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An inorganic nutrient is essentially any compound or element that is not carbon-based, but is otherwise necessary to maintain health and optimum growth of a plant, animal, or human. In most cases life is supported and stabilized by a wide range of different chemicals and elements, and scientists usually talk about them in terms of two categories: “organic” and “inorganic.” The difference is usually the presence of carbon, which is known as one of the main “building blocks” of life on Earth. Different nutrients are essential for different organisms, and the amounts needed can vary, too. They also come from a wide range of sources. Some are synthesized and made naturally by humans and plants, while others come from mineral deposits in the soil. Most life forms require at least some intake of some nutrients of the inorganic variety, but the specifics can vary. Too much or too little can sometimes lead to problems, too, which means that moderation is an important part of the equation.
The precise definition of “nutrient” can vary a little bit from scholar to scholar, but in most cases anything needed for life can fall within the broad category. On this definition, things like oxygen and water could be included with other inorganics since they don’t contain carbon and are necessary to support most forms of life. In general there is wide variety when it comes to what inorganic nutrients contain; what’s most essential is what they don’t, namely carbon.
These sorts of nutrients are very prolific. Where they occur usually depends on what they are; things like oxygen are readily available in the air, for instance, while nutrients like calcium and iron come from plants and animal products, particularly meats and dairy items. Compounds like nitrogen, phosphorous, and sulfur are often available in the soil as well as in certain fruits and vegetables.
Some inorganic nutrients are synthesized, or made, by humans; these are known as “non-essential” nutrients. This name can be confusing, and it doesn’t mean that the nutrients aren’t needed. Rather, people don’t need to get them elsewhere since they’re made in the body and absorbed directly. People usually have to get nutrients known as “essential” from their food. Those who don’t have access to the right types or amounts of food sometimes look to supplements, often in the form of vitamin capsules, in order to be sure that they’re getting enough.
As far as human nutrition is concerned, the following non-carbon-based nutrients are among those generally considered essential: calcium, chloride, fluorine, iodine, iron, magnesium, potassium, selenium, sodium, and zinc. What is an inorganic essential nutrient for one form of life may not be for another, though. For example, boron is an important mineral required in trace amounts that is considered essential for vascular plants and algae, but it is not considered essential for animal life, including human life. In contrast, iodine is essential for humans and other complex forms of animal life in that it is necessary for the production of the thyroxine group of thyroid hormones, which are involved in controlling the rate of metabolic processes in the body and also play a role in processes having to do with physical development.
Inorganic nutrients, whether essential or non-essential, can influence and power everything from human breathing and moving to reproducing. A “balanced” diet — which is to say, one that contains fruits, vegetables, proteins, carbohydrates, and a small amount of fat — will usually provide the right proportions of everything that's needed.
Deficiencies are a real concern for people who either don’t have access to fresh food or who have poor diets either due to lifestyle choices or medical issues. Chronic shortages can lead to muscular deterioration, an inability to concentrate, and problems with blood chemistry, among other things. Most of the time dietary supplements will fix the situation, but serious problems can arise if things aren’t caught quickly enough.
Nutrients change forms, transitioning between organic and inorganic forms in natural cycles and along natural pathways, before and after being absorbed and used by plants and animals. For example, the inorganic forms of nutrients essential to plant life — principally nitrogen, phosphorous, and sulfur — can be readily absorbed and used by plants. Their organic counterparts, on the other hand, have to be broken down into simpler forms before the nutrients they hold can be absorbed. Whether organic or inorganic, both contain nutrients that life forms have evolved to sustain themselves.
@MrsWinslow - It's definitely confusing! But many people will get enough vitamins and minerals for health if they eat lots and lots of fruits and vegetables. Many or most women will benefit from taking a calcium supplement, and all women of childbearing age should take folic acid (available on those orange women's multivitamins).
If you don't get much sun and don't drink milk, you may need vitamin D--ask your doctor. But in general, try not to sweat it too much and just eat good food; make every calorie count! And remember that too much supplementation can actually be harmful; some vitamins (especially A and D) are stored in the body and can be toxic if you really load right up on them.
How do I know if I need to take vitamin supplements to get enough of these inorganic nutrients? It seems like every week, I read about the benefits of some other vitamin or mineral. And how do I know if my supplement is good enough?