Conversation about diet, health and wellbeing usually involve big words and slightly opaque terms, from ‘free radicals’ and ‘antioxidants’ to ‘macronutrients’ and ‘micronutrients’. Those wanting to lose excess weight or build muscle are often advised to “track their macros”; that is, count their daily intake in grams of the macronutrient groups – carbohydrate, protein and fat.
So far, so logical – and most dieticians and nutritionists recommend a nutritious, balanced diet which includes all three macro groups. But what they mean by “nutritious” is “high in micronutrients”, which are vitamins and minerals (aka essential nutrients) that are mostly obtainable from food and are not produced by the human body. They are vital for growth, immune function (driven by Vitamin B6, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, magnesium, and zinc), energy production, blood clotting, bone health, brain development, fluid balance and many other functions, and certain micronutrients play a role in preventing and fighting disease.
As this article from the Harvard Medical School notes, the best way to ensure an adequate intake of vitamins and minerals is to eat a well-rounded diet replete with fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, lean protein, and healthy fat from nuts and olive oils. (Don’t overlook nuts and seeds as tiny, anti-inflammatory, micronutrient-packed health bombs; for example, almonds are rich in Vitamin E and magnesium, walnuts are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acid, which can reduce heart disease risk, and Brazil nuts are a powerhouse of the mineral selenium, an antioxidant.)
Medical doctors, dieticians and other experts advise us to try to meet our micronutrient needs through our diet rather than supplements – but that isn’t always possible, at least not all the time. Different stages of life, from puberty to pregnancy and breastfeeding to illness and recovery to natural aging, may demand more from our bodies than we can obtain solely through what we are eating. And some micronutrients are simply hard to get enough of from food alone.
Some supplements are true nutrient powerhouses, such as potentiated bee pollen, which contains 14 vitamins, up to 60 minerals, 11 different enzymes, and free-form amino acids that are the building blocks of protein and are easily absorbed.
An area of particular interest to those studying the effects of micronutrients on health is fertility and sexual health, a complex area of human health that involves everything from intimate relationship to self-esteem to family planning and parenthood.
Researchers focusing on the reproductive health of men have uncovered the vast array of benefits associated with a micronutrient-rich diet (that may supplemented where necessary, and with the approval of a GP):
- Endothelial cells line the inner wall of the blood vessels, and healthy blood vessels are essential for proper erectile function. To combat oxidised LDL cholesterol and tryglicerides which can increase the risk of endothelial dysfunction, antioxidant Vitamins E (found in plant-based oils, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables) and C (citrus fruits and other fruits and vegetables) are recommended. Vitamin D (which can come from supplements, fortified foods and oily fish (such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring), red meat, liver and egg yolk) can improve function.
- Blood flow is regulated by nitric oxide (NO), which expands blood vessels and therefore supports erectile function. Studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids can stimulate endothelial release of NO; antioxidants can increase NO production and delay its breakdown; and folic acid (folate is found in leafy greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and chickpeas), calcium (dairy foods, leafy greens and fortified foods) and Vitamins C and E can support the biochemical processes leading to NO release.
- To support production of healthy sperm that is motile (can move efficiently), sperm cells must be shielded from oxidative damage. Vitamin E, lycopene (tomatoes, pink grapefruit and watermelon) and coenzyme Q10 (organ meats, oily fish, some fruits and vegetables, and supplements) are associated with sperm protection and improved quality. Selenium, folate, Vitamin A (dairy foods, liver, fish and fortified foods) and zinc (oysters, red meat and poultry are good sources) also appear to be important.
- Prostate health can be influenced by diet, and studies have shown antioxidant vitamins, especially Vitamin E, may protect the cells of the prostate against malignant growths; a lack of zinc and selenium could represent risk factors for the development of cancer; Vitamin A helps regulate cell growth and cell differentiation; and B-complex vitamins can have a positive effect on prostate health, along with ample consumption of foods containing tomato or soy. According to large-scale observational studies, a high blood level of vitamin D could be associated with a positive prognosis for the non-fatal progression of prostate cancer.
On a final note, Vitamins A, E, D, folic acid and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids are generally among the micronutrients that can be difficult to adequately obtain from average dietary habits, and supplementation (with proper oversight by a GP) can be beneficial.