What are essential nutrients and why they are “essential”?
Essential nutrients, or indispensable nutrients, are those ones that cannot be synthesized de novo (from scratch) in our body or their production is not in sufficient quantities, and thus must be supplied from food.
Essential nutrients include vitamins, dietary minerals, essential fatty acids and essential amino acids.
Health benefits of essential nutrients – a short overview for your references
So, here we go:
- Amino acids are major components in the hundreds of brain chemicals known as neurotransmitters that enable brain cells to communicate with each other. The commonly known neurotransmitters include dopamine, serotonin, acetylcholine, norepinephrine, and endorphins.
- Amino acid arginine is converted in the body into nitric oxide, a key-factor of a good erection. It also increases the levels of sperm motility. Pumpkin seeds are not only rich in arginine but also have the best arginine to lysine ratio. It is a common practice in India to make the bride and the groom drink a glass of milk each, boiled with raisins (which are also rich in arginine) and a pinch of saffron on their wedding night.
- Amino acid tryptophan is a biochemical precursor for serotonin, which is a well-known hormone of happiness. Serotonin produces your happiness, and tryptophan produces serotonin. The recommended daily intake for tryptophan is 4mg per kilogram of body weight: a person weighing 70kg (about 154 pounds) should consume approximately 280mg of tryptophan per day. Pumpkin seeds are the best source of tryptophan ever – 576mg of tryptophan per 100g (206% DV), or 161mg of tryptophan per ounce (28g) (58% DV).
- Vitamin A: Provitamin A (beta-carotene) is converted to vitamin A in the body. Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin. It takes part in many metabolic reactions throughout the body that help maintain good vision, gene transcription, embryonic development and reproduction, bone metabolism, skin and cellular health, and mucous membrane conditions. Vitamin A is important for strengthening the immune system because it functions as antioxidant. Many studies indicate that vitamin A has been linked to reduced rates of cancer and heart disease. Vitamin A deficiency is “the leading cause of preventable childhood blindness,” according to UNICEF (The United Nations Children’s Fund). Goji berries are not rich in provitamin A; they are superrich, having 536% of its Daily Value.
- B Vitamins have been called the “happy vitamins” or “anti-stress vitamins” because they can improve your mood and increase your tolerance to stress. B6 is crucial for dopamine and serotonin production. B9 strengthens memory and concentration while preventing Alzheimer’s disease.
- Thiamine (Vitamin B1): Vitamin B1 is very beneficial for your overall health. It is involved in many biochemical reactions in the body. Thiamine is needed for the metabolism of sugars and amino acids. B1 is important in keeping the nervous system healthy and plays a vital role in maintaining a healthy mental attitude. It can help stabilize mood and improve memory and concentration. Thiamine’s phosphate derivatives are involved in many cellular processes. As people are unable to make it, thiamine is an essential nutrient. All organisms use vitamin B1, but it is made only in bacteria, fungi, and plants. Humans must obtain it from their diet. Sunflower seeds and macadamias are one of the best sources of B1. Vitamin B1 is on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines, the most effective and safe medicines needed in a health system.
- Riboflavin (Vitamin B2) is required by the body for cellular respiration – a set of metabolic reactions and processes that take place in the cells of organisms to convert biochemical energy from nutrients into adenosine triphosphate (ATP), and then release waste products. Respiration is one of the key ways a cell releases chemical energy to fuel cellular activity. Riboflavin is on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines. Estimated Average Requirements (EARs) for riboflavin for adults are 0.9 mg/day.
- Niacin (Vitamin B3): B3 supports the functions of the nervous and digestive system. The body can produce niacin from the amino acid L-tryptophan. A deficiency in B3 can cause depression, irritability, stress and mood disturbances. Niacin functions to help the body release energy from carbohydrates. This can control blood sugar and maintain nervous system functioning.
- Pyridoxine (Vitamin B6): B6 can help the body manufacture neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, which aids in the body’s ability to cope with depression, stress and anxiety. B6 may also help boost the immune system during times of anxiety.
- Folic Acid (Vitamin B9): Folic acid is an essential vitamin needed for energy. The body is unable to produce folic acid on its own. If there is a deficiency in folic acid, people may experience depression and fatigue which may produce higher levels of stress.
- Vitamin C is an essential nutrient involved in the repair of tissue and the enzymatic production of certain neurotransmitters. It is a powerful antioxidant that strengthens the immune system.
- Vitamin E is a fat-soluble antioxidant that acts as a free radical scavenger. Vitamin E travels throughout the body neutralizing free radicals. It has significant anti-inflammatory effects that result in the reduction of symptoms in asthma, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis. It has also been shown to reduce the risk of colon cancer, help decrease the severity and frequency of hot flashes in women going through menopause, and help reduce the development of diabetic complications.
- Vitamins A, C and E, selenium and beta-carotene for brain protection: These free-radical fighters prevent brain cell from oxidative Brain cells are particularly vulnerable to free radicals. Antioxidant nutrients protect against brain aging and delay the progression of mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease, and reduce the risk of Parkinson’s disease.
- Choline: Choline is a water-soluble vitamin-like essential nutrient. Choline is the precursor molecule for the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is involved in secretion of nitric oxide.
- Carotenoid lycopene: A number of studies suggested that erectile dysfunction could be cured with lycopene. Lycopene naturally helps blood vessels to relax, which enhances circulation and, in turn, can improve blood flow in the penis and support a healthy erection acting like a natural Viagra. Sun-dried tomatoes are super rich in lycopene.
- Glucose for brain energy: The only source of energy for the brain cell is glucose – they can live only a few minutes without it! Brain cells can’t store energy and require a steady stream of glucose.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Consuming enough of Omega-3 essential fatty acid is one of the best things you can do for your brain. Brain functions rely on dietary intake of Omega-3 to support a broad range of cell membrane properties. A major structural component of the human brain, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is the most abundant omega−3 fatty acid in the brain. Memory loss, depression, mood swings, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and attention deficit disorder have all been found to improve with Omega-3s.
- Phytosterols are plant sterols with chemical structures similar to that of cholesterol. Plant sterols have been shown to lower/reduce blood cholesterol. Blood cholesterol lowering may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. Sesame seeds have the highest total phytosterols content (400-413 mg per 100 grams). Sunflower seeds and pistachios are the second best sources of phytosterols (270-289 mg/100 g), followed by pumpkin seeds (265 mg/100 g). Cashews contain a fair amount of beta-sitosterol that is being studied for its potential to reduce benign prostatic hyperplasia and blood “bad” cholesterol levels.
- Iron is an active component of hemoglobin that delivers oxygen to every cell in the body. Iron is responsible for hemoglobin and red blood cells production. It is the nutrient that keeps us energized. Sesame seeds are very rich in dietary iron providing 112% of its Daily Value. Iron from plant foods is absorbed less well by the body than from animal foods. The presence of vitamin C (such as citrus fruits) increases its absorption from nuts.
- Magnesium: The body uses magnesium in over 300 different biochemical reactions. It is of utmost importance for the healthy brain, the brain “master mineral”. It calms down our nerves helping to regulate nerve and muscle tone. It counterbalances calcium and blocking calcium’s entry, magnesium keeps our nerves relaxed. Yet, according to the USDA, an estimated 57% of Americans are deficient in this important mineral. A 100-gram serving of pumpkin seeds provides 155% of magnesium daily value!
- Phosphorus provides every cell in the body with ATP (adenosine triphosphate) which is necessary for any cellular process that uses energy. It plays a major role in the structural framework of DNA and RNA. Living cells use phosphate to transport cellular energy. ATP is also important for phosphorylation, a key regulatory event in cells. Phospholipids are the main structural components of all cellular membranes.
- Potassium is an essential nutrient that plays a dramatic role in maintaining heart muscle contractions and nervous system healthy and balancing the body’s overall metabolism. Sodium counteracts potassium. A high-potassium and low-sodium diet helps prevent high blood pressure and an increased risk for heart disease and stroke. Low potassium is a common issue in the standard American diet. A healthy adult should get about 4,700mg of potassium and no more than 2,300mg of sodium per day. People who get a lot of potassium in their diets have a lower risk of stroke. The best sources of potassium are: sun-dried tomatoes – 1565mg/100g – 44%DV; dried apricots – 1162mg/100g – 33%DV; goji berries – 1132mg /100g – 25%DV.
- Sodium–potassium (Na +/ K+) pump: Sodium and potassium are the two primary electrolytes in the body. Sodium and potassium ions are pumped in opposite directions across the membrane building up a chemical and electrical gradient for each. Sodium is pumped out of cells while potassium into cells, both against their concentration gradients. The sodium–potassium pump is responsible for nerve conduction, muscle contractions (including your heart beats), blood pressure, and removing acid from the body … and much more.
- Selenium is a core-component of the antioxidant enzymes that activate many processes of free radicals fighting. It reduces the risk of certain cancers, increases testosterone and sperm production, libido and sperm motility. Ahsan U, Kamran Z, Raza I, et al. in the paper “Role of selenium in male reproduction – a review” (2014) has shown that selenium and various selenoproteins improve male reproductive performance and protect against oxidative damage to spermatozoa. It’s important to note that this effect was only associated with selenium obtained from foods, not supplements. If you are a male, snack on two or three Brazil nuts per day! Deviation from the optimal content of dietary selenium, both above or below may cause multiple health abnormalities.
- Zinc is required for the function of over 300 enzymes and is the only metal which appears in all enzyme classes. It plays a key role in synaptic plasticity, one of the important neurochemical foundations of learning and memory. Zinc plays a crucial role in the synthesis of serotonin, one of four hormones of happiness. Zinc is especially important for men’s health. About 2-4 grams of zinc are distributed throughout the human body – in the brain, muscle, bones, kidney, and liver, with the highest concentrations in the prostate. Semen is particularly rich in zinc, a key factor in prostate gland function and reproductive organ growth. Zinc helps improve sex drive, testosterone and sperm production and prostate health. The Daily Value for zinc is 15mg. Foods providing 20% of the DV are considered to be high sources of this mineral. A serving of 100g of pumpkin seeds provides 80% of the Daily Value for zinc, making pumpkin seeds one of the best sources of zinc. Doses larger than 25mg may cause anemia and copper deficiency.
- Zinc and selenium increase “happy hormones” production: Those minerals have been scientifically proven to prevent depression and anxiety. Researchers from the University of Barcelona found that people had higher levels of serotonin metabolites after nut consumption.
Make sure that your diet has enough all these essential nutrients.
- Values and percentages are approximate based on the USDA Nutrient Database
- Percent Daily Value (%DV) is a guide to the nutrients in one serving of food. For example, 40% for protein means that one serving provides 40% of the protein you need each day. It helps you make informed food choices. DVs are based on a 2,000-calorie diet for healthy adults.