  • Sleepiness.

In addition to an iodine-poor diet and impaired iodine metabolism, a frequent cause of this trace mineral deficiency is increased radiation exposure and allergies.


Some signs of copper deficiency are:

  • Inhibited iron absorption.
  • Disruption of hemoglobin formation.
  • Suppression of blood-forming process.
  • Bone and connective tissue disorders, osteoporosis, bone fractures.
  • Increased susceptibility to bronchial asthma and allergic contact dermatitis.
  • Hair pigmentation disorder (gray hair).
  • Vitiligo.
  • Delayed sexual development in girls, impaired menstrual function, decreased libido in women, infertility.
  • Suppression of the immune system functions.

An unobvious but common reason for the copper deficiency is the long-term use of some medications, such as corticosteroids, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and antibiotics.


Signs of selenium deficiency include:

  • The slow hair growth or hair loss.
  • Nail thinning.
  • Decrease in the body’s immune defense.
  • Disorders of liver function.
  • Infertility (primarily in men).
  • Slow growth and development in children.
  • Dermatitis and eczema.

In addition to a selenium-poor diet and metabolism disorders, a frequent cause of selenium deficiency is the body’s toxic burden because more trace minerals might be needed to neutralize harmful substances.


Some signs of deficiency are:

  • Fatigue.
  • Weakness.
  • Dizziness.
  • Bad mood.

Bad mood

  • Decreased memory and concentration.
  • Disorders of muscle contraction ability, spasms, cramps, muscle pain, movement disorders.
  • Degenerative processes in the joints.
  • Disorders of skin pigmentation, the appearance of a fine scaly rash, vitiligo.
  • Slow nail and hair growth.
  • Decrease level of HDL cholesterol in the blood.
  • Impaired glucose tolerance.
  • Excessive weight gain, obesity.

Manganese requirement intake rises during psychological and emotional overloads in pre- and menopausal women. Manganese-poor diet is a crucial factor in this trace element deficiency.


Symptoms of deficiency include:

  • Night blindness.
  • Irritability.
  • Disorientation.
  • Tachycardia.
  • Decreased libido.
  • Infertility.
  • Delayed puberty.

Molybdenum Deficiency


The following signs can recognize Chromium deficiency:

  • Increased glucose blood level.
  • Weight loss.
  • Sugar cravings.
  • High insulin blood level.
  • Elevated cholesterol.
  • Atherosclerosis.

Chromium Deficiency


As cobalt is a part of cobalamin (vitamin B12), its deficiency can reveal itself as a deficiency of vitamin B12, which includes:

  • Megaloblastic anemia.
  • Elevated homocysteine.
  • Fatigue.
  • Weight loss.
  • Irritability.
  • Poor memory and concentration.
  • Depression.


  • Dementia.

Vitamin B12 Deficiency


Silicon has not been classified as an essential trace mineral, but it functions as one; hence we include it in the list. Silicon plays a significant role in bone and connective tissue health and neuronal and immune responses.

Silicon as Versatile Player in Plant and Human Biology: Overlooked and Poorly Understood

Some signs of silicon deficiency include:

  • Connective tissue disorders (bronchopulmonary system, ligaments, cartilage).
  • Weakness of bone tissue (osteoporosis, tendency to fractures).
  • Thinning, brittleness, or loss of hair.
  • Inflammatory diseases of the stomach and intestines.

In addition to a silicon-depleted diet and impaired silicon metabolism, increased use of silicon during periods of rapid growth and physical overload are the additional risk factors that may lead to silicon deficiency.

Toxic effect of excess intake of trace elements

Vitamin and mineral excess intake are just as harmful as a deficiency. Taking vitamin and mineral complexes ‘just in case’ is a big mistake. Taking too many trace elements can lead to serious health problems and, in some cases, even death.

For example, excess manganese intake (more than 40 mg per day) can be a reason for appetite loss, hallucinations, muscle pain and atrophy, chronic fatigue, sleepiness, depressive disorders, and even lung damage.

Another example is iodine. The consumption of iodine in more than 1.1 milligrams per day is harmful. Elevated levels of iodine in the body can cause hyperthyroidism, a severe endocrine disorder characterized by weakness, unstable psychological state, and sweating. Also, high iodine intake raises body temperature in the absence of inflammation. Other symptoms are headaches, nausea, apathy, and weakness.

Iodine Toxicity

Selenium is also toxic if its daily consumption exceeds 5 milligrams. Symptoms include depression, mood swings, unpleasant garlic smell from the mouth and skin, deterioration of the liver, brittle nails, nausea, or vomiting.

If the body accumulates excess zinc, it leads to deterioration of hair and nails, liver malfunction, nausea, immunity disorders, pancreas disorders, and prostate disorders.

To avoid trace elements overdosing, it is essential to maintain a balanced diet and take supplements only under the supervision of trusted healthcare providers.

How to replenish the deficiencies of trace elements in the body

First, it’s recommended to pay attention to the symptoms listed above. Second, laboratory testing can be used for more precise detection of deficiencies.

The most common form of evaluation of mineral levels in the body is through blood testing. But this method is not always 100% informative. For example, blood test results won’t always reflect deficiencies. This is because blood tests only show the elements stored in the blood but not those stored in tissues. The levels of elements in the blood are not the same as tissue-store indicators.

Urine tests can also be helpful in some cases, for example, to measure iodine. Urinary iodine is a good signifier of early deficiency of this trace mineral because about 93% of iodine intake is excreted with urine.

Urinary iodine, thyroid function, and thyroglobulin as biomarkers of iodine status

Nail and hair tests are an additional diagnostic method that helps to evaluate the secretion of trace elements from the body and to indicate deficiencies.

Investigation of Trace Elements in the Hair and Nail of Patients with Stomach Cancer

The most complementary option is to jointly use a few methods of laboratory testing and symptom analysis. When trace mineral deficiency is confirmed, it’s necessary to make dietary changes and add supplements to replenish the elements.

In addition to enriching the diet with food containing missing trace elements, it is also essential to ensure proper absorption. Nutritionists or dieticians can help make a balanced meal plan and complete it with the necessary supplement recommendations. One should not hesitate to seek qualified medical help and assistance for severe deficiencies.