The Essential Role of Nutritional Metals in Human Health

Not All That Glitters is Gold

Most people do not realize metal’s essential role in the human body. Since the human organism can’t manufacture metal, it requires a dietary intake to meet physiologic needs.

Metals are required for various functions to keep the body running smoothly. A deficiency in a specific essential dietary metal leads to a particular disease state. For example, one form of anemia is due to iron deficiency.

  1. National Institutes of Health: “Trace Elements in Human Health and Disease” –
  2. World Health Organization: “Trace Elements in Human Nutrition and Health” –
  3. Mayo Clinic: “Trace Minerals: What You Need to Know” –
  4. National Center for Biotechnology Information: “Trace Elements and Human Health” –
  5. American Dietetic Association: “Trace Minerals: Key Players in Optimal Health” –

There are several essential metals needed for homeostasis. Each plays a role in a different process. Some of these biological processes that require metal include:

  • Helps move biochemical reactions along. Many enzymatic and other biochemical reactions require a metallic component to drive the reaction forward. The metal ion acts as a catalyst.
  • They support the structure of specific proteins. When ionic bonds within protein chains hold a metallic ion, it stabilizes the protein’s shape.
  • Reduces oxidative stress. Certain dietary metals can donate electrons that help reduce the free radicals that cause damage from oxidative stress.
  • Some metals are required to generate energy. Metals are needed at specific points in the conversion of glucose to energy.
  • Metal ions sometimes control feedback mechanisms. Nutritional metals are used in releasing hormones and controlling other biologic functions.

What Metals does the Body Need to Function?

Several essential dietary metals are required to maintain life. Some are commonly known, like iron. But others may come as a surprise. Understanding the role of dietary metals in human physiology can assist nutritional choices to maximize health and wellness outcomes.


There could be no life without iron. Iron is an integral component of the mechanism that provides oxygen to every living tissue in the human body. The oxygen transport mechanism utilizes a molecule called hemoglobin.

Four molecules of iron (Fe) reside in each molecule of hemoglobin. It is called a tetramer. Each hemoglobin molecule provides the binding site for four oxygen molecules to attach. As the blood circulates hemoglobin, oxygen is delivered and released to tissues that require oxygenation.

The recommended daily allowance (RDA) of iron varies between menstruating females and everyone else. For most, 8mg per day is sufficient for metabolic needs. However, due to blood loss in menstruating females, the recommendation is 18 mg per day.

Iron deficiency anemia results in shortness of breath on exertion, fatigue, and in severe cases, death. Often it confers a paleness to the skin and the lining of the eye (conjunctiva). Iron is supplied primarily through dietary red meats and green leafy vegetables.

Replacement therapy for iron deficiency can be accomplished by increasing dietary iron, oral supplementation, or injection or intravenous administration. Iron supplementation can cause constipation and gastrointestinal distress. The benefits, however, far out way the mild side effects.

  1. World Health Organization: “Iron Deficiency Anemia” –
  2. Mayo Clinic: “Iron: Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA)” –
  3. National Institutes of Health: “Iron” –
  4. American Dietetic Association: “Iron and Your Health” –
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Iron Deficiency Anemia” –


Everyone knows that copper is the most common metal used to conduct electricity. However, few know how vital copper is to the human body. Not only is copper an essential ion as an antioxidant, but it also has a role in connective tissue production and repair.

Copper (Cu) acts as a coenzyme in the production of elastin and collagen. Both substances are critical for maintaining the structure and function of the body’s mechanics. An enzyme is a substance that drives a biochemical reaction forward.

It has been said that human beings like to give simple explanations for complex phenomena. Such is the case with the connective tissue biogenesis of elastin and collagen. It has been determined that copper is a rate-limiting step in the complex sequence of events in elastin and collagen formation.

When individual strands of protein need to be combined for elastin or collagen, copper connects the tissue matrices. It is done by bridging proteins from the extracellular matrix. The charges of the copper molecules attract the opposite charges in the strands of adjacent proteins, bringing them together.

Copper is also pivotal in other biologic processes. For example, copper deficiency has been associated with multiple organ systems. Some include decreased white blood cell production, the blood cells that fight infection, an irregular heartbeat, a lower body temperature, thyroid dysfunction, and pale skin blotches.

Dietary copper can be consumed in foods high in protein. Some examples include nuts and seeds, fish (including shellfish), organ meats, whole grains, and for dessert, chocolate. Any well-balanced diet contains enough copper to meet needs. The RDA recommendation for copper is 900mg daily for most people. A little less for younger than adults and a little more for pregnant and lactating mothers are suggested.

  1. National Institutes of Health: “Copper” –
  2. Mayo Clinic: “Copper: Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA)” –
  3. American Dietetic Association: “Copper and Your Health” –


It seems unusual that science has never found a cure for the common cold. There is one compound, however, that has been proven to minimize cold symptoms if started earlier during the viral syndrome. Zinc has been shown to improve viral upper respiratory symptoms.

The metal zinc has been found throughout the human body’s tissues and blood (blood is also considered a tissue). Zinc is intimately involved in cellular metabolism and function. This makes it necessary for wound healing and all cell growth. In addition, it also contributes to energy production by utilizing carbohydrates (stored sugars), lipids (fat stored from sugars,) and proteins (the last source to derive energy.)

Symptoms of zinc deficiency are subtle but include:

  • hair loss
  • diarrhea
  • more infections
  • loss of appetite
  • weight loss
  • wounds that take a long time to heal
  • feeling irritable
  • decreased taste and smell

All the symptoms of zinc deficiency are common to many other disorders. The good news is that zinc is available in many foods. Oysters have the most; however, red meats and poultry also are high in zinc content. Grains, cereals, nuts, dairy, and beans also contain significant quantities.

  1. National Institutes of Health: “Zinc” –
  2. World Health Organization: “Zinc in Human Health” –
  3. Mayo Clinic: “Zinc: Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA)” –
  4. American Dietetic Association: “Zinc and Your Health” –
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Zinc” –


Silver has been known for its antimicrobial activity throughout history. In modern times it has been used to purify water, in cardiac devices, and in other surgical appliances. Another current application is the use of silver ions impregnated into surgical dressings. Burn care relies on the silver dressings most used.

The action of colloidal silver in the body has its effects by denaturing (breaking down) proteins. It is how it works as an antimicrobial by breaking down the bacterial cell wall.

There are no known side effects from a lack of silver intake. There are, however, some notable side effects from taking too much. For example, it can turn the skin a shade of blue in excess and cause cognitive dysfunction.

  1. National Institutes of Health: “Silver” –
  2. Mayo Clinic: “Silver: Uses, Side Effects, Interactions and Dosage” –
  3. American Dietetic Association: “Silver and Your Health” –
  4. Coated Silver: “The surprising Health Benefits of Silver” –

The Tip of the Metal Iceberg

The human body requires several other essential metals to grow, repair, and stay healthy. Therefore, a better insight into the crucial dietary metals presented conveys the importance of ingesting a diet rich in these molecules. In addition, supplemental intake of the metals needed may be considered.

Zinc on the first day of a cold or the flu can significantly minimize the time and severity of illness. Iron should be considered for busy, menstruating women who need to pay more attention to dietary intake. The more you know about what your body needs, the better you can take care of it.

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