Trace elements: what they are, characteristics, types and functions

The atom, the smallest building unit of matter, has the property of a chemical element. Thus, we can say that absolutely every living being or object present on Earth is formed, in its most basic structure, by some of the elements that we find by going to a periodic table.

Of course, it’s shocking to think about our most basic makeup: after all, all living things are carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. Yet beyond that, life requires complex interrelationships and other compounds to take place effectively and functionally.

Here come more specific terms from a nutritional point of view, like macronutrients, micronutrients, vitamins and trace elements, because living things are able to synthesize compounds, but we also need elements present in the environment.

Naturally, all of this conglomeration can confuse even the biggest experts, and that’s why we’re focusing today on a really interesting functional unit: trace elements.

    Trace elements: small but essential for the body

    From a chemical point of view, we can define a trace element as a series of bioelements present in small quantities in living beings. To define its importance from a nutritional point of view, one must first briefly review the field of nutrients. Let’s do this.

    Micronutrients and Macronutrients

    A nutrient is a chemical from outside the cell that it needs to perform its vital functions.. Translated into more lovable language, this concept could be defined as a series of substances that nourish us. Nutrients can be divided into large groups:

    • Macronutrients: proteins, fats and carbohydrates. They provide most of the body’s metabolic energy.
    • Micronutrients: They are found in much lower concentrations in food and require less for our functions.

    It is this last group that belongs to us today, because among the micronutrients we find vitamins and trace elements (also called minerals indiscriminately in many bibliographical sources).

    Once the two terms have been introduced, it is essential to know that vitamins and trace elements are not interchangeable terms. A vitamin is a molecule, that is, a series of atoms organized in a specific order, while a trace element (as the name suggests) is a simple body, or what is the same , consists of a single type of atoms.

      The variety of trace elements and their functions

      We can say that trace elements are present in their elemental form, that is to say without a combination, in the form of chemical elements. Although we cannot find any proteins, fats or vitamins in the periodic table, trace elements will be present there. These important elements have at least five essential functions in the body of the body:

      • Some are essential parts of the catalytic centers (the process by which the speeds of chemical processes are increased) necessary for life.
      • They participate in the attraction of molecules from the substrate and their conversion into finished products by metabolic reactions.
      • They can serve as acceptors or electron donors in oxides reduction reactions.
      • When presented as mineral salts, they have important structural functions.
      • They regulate and balance biological functions: respiration, digestion, hormonal activity and gene expression, among others.

      As we have seen, the functions of trace elements are multiple and inaccessible in a single space. Here are some specific examples. Do not miss them.

      1. Fluorine

      Chemical element number 9, located in the halogen group on the Periodic Table of the Elements. this trace element it helps to fix calcium in the bones, in addition to maintaining a good state of the tooth enamel (This prevents the appearance of infectious processes of bacterial origin).

      2. Iodine

      Chemical element number 53, again, in the group of halogens. iodine it has a thyroid function, that is, it is part of the hormones thyroxine and triiodothyronine, Made in the thyroid gland. These hormonal groups regulate cell metabolism, so together with other compounds, they influence body growth and other biological processes.

      3. Iron

      It is chemical element number 26, the fourth most abundant transition metal in the earth’s crust. Inside our body, iron is the vital building block of hemoglobin, a blood hemoprotein responsible for transporting oxygen to cells and tissues. Therefore, it is involved in cell respiration and many other processes: glycolysis (oxidation of glucose for energy), oxidation of fatty acids, and DNA synthesis, among others.

      4. Manganese

      Element number 25, a metal located in Group 7 of the Periodic Table. It is a constituent of certain enzymes, notably manganese superoxide dismutase (Mn-SOD), which, for example, has been shown to be a tumor suppressor for breast cancer. Various research studies explore the field of manganese and allergiesAs it appears that its supplementation may alleviate the symptoms of these processes in some cases. However, these hypotheses require much more experimental testing to be confirmed.

      5. Nickel

      Atomic number 28 and located in group 10 of the periodic table, nickel is another trace element which is part of 87% of hydrogenases, enzymes essential for microbial metabolism. It acts as a biocatalyst, participates in the growth and defense of the organism, promotes iron absorption and stabilizes DNA and RNA molecules.

      6. Other trace elements

      We have given you five examples of trace elements with detailed function, but it should be noted that there are many more, just as important as the ones just named. Then we put you some other examples, related to a key functional term.

      • Copper: stimulates the immune system.
      • Cobalt: component of vitamin B12.
      • Zinc: metabolism of proteins and nucleic acids.
      • Boron: structure of the cell wall of plants.
      • Chromium: glucose metabolism.
      • Selenium: antioxidant and chemopreventive.
      • Silicon: structure of bones, skin, hair and nails.
      • Lithium: acts on the nervous system.
      • Vanadium: relationship with insulin.
      • Molybdenum: detoxification.

      How many are there?

      In total, we have presented you with a total of 15 trace elements, but the list will vary according to the criteria of each author. For example, lithium, tin, boron, bromine or cadmium (some present in the list and others not) are elements of debate, because their essential character in the human body is not clear.

      On the other hand, some sources mistakenly include in the lists of trace elements elements such as calcium (whose daily intake is recommended of 1,300 milligrams), potassium (4,700 milligrams per day) or sodium (1 500 milligrams).). The definition of the trace element, from a theoretical point of view, excludes these elements, because they are present in greater quantities in our body than those presented above, so they are considered “more essential ”.


      We cannot close this space without talking about oligotherapy, 1 pseudotherapy supervised in the branches of alternative medicine which explores the use of trace elements in order to restore or improve the altered metabolic processes in the patient’s body.

      Of course, we will never recommend this type of course as a substitute for conventional medical therapy, but in certain specific cases and under the supervision of a healthcare professional, they can become supports. auxiliary therapies. Our duty, in this case, is to report on its existence and not to assess its effectiveness. We leave it to each reader to make their own judgment on the subject.


      As we have seen in these lines, trace elements are bioelements present in very small amounts in our body, but still they have essential tasks for the functioning of human beings: From the growth to the repair of DNA, their functions are inaccessible.

      The definition and classification criteria for trace elements may vary from author to author, because what do we define as essential? To what extent is the concentration of the element in our body too high to be included in this group? These questions are difficult to answer and it is for this reason that we have taken it easy and shown you these minerals which are present in very low amounts in our body, but which in turn are essential in certain processes.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Dorosz, P. (2001). Table of vitamins, minerals, trace elements. Editorial Hispano Europea.
      • McDowell, LR and Conrad, JH (1977). The nutritional importance of trace elements in Latin America. World Journal of Animal Husbandry, 24, 24-33.
      • Miñana, IV (2015). Vitamins and trace elements. Integral pediatrics, 324.
      • Trace Elements, Texas Heart Institute. Retrieved October 31, from
      • Trace elements. Small quantities, large functions, Mapfre health channels. Collected October 31 from 2C % 20Selenio% 20y% 20Silicio, es% 20producen% 20s% C3% ADntomas% 20% 20enfermedades.
      • Reynaud, AC (2014). Need for micronutrients and trace elements. Peruvian Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics, 60 (2), 161-170.
      • Rubio, C., González Weller, D., Martín-Izquierdo, RE, Revert, C., Rodríguez, I., and Hardisson, A. (2007). Zinc: an essential trace element. Hospital Nutrition, 22 (1), 101-107.

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