Step 2: Trace Minerals

No Oxides, Sulphates
Sulphides or Carbonates Please

If B vitamins are the cell's spark plugs, trace minerals are its nuts and bolts. Very important parts of everything the body makes, they're not much by weight or volume but critical for hormones, enzymes, neurotransmitters, cell walls, bones, the connective tissue holding it all together. Without tiny amounts of trace minerals nothing gets built.

Key trace minerals like magnesium and zinc are also important antioxidants, preventing the slow "rusting" of the body we call inflammation. It's now recognized that chronic, low-grade inflammation underlies all the chronic diseases of aging.

This article describes why we need trace mineral supplements, how to pick a good one, and how to take them. For a summary of the peer-reviewed evidence base on the effects trace minerals have on mental health, go here.

The body's digestive juices don't dissolve pieces of solid metal very well. Inorganic salts like oxides, sulfates or carbonates dissolve in stomach acid just fine, but then a new problem arises—intestinal walls are made up of long-chain proteins, electrochemically "neutral". The free-floating metal ions left behind when their oxide (sulfate or sulphide) groups take off carry an electrical charge. The difference in these charges causes the metal ions to stick to the intestinal wall—so they can't get through and therefore aren't well assimilated. The solution is to surround the metal ions with amino acids, a process known as chelation. (This chelation is not the strong protein-bonding action of EDTA, used in chelation therapy to pull toxic metals out of the body. These chelates are strong enough to withstand stomach acid, but not so strong that they can't release their metal ions back to the body when the time comes.)1-3

Unchelated trace mineral pills are common because they're usually cheaper and smaller.4 Some digestive systems will do the work of chelating the minerals, but as we get older our ability to do this well can decline. That's why it's important to buy a trace mineral supplement that's already chelated. Because this knowledge isn't widespread, the best formulas tend not to sell. Therefore they don't get as much shelf space (or indeed any at all) at the local health food store. You may have to hunt for them or special-order them.

It's not enough to find a mineral supplement that says on the front of the label in large type that it's chelated. You have to turn the bottle over and read the tiny type on the back: many manufacturers only partly chelate their products so they can call them chelated on the label while still keeping the pills small and cheap. People like small pills. But if you see any oxides, sulphates, sulfides (aka sulphides) or carbonates back there you it's not completely chelated.

You'll hardly ever find full Daily Value (DV) doses of fully chelated trace minerals in a multi-vitamin. There's too much of a premium placed on keeping the pills small and few. My quick test is to check the magnesium. If there's 400 mg of magnesium in the supplement and none of it is magnesium oxide, that's a very good sign. (If the small print doesn't tell you what form the magnesium is in, that's not a good sign. If it's a good form (no oxides, sulfates, sulphides or carbonates, remember) but it's less than 400 mg, that's a slightly better sign. Best is 400 mg or more.

Unless one receives specific medical guidance, it's not a good idea to take large amounts of single minerals, especially chelated ones (they're absorbed so much better.) Trace minerals compete with each other for transport through the body and if you take large amounts of one you'll crowd out some of the others and run the risk of hard-to-identify deficiency symptoms down the road. Instead, it's best to get a good trace mineral formula. As of this writing I'm recommending a product made by a small manufacturer in Norwalk, American Dietary Labs.

ADL makes the housebrands for a number of smaller health food stores, and they have a product that goes by different names in different stores. The best way to order it is to call them (believe it or not they don't seem to have a website!) Estelle is the manager and can be reached at (800) 423-8837. The product number is 387405. Not only is this one of the few products I've ever found that gives full Daily Value (DV) levels of all crucial trace minerals in a fully chelated form, it's also the cheapest!

A close second is Nature's Plus Ultra-Mins. You may have to have your local health food store order this for you, although some stores do carry it. (Product #3300). This formula is probably better for vegetarians like myself because of its high iron content; if you're an omnivore you might want to find one without iron.

It's important to avoid mixing one's trace minerals with whole grains. Whole grains contain phytic acid, which can bind with the minerals and make them difficult to absorb.5

When we start resupplying trace minerals to a mineral-depleted body it's usually a much smoother process than resuppling B vitamins to a B-depleted body. Every once in someone will get a little nauseous when taking trace minerals, this usually means liver trouble. If this happens to you cut back, take fewer capsules (or pills) either by reducing one's daily dosage or taking them every second or third day instead of every day. One can also try taking them with meals. It might be good to get a liver checkup.


 1. Ashmead, H.D. 2001. The absorption and metabolism of iron amino acid chelate. Archivos Latinoamericanos de Nutricion. 51(1 Supp. 1): 13-21.

 2. Lindberg, J.S. et al. 1990. Magnesium bioavailability from magnesium citrate and magnesium oxide. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 9(1):48-55.

 3. Harvey, J., Zobitz, M., Pak, C. 1988. Dose dependency of calcium absorption: a comparison of calcium carbonate and calcium citrate. Journal of Bone and Mineral Research 3(3):253-8.

 4. If you don't like swallowing big pills, all you have to do is open the capsule (if it's a gel) and consume the powder (some like to sprinkle it in soups or on salads, others just take it in a teaspoon with some water or juice.) If it's a pressed-powder tablet, wrap some plastic wrap around it and hit it gently with a hammer a few times until powdered, then consume the powder.

 5. Zhou JR, Erdman JW Jr. 1995 Phytic acid in health and disease. Critical Review of Food Science and Nutrition. 35(6):495-508.