Trace Minerals: The Evidence

Trace Minerals Preserve Nerves,
Control Blood Sugar, Enable Metabolism,
Reduce Inflammation & More.

Go to any part of the world that's famous for the longevity of its population. What do you find? Glacial-fed streams and rivers.

Why? Because glacial waters are rich in the minerals glaciers grind off granite mountains. These trace minerals get carried downstream in flood waters until they're deposited along the slower, lower stretches of the river. These are the bottomlands ... famous for their fertility.

Trace Minerals are essential parts of everything the body puts together. Here's some key ones and a summary of the evidence linking them to mental health:

This article summarizes the peer-reviewed evidence base on the effects trace minerals have on mental health. For guidance in how to choose a good trace mineral supplement and use it, click here.

Magnesium (Mg)

Magnesium is one of the most important micronutrients for stress because nerve and muscle tissue can't rest and recharge without it.1 Magnesium oxide (the most common form in supplements) is much harder to absorb than chelates2,3 and modern farming methods can reduce the amount of magnesium in soil and farm crops.4,5,6 So perhaps it's not surprising that in stress-filled modern times survey after survey shows that we often get only a fraction of the magnesium we need for minimal health maintenance.7,8,9

Which is too bad. Mg is vital. On dairy farms in early spring, if there's a lot of rain and the pastures are fertilized with high nitrogen fertilizer from manure or commercial sources, the first grass can be so Mg depleted that cattle eating it can die of a condition called grass tetany. Here in civilization with sub-maintenance levels of Mg we get rush hour drivers, angry opinionated pundits, ice queen princesses as cultural heroes , little kingdom types and the like. Every now and then someone falls over. The heart uses more magnesium than any other organ.

Mg is crucial to carbohydrate (sugars, breads, chips, vegetables, grains) metabolism. It activates a number of enzymes that help the body burn its fuel.10 Mg helps maintain electrical charges across cell membranes in the nervous system and throughout the body. It also plays a critical role in preventing the over-release of catecholamines, the stress hormones (adrenaline, noradrenaline). These same stress chemicals lower Mg levels: less Mg means more stress hormones means even less Mg.11

Magnesium is required for the process by which the DNA template inside each of our cells talks to the RNA which tells the cells which proteins to build.12 This means that without plenty of magnesium our bodies can't build digestive enzymes, neurotransmitters, blood and immune cells, brain and all other types of cells and tissues. Asking the body to run without enough magnesium is like asking a mechanic to keep a fleet of cars running without 10mm nuts.

Magnesium can help the kind of premenstrual problems that show up with cravings for sweets, increased appetite and indulgence in eating refined sugar.13 By controlling stress hormones it can lower blood pressure. It helps insulin keep a lid on blood sugar levels, helps stabilize heart rate and reduce arrhythmias and keeps blood clots from forming. All this means good Mg levels are critical for helping carbohydrate fans keep their their arteries and kidneys from clogging, their hearts from stopping14 and their brains from freezing up.

It gets better. Magnesium is a critical part of the enzymes that make serotonin, the relaxed, feel-good-everybody's-beautiful neurotransmitter. Since many carb fans crave their carbs in order to get the dopamine and serotonin surges carb binging can bring, adequate Mg can reduce carb cravings.15 It also stabilizes cell membranes against the effects of excitatory neurotransmitters like glutamate, and can prevent some migraines.16 Magnesium is often low in children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and supplementing with Mg can sometimes help these kids focus their minds.17,18 It helps ordinary schoolkids reduce neurotic acting out19 and without enough of it elders are more prone to developing age-related brain deficits.20,21

These are just some of the ways Magnesium affects brain function and emotional state. In light of documented widespread Mg deficiencies in adult and child populations, and particularly in situations where high-carbohydrate lifestyles pertain . . . it's a good idea to supplement Magnesium. Please avoid Magnesium oxide - aspartate or citrate is better.

(It's not a good idea to take large quantities of single minerals without a real good reason and medical supervision. Large amounts of single minerals can throw off the balance of other minerals as they compete with each other in the body. It's best to take a balanced fully-chelated mineral formula instead.)

Zinc (Zn)

Everything we just saw with respect to magnesium and making proteins (DNA reads to RNA which tells cells how to make specific proteins) applies in spades to zinc.22 Without zinc the body can't grow, heal wounds, digest food, talk to itself, think or reflect. Without zinc we get grumpy.23 Recent surveys show that almost half of Americans don't get even minimally acceptable levels of zinc in their diets.24

With adequate zinc we get smarter. Studies have found strong correlations between the zinc status of college students and their scholastic standing.25 Adding zinc to the diet of Iranian students (there is markedly little zinc in Middle Eastern soils) helped them get better grades.26 Since the 1920s it's been noticed that schizophrenics have elevated levels of copper in their bodies.27,28 Zinc and manganese work together to help the body control excess copper.29 Zinc is critical to proper thyroid function; some researchers think there may be a relationship between the suboptimal zinc levels in the population and high rates of chronic fatigue related to hypothyroid disease.30

The part of the brain with the richest concentration of zinc is the hippocampus, the seat of memory and also an important regulator of the body's stress-response.31 When the hippocampus burns out, we forget things and can't turn off our stress responses.32 We become forgetful, opinionated and grumpy. Because of its role in DNA/RNA transcription and protein production, zinc is particularly important in tissues that experience rapid turnover, such as the gastrointestinal tract, taste buds and skin.33.34 One sign of zinc deficiency is sudden loss of the sense of taste or smell. Because zinc is so vital to digestion, deficiency can contribute to the disorders of assimilation and immunity that set the stage for allergies and the emotional/cognitive disorders that result from mild allergic brain inflammation.35,36

Even though leaded gasoline has been outlawed in most of the U.S. since the 1970s, it is extremely persistent in the environment. The yards, walls, fences and garages and shrubbery of any city or suburb in the industrialized world contain measurable amounts of lead left over from the days when the air was full of it. Adequate zinc levels protect the body and slow down the rate at which it absorbs environmental lead.37

Seminal fluid contains very high levels of zinc. Men with high levels of sexual activity are well-advised to make sure they get at least RDA levels of fully-chelated zinc. They may also want to learn more about taoist tantric practices.

(It's not a good idea to take large quantities of single minerals without a real good reason and medical supervision. Large amounts of single minerals can throw off the balance of other minerals as they compete with each other in the body. It's best to take a balanced fully-chelated mineral formula instead.)

Manganese (Mn)

I first noticed Manganese when a friend of mine seemed to cure himself of systemic lupus with, among other things, copious amounts of blueberry juice and acupuncture. His symptoms, which had been moderately advanced, receded to nothing and his test scores normalized and have stayed that way for ten years at this writing.

It seems that blueberries are very high in manganese. Manganese is at the heart of one form of a very powerful free-radical scavenger/antioxidant: manganese superoxide dismutase. Autoimmune activity is inflammatory; antioxidants reduce inflammation. This is one way he might have helped himself.

Manganese is essential in trace amounts as an enzyme activator. It is also essential for nerve and brain function. It is required for the synthesis of two neurotransmitters: acetylcholine (learning) and dopamine (motivation). Diabetics often have low manganese levels in their bodies. Zinc and manganese work together to reduce excess copper in the body. Animals deficient in manganese demonstrate retarded growth, hyperactivity, uncoordinated movements, and poor equilibrium.38

(It's not a good idea to take large quantities of single minerals without a real good reason and medical supervision. Large amounts of single minerals can throw off the balance of other minerals as they compete with each other in the body. It's best to take a balanced fully-chelated mineral formula instead.)

Copper (Cu)

Copper is a mixed bag in the body. Too much copper (often found along with low zinc and magnesium) is a sign of one kind of schizophrenia.39 On the other hand, copper is an important part of the powerful free radical scavenger superoxide dismutase. And like other metals it's involved in a number of critical enzymatic reactions, among them the mono-amine oxidase enzyme regulating neurotransmitters like norepinephrine (alertness), dopamine (fun and motivation) and serotonin (hanging loose.)40 The distribution of copper in the brain corresponds directly to the distribution of the neurons that synthesize dopamine and norepinephrine. Low copper levels are implicated along with the low zinc levels mentioned earlier in low thyroid function.41

Copper is considered by some to be primarily toxic, but it does in fact play an important role in iron absorption, functioning of vitamin C, synthesis of phospholipids, bone formation, RNA production, and formation of red blood cells. Certain conditions, such as pregnancy or the use of birth-control pills, cause an elevation in serum (blood) copper.42

(It's not a good idea to take large quantities of single minerals without a real good reason and medical supervision. Large amounts of single minerals can throw off the balance of other minerals as they compete with each other in the body. It's best to take a balanced fully-chelated mineral formula instead.)

Iron (Fe)

Iron also has a good side and a bad side. The good news: free iron ions combine readily with oxygen and can carry this dangerous but life-giving gas where it's needed. Iron is an essential part of hemoglobin, the molecule that carries oxygen throughout the body. It's found in myoglobin, a protein in muscle that stores oxygen until the muscle starts working and needs it. Iron in the cytochrome in each cell's mitochondrial motors stores the energy created by cellular respiration until it's needed to make other things happen. Iron is also a part of an enzyme, catalase, that breaks down corrosive hydrogen peroxide.43,44

The bad news: free iron is a good oxidizer itself so it can rot us, too. The body protects itself from excess iron in a couple of ways. First, iron absorption in the gut drops off somewhat when the body already has enough iron.45 But if inflammation of the digestive tract from alcohol, infection or allergy causes more iron to be absorbed than we need or if there's too much iron in the diet the body can store excess iron as a special protein called ferritin. The problem comes because too much ferritin accumulating in organs and tissues tends to make them brittle and easily damaged.46

Iron is also important in DNA synthesis. This means iron's involved in growth, reproduction, immunity and healing. Iron is also involved in creating and breaking down neurotransmitters.47 Iron-deficient people become irritable, tired, apathetic,48 and have a short attention span.49 Children with low iron status show compromised cognitive ability.50

(It's not a good idea to take large quantities of single minerals without a real good reason and medical supervision. Large amounts of single minerals can throw off the balance of other minerals as they compete with each other in the body. It's best to take a balanced fully-chelated mineral formula instead.)


Selenium is an antioxidant mineral most famous for its association with lowered cancer rates.51,52 It increases the production of glutathione, the detoxifying antioxidant mentioned just above. One study showed a relationship between supplementing selenium and lowered levels of lipofuscin in older people.53 Lipofuscin is the denatured, oxidized protein and fat that, when a lack of vitamin E causes them to accumulate in the skin, create brown "age spots." The same lipofuscin also accumulates in the brain, crowding and eventually choking brain cells.54

Isolated selenium atoms are poisons like many other metals; they only become useful when incorporated into proteins or other molecules. One family of selenium-containing molecules (glutathione peroxidases) repairs damaged cell membranes, while another (glutathione S-transferases) repair damaged DNA and prevent mutations.55 Selenium also appears to be involved in helping the immune system destroy invading viruses.56,57

There are eight different selenium-containing proteins in brain tissue, but work is just beginning on elucidating their functions.58 A number of studies have shown a relationship between low selenium levels and mood issues.59 At least one type of thyroid hormone needs selenium to function.60 Not all selenium supplements are equally useful, though. The most bioavailable selenium is found in high-selenium yeast (aka: selenized yeast.)61 It's important to cover this base, though - western countries have soil that's notoriously poor in selenium and getting poorer all the time.62

(It's not a good idea to take large quantities of single minerals without a real good reason and medical supervision. Large amounts of single minerals can throw off the balance of other minerals as they compete with each other in the body. It's best to take a balanced fully-chelated mineral formula instead.)


 1. Underwood, E.J. 1977. Trace Elements in Human and Animal Nutrition. Fourth Edition. New York: Academic Press.

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

 3. Firoz, M, Graber, M. 2001. Bioavailability of US commercial magnesium preparations. Magnesium Research. 14(4):257-62,

 4. Robinson, D.L. et al. 1989. Management Practices to Overcome the Incidence of Grass Tetany. Journal of Animal Science. 67(12):3470-3484.

 5. Wilkinson, S.R. et al. 1987. Relation of Soil and Plant Magnesium to Nutrition of Animals and Man. Magnesium. 6(2):74-90.

 6. Worthington, V. 2001. Nutritional Quality of Organic versus Conventional Fruits, Vegetables and Grains. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 7(2): 161-173.

 7. Marier, J.R. 1986. Magnesium content of the food supply in the modern-day world. Magnesium. 5(1): 1-8.

 8. Morgan K.J., Stampley, G.L. 1988. Dietary intake levels and food sources of magnesium and calcium for selected segments of the US population. Magnesium. 7(5-6): 225-233.

 9. Galan, P. et al. 1983. Dietary magnesium intake in a French adult population. Magnesium Research. 1997 Dec;10(4):321-328.

10. Passwater, R. Trace Elements, Hair Analysis and Nutrition. New Canaan: Keats. 64.

11. Seelig MS. 1994. Consequences of magnesium deficiency on the enhancement of stress reactions; preventive and therapeutic implications (a review). Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 13(5): 426-429.

12. Venon, W.B. 1988. The role of magnesium in nucleic-acid and protein metabolism. Magnesium. 7(5-6): 234-248.

13. Abraham, G.E. 1983. Nutritional factors in the etiology of the premenstrual tension syndromes. Journal of Reproductive Medicine. 28(7): 446-464.

14. Challem, J. et al. 2000. Syndrome X. New York: Wiley & Sons.

15. See also l-glutamine for this purpose.

16. Lombard, J. and Germano, C. 2000. The Brain Wellness Plan. New York: Kensington.

17. Starobrat-Hermelin B. 1998. The effect of deficiency of selected bioelements on hyperactivity in children with certain specified mental disorders. Annales Academiae Medicae Stetinensis. 44:297-314.

18. Kozielec T, Starobrat-Hermelin B. 1997. Assessment of magnesium levels in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Magnesium Research. 10(2): 143.148.

19. Papadopol V, Tuchendria E, Palamaru I. 2001. Magnesium and some psychological features in two groups of pupils (magnesium and psychic features). Magnesium Research. 14(1-2): 27-32.

20. Durlach J. et al. 1997. Are age-related neurodegenerative diseases linked with various types of magnesium depletion? Magnesium Research. 10(4): 339-353.

21. Durlach, J. 1990. Magnesium depletion and pathogenesis of Alzheimer's disease. Magnesium Research. 3(3):217-8

22. Passwater, R. Ibid. 123-127.

23. Kanarek, R., and Marks-Kaufman, R. 1991. Nutrition and Behavior. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold. 59.

24. Briefel, R. 2000. Zinc intake of the U.S. population: findings from the third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1988-1994. Journal of Nutrition. 130(5S Suppl):1367S-73S.

25. Gordus, A. 1975. ACS national meeting (1974) reported in Prevention. 186.

26. Ronaghy, H.A. 1972. Chemical Engineering News. July 10.

27. Reiter, P. 1927. Z. Neur. 108:464-480.

28. English, W. 1929. American Journal of Psychiatry. 569-580.

29. Pfeiffer, C. 1974.Journal of Orthomolecular Psychiatry. 3(4):259-264.

30. Passwater, R. Ibid. 172.

31. Lombard, J. Ibid. 44-45.

32. Sapolsky, R. 1998. Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers. New York: Freeman. 206-207.

33. Kanarek, R. Ibid. 65

34. Sandstead, H., Evans, W. Zinc. 1984. Present Knowledge in Nutrition. ed. R. E. Olson et al. Washington, D.C.: Nutrition Foundation. 479-505.

35. Horrobin, D. Possible role of prostaglandin E1 in the affective disorders and in alcoholism. British Medical Journal. 1980. 280(6228): 1363-1366.

36. Philpott, W., Kalita, D. Brain Allergies: the Psychonutrien
and Magnetic Connections. 2000. Chicago: Keats. 38.

37. Lombard, J. Ibid. 191.

38. Philpott, W. Ibid. 80-81.

39. Pfeiffer, C. J. Orthomolecular Psychiatry. 1974. 3(4):259-264.

40. Passwater, R. Ibid. 147-148.

41. Passwater, R. Ibid. 172.

42. Philpott, Ibid. 81.

43. Hallberg, L. 1984. Iron. In Present Knowledge in Nutrition, Olson, R.E. et al, eds. Washington, D.C: Nutrition Foundation. 459-478.

44. Burton, B., Foster, W. 1988. Human Nutrition. New York: McGraw-Hill.

45. Interestingly, it's only the iron absorption from plant sources that drops off. Iron absorption from heme iron in meat continues to be absorbed even when the body already has adequate iron.

46. Halliwell, B. and Gutteridge, J. 1990. Role of free radicals and catalytic metal ions in human disease: an overview. In Methods in Enzymology, Packer L. and Glazer, A., eds., San Diego: Academic Press. 186:1-85.

47. Kanarek, R. Ibid. 59.

48. Benton, D., Donohue, R.T. 1999. The effects of nutrients on mood. Public Health Nutrition. 2(3A):403-409.

49. Edgerton, V. et al. 1982. Effects of iron-deficiency anemia on voluntary activities in rats and humans. In Iron Deficiency: Brain Biochemistry and Behavior, Pollitt, E. and Liebel, R. eds. New York: Raven Press. 141-160.

50. Halterman, J.S. et al. 2001. Iron deficiency and cognitive achievement among school-aged children and adolescents in the United States. Pediatrics. 107(6):1381-1386.

51. Combs, G.F. Jr., et al. 1997. Reduction of cancer mortality and incidence by selenium supplementation. Medizinische Klinik (Munich). 92 Suppl. 3:42-45.

52. Passwater, R.A. and Olson, D.M. Method and Composition to Reduce Cancer Incidence, U. S. Patent ,090,414

53. Clausen, J., Nielsen, S.A., Kristensen, M. 1989. Biochemical and clinical effects of an antioxidant supplementation of geriatric patients. A double blind study. Biological Trace Element Research. 20(1-2):135-151.

54. Erasmus, Udo. Ibid. 140-141.

55. Passwater, R. 2001. Selenium and cancer. Whole Foods Magazine. May.

56. Kiremidjian-Schumacher, L. et al., 1992. Regularion of cellular immune response by selenium. Biological Trace Element Research. 33:23-35.

57. Turner, R.J., Finch, J.M. 1991. Selenium and the immune response. The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 50:275-285.

58. Chen, J., Berry, M.J. 2003. Selenium and selenoproteins in the brain and brain diseases. Journal of Neurochemistry. 86(1):1-12.

59. Benton, D. 2002. Selenium intake, mood and other aspects of psychological functioning. Nutritional Neuroscience. 5(6):363-374.

60. Holben, D.H., Smith, A.M. 1999. The diverse role of selenium within selenoproteins: a review. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 99(7):836-843.

61. Passwater, R. Ibid.

62. Rayman, M.P. 2000. The importance of selenium to human health. Lancet. 356(9225):233-241.