(Jan 2014) Philosophers throughout history have sought out grand theories to define Nature, as if there were a unifying feature. The ancient Greeks were particularly curious in this regard, though they had very little evidence to work with. In the early 6th century BC, Thales postulated that the primary substance of Nature is water. Anaximenes defined it as air. Heraclitus concluded that it was fire. By the mid-5th century BC in Sicily, Empedocles identified four basic elements – earth, water, air, and fire – that comprised all of Nature. Such musings say a lot more about human limitation than they do about Nature. To be sure, Nature is too vast and varied to fit conveniently into a box. It will retain its mystery, despite our lame efforts to name it, or tame it.
Nevertheless, scientists have unraveled many of the mysteries of Nature since ancient times. So, rather than rely on old stories or religious texts to explain what it’s all about, many now look to the collective information from thousands of lifetimes of scientific inquiry. In one sense, no one can know the nature of things as intimately as a scientist. However, a single scientist does not typically look at the whole picture, but rather focuses on one single aspect of it. The sharper the focus, the more knowledge gained. Each scientist is just a dot on the mosaic of understanding. It takes the efforts of thousands of scientists to make sense out of the whole. Today’s evidence-based view of Nature may not be as enchanting, holistic or succinct as those in religion or myth, but it is as close as we can get to reliable truth.
With the wealth of new information, we have much more to go on in explaining how the world turns. Certainly, there is nothing simple about the workings of Nature. To explain Nature fully, one must account for the many unique elements and their myriad associations that contribute to its majesty. From simple atoms vibrating in solution to multicellular life, an endless array of structures defines the Earth and its movement. Living and non-living matter are constantly in flux, and overlapping in ordered patterns. Earth’s secrets lie in the interplay of its multifaceted, opportunistic elements.
It is the grandest of experiments. Life springs forth powerfully, dynamically, abundantly, with ever more clay. Over billions of years, creatures still unimaginable have inhabited this planet, filling every conceivable niche. Cataclysmic disaster created new habitats and destroyed others, and life adapted. Countless, nameless species learned to thrive at extremes, in freezing or boiling, oxidative or anaerobic, high or low-pressure conditions. Relentlessly, life’s manifestations arise from clay like mushrooms, defy death momentarily, and are recycled anew.
There are about 72 elements detectable in seawater, from whence life originated. Each element is endowed with a special utility that defines its role in the big picture. Life has exploited a few dozen of these elements, and the special features inherent in them. A prime example is the attraction of sulfur for minerals. Iron and zinc combine with sulfur in hundreds of different enzymes in our cells. Enzymes containing iron-sulfur clusters are key players in energy production. Other enzymes contain protruding “zinc fingers” that walk along our DNA and fix damaged genes. Delicate zinc-sulfur sensors can detect slight chemical changes in blood and trigger major inflammatory responses. Metal-sulfur interactions drive chemical reactions, regulate enzyme activity, participate in energy transfer and cell signaling, and form durable structures like skin, cartilage and bone. Life has exploited mineral-sulfur interactions to the max. Yet, that’s only one of the many interactions occurring between organic and inorganic substances.
This interplay between organic and inorganic gets to the heart of Nature’s essence. Life owes its plasticity to these interactions. Minerals (i.e., dirt, rock) represent the inorganic phase and carbon-based molecules (protein, carbohydrates, fats) define the organic phase. Each essential mineral—calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, zinc, manganese, copper, cobalt, chromium, selenium, molybdenum, etc—plays a unique role in the process. Magnesium drives activity in over 300 enzymes involved in an assortment of functions. Zinc may affect even more processes. The hormone insulin functions poorly in the absence of chromium. The body’s antioxidant system cannot protect us from toxic metals, viruses and cancer when selenium is low. In their organic forms, minerals are linked to proteins (e.g., metallo-enzymes), carbohydrates (e.g., fiber), nucleic acids (e.g., DNA, RNA), or fats (e.g., membrane lipids) in coordinated fashion. Organic-mineral complexes dominate nature. Energy from the sun drives the assembly of these many and varied interactions. However, in death (or in the compost pile), these interactions are again broken down to their component parts. The cycle goes from complex to simple and back again.
Soil quality depends greatly on its mineral content. It starts with slime on rocks, wherein bacteria eat away at its surface. Every bout of rain promotes this microbial process to help release the rock’s minerals into the soil. Thus, rain provides more than water; it also helps generate new minerals for plant growth. Rain also sparks activity in the compost pile, where minerals are recycled from crop refuse (green) and manure (brown). Rich and full-spectrum mineral content in the refuse makes for high-quality compost. Alternatively, a handful or two of pristine sea salt (not the white, refined stuff) or rock dust can activate the pile. Decomposition over several months converts minerals to their elemental form. Plants and microbes prefer these inorganic minerals, and convert them back to complex structures like enzymes, chemical signals, antioxidants, pigments and structural integument. The minerals are now in organic form, which animals prefer. What comes out the other end is thrown back into the compost pile, and converts to dirt all over again.
Quality mineral nutrition comes primarily from plants grown in good organic soil. But, since most soils are depleted, we are wise to take mineral supplements. Unfortunately, most of the minerals in drugstore supplements are in the elemental form found in dirt, and do not contribute much to health. That’s probably why they’re dirt-cheap, so to speak. Organic (or chelated) mineral supplements cost more, but are much more likely to confer health benefits than are inorganic forms. This has been demonstrated repeatedly in clinical trials. As the following table shows, almost every mineral that ends in chloride, oxide, or sulfate does not get absorbed well by the human gut. Quality is on the organic side. Exceptions are gluconate (like taking sugar with your minerals), and polynicotinate (does not hold on well to the minerals). The question is, why then do most multivitamins contain magnesium oxide and chromium chloride? Answer: Follow the money. As always, you get what you pay for.
Table. Differentiating Quality Forms of Mineral Supplements
|Well absorbed (organic, chelated)||Not well absorbed (mostly inorganic)|
|Calcium citrate, ascorbate, fumarate, malate; hydroxyapatite; coral calcium||Calcium carbonate|
|Magnesium citrate, taurate, or malate||Magnesium oxide, sulfate, chloride|
|Zinc picolinate||Zinc sulfate, chloride, oxide, gluconate|
|Iron (ferrous bisglycinate)||Ferrous sulfate, fumarate or gluconate|
|Manganese ascorbate, picolinate, glycinate||Manganese sulfate, chloride|
|Chromium picolinate, histidinate||Chromium chloride, polynicotinate|
|Vanadium (fumarate, malate, succinate)||Vanadyl sulfate, orthovanadate|
|Boron glycinate||Sodium borate|
|Selenium (selenomethionine, yeast)||Sodium selenite|
|Potassium (citrate, fumarate, malate)||Potassium chloride|