Trace elements: why the body needs them

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Iron, zinc, iodine: nowadays, anyone wanting to supply the body with trace elements resorts to supplements with promising names such as "anti-hangover" or "anti-jet lag". What are the benefits of such remedies? And can excess consumption be damaging?

Trace elements are substances needed by the body in very low concentrations only. Without the "essential" trace elements, which include iron, zinc and iodine, nothing in the body would function properly. All trace elements can be found in food. So, a trace element deficiency is unlikely to occur if you follow a balanced diet. A list of all the trace elements, including recommended daily intake, function and food sources, can be found at the end of this article.

What are the benefits of food supplements containing trace elements?

A study conducted by researchers from Iowa over a period of more than 20 years found that women who regularly took food supplements didn't live any longer than women who didn’t use them. With one exception: women who took calcium, which is a macroelement, lived longer. However, this doesn’t automatically mean that food supplements don’t help. They might still boost performance or strengthen the immune system.

Supplements upset the natural system

The problem with trace elements is that you risk poisoning yourself if you take too many. For example, if you ingest too much zinc, your gut will inhibit the absorption of copper, leading to a copper deficiency. Or, as Paracelsus once said: “All things are poison, and nothing is without poison; the dosage alone makes it so a thing is not a poison.”

The dose is therefore particularly important when it comes to trace elements, because any excess won't simply be eliminated, but will suppress one of the other trace elements. And: they only work in combination with vitamins and macroelements, such as magnesium or calcium. The body’s own finely sophisticated, highly complex system. Experts therefore advise not upsetting this system in any way unless you suffer from a deficiency.

How do you recognise a deficiency?

There are certain circumstances in which the body may need a greater amount of a particular trace element. During pregnancy, for example, when the body’s requirements change as there is now a second, small being involved. Smoking, taking medication and overexercising can also upset the mineral balance. The best thing to do then is get yourself examined. Because the most reliable way to detect whether someone is suffering from a deficiency is to do a blood count. Symptoms such as headaches or fatigue can have many other causes, making it difficult to pinpoint exactly what is causing them.

List of all trace elements

According to the recommended dietary allowances for the German-speaking world, adults require a certain amount of trace elements every day:

Trace element Daily requirement Foods








Wholegrain products, nuts, white beans, honey Improves glucose uptake
Iron 10mg men
15mg woman
30mg pregnant women
Beef, white beans, oats, kale, lentils, peas Blood formation and transport of oxygen in the blood
Zinc 7mg women
10mg men
Beef, herring, oats, maize, peas and white beans Strengthens the immune system, skin and connective tissue. Zinc reserves are exhausted relatively quickly.
Iodine 150μg
200μg pregnant woman
Fish, seafood Important for thyroid function, metabolism and energy consumtion
Cobalt 2μg In all foods rich in vitamin B12: meat, fish, dairy products, spinach, tomatoes, lentils Component of vitamin B12 and thus responsible for numerous metabolic processes in the body
Copper 1-1.5mg Oats, wholegrain products, white beans, lentils, soya beans, fish, nuts Bone growth, connective tissue and metabolism
Manganese 2-5mg Wholegrain products, bananas, nuts, black tea Bones, connective tissue and metabolism
Molybdenum 50-100μg Varies greatly as the content depends on the soil. Pulses, cauliflower, garlic and wholegrain products tend to have a high content DNA producion, energy production
Selenium 60μg women
70μg men
Herring, chicken, beef, maize, oats and white beans, fatty fish, mushrooms Activates thyroid hormones and immune system
Silicon 30mg
not essential
Onions, oats, millet, potatoes Strengthens hair, fingernails
Fluoride 3,1 (woman)-3,8 mg (men) not essential Offal, fish, black tea, cereals, mineral water Effects are controversial

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