What are micronutrients?
Micros are the vitamins and minerals, antioxidants and polyphenols – including vitamin A, B C, D, E, K, and minerals such as iron, calcium, sodium, potassium. It’s these ‘hidden’ nutrients that are essential to our overall health and wellness, and deficiencies can cause lasting, significant health problems.
Micronutrients are critical for virtually every process within the body including:
The production of enzymes, hormones, and proteins that are critical to body and brain function.
The regulation of metabolism, and the release of energy from carbs, protein and fats.
Bone density and growth.
Nerve function, production of neurotransmitters and DNA synthesis.
Immune function and inflammation.
Mental health and mood have also been linked to adequate levels of these key nutrients.
Micronutrition for athletes
Eating a broad spectrum of colours and variety of whole foods will generally maximise your micronutrient intake. Some micros are relatively easy to meet adequately. For instance, vitamin C is so common in fruits and vegetables that almost everyone gets enough day-to-day by eating a single orange or by adding broccoli to their dinner plate.
Other vitamins can be more difficult to obtain, meaning deficiencies are common. For example, vitamin D, which is important for bone health and strength (amongst other functions) we make mostly from sunlight, but is difficult to obtain from food. For people who work indoors, wear long protective clothes or are enduring a long winter, this means less sunlight exposure which can lead to deficiencies that impact immune function and bone health.
This is important for athletes to consider, and emerging research suggests that athletes may require even higher levels than previously thought to support consistent training loads.
Heavy training may increase other micronutrient requirements – such as iron, calcium, and other antioxidants – which have been identified as micronutrients that athletes should pay particular attention to.
At other times – whether through injury or illness – additional nutritional support may be warranted for tissue repair and a speedy return to play. For hard training athletes the focus can (quite rightly) sometimes be on fuelling sessions or races. This generally means prioritising simple carbs, often refined sports foods and sugars, which while great for energy production and short term performance, do little to boost nutrient quality. Ultimately, this can mean that dietary gaps can quickly occur if you aren’t paying attention.
Other micronutrients that can be tricky to get sufficient in your diet include magnesium (found in leafy greens), which helps with sleep quality and stress reduction; vitamin K also found in dark leafy greens, and essential for bone strength and blood clotting; and zinc, key for immune function and found in shellfish, meat plus chickpeas and nuts and seeds.
For dietary gaps – whether caused by increased training demands; the need to support injury/illness; or the decline in micronutrients in modern foods – supplements provide a smart and easy solution, when taken under the guidance of a suitably qualified professional.
There is no point taking supplements without knowing what deficiency you are trying to address or understanding what foods may boost or block absorption. Supplement quality is also important – to ensure you are getting what is listed on the label (and nothing else) and that the ingredients are high quality and efficacious – look for trusted brands and batch tested products.
Understanding your individual requirements, as well as circumstances that arise amidst your training program are important to address with any nutrition routine. Speaking with an Accredited Sports Dietitian will help to have you covering all your micro and macronutrient needs for peak performance.