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The under-rated mineral behind healthy bones, teeth, muscles and nerves

The under-rated mineral behind healthy bones, teeth, muscles and nerves

If you asked people to list the minerals most important to health, calcium - crucial for bone formation - would probably be number one.  Potassium and magnesium might also be mentioned - or, possibly, immune system-boosting zinc.  What you probably won’t hear about, however, is phosphorus.

Despite being the second most abundant mineral in the body, phosphorus seems to “get no respect.”  Yet, we wouldn’t survive long without it.  So let’s take a look at the many contributions of this multifaceted essential nutrient. 

Phosphorus partners with calcium to maintain bones, and more

As it turns out, it takes more than calcium to maintain healthy, durable bones and a strong set of teeth.  Calcium and phosphorus, together, are needed to make up hydroxyapatite, the primary component of bones and tooth enamel.  But that’s not all.  While a full 85 percent of the body’s phosphorus is stored in the skeleton and teeth, that doesn’t mean other tissues, enzymes, and organs do not need it. 

For example, phosphorus combines with oxygen in the body to form phosphate, an electrolyte that helps to produce energy, support hydration, promote efficient nerve conduction and stimulate muscle contractions.  In addition, phosphorus removes waste from the kidneys, helps to make proteins, and is a critical element of cell membranes.  Finally, it helps to produce DNA, RNA, and ATP, the “energy” molecule.  In other words, phosphorus is responsible for a dizzying assortment of life-sustaining tasks.

How much phosphorus is needed for health?

According to the Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS), adults should get 700 mg of phosphorus daily - but most Americans consume far more.  In fact, the ODS estimates that the average daily intake of phosphorus for adults ranges from 1200 mg to 1600 mg a day.  Problems with excessive phosphorus are rare in healthy people because the body automatically regulates levels.  However, those with chronic kidney disease may need to limit their intake.  Too much phosphorus in the blood can leach calcium from the bones, which can then cause calcium deposits that raise the risk of potentially life-threatening heart attack and stroke.  

While most healthy people get all the phosphorus they need through diet, certain medications - such as excessive amounts of aluminum-containing antacids - can lower levels.  Symptoms of low phosphorus include joint and bone pain, fatigue, loss of appetite, confusion, and irritability.  If you are concerned about your phosphorus levels, speak with your integrative doctor.

Ensure adequate levels of phosphorus with high-protein foods

Phosphorus seems to go “hand in glove” with protein, so foods that are high in protein almost always contribute plenty of organic phosphorus.  Cage-free chicken, pork, wild-caught salmon and sardines, shellfish, nuts, seeds, and dairy products are all great sources of easily absorbable organic phosphorus. 

While plant-based foods also contain phosphorus, absorption is a little more problematic.  Some foods, such as beans and whole grains, may contain phytic acid, which can reduce phosphorus absorption.  Cooking, sprouting, and soaking can help make phosphorus more absorbable.

Inorganic phosphate also contributes to intake

Incidentally, organic phosphorus is not the only “game in town.”  Inorganic phosphorus is added to fast foods, deli meats, and canned and bottled beverages as a preservative and can comprise up to 30 percent of the phosphorus intake of the average American.  If you’ve been told to watch your phosphorus intake, you’ll want to know the names under which inorganic phosphorus can be hiding.  These include phosphoric acid, dicalcium phosphate, sodium phosphate, and trisodium phosphate.  Check labels carefully.

Ironically, although phosphorus is needed for strong teeth, bathing the teeth in inorganic phosphorus through the overconsumption of commercial sodas can wear down enamel and trigger cavities - especially if the soda is of the sugary variety.  (Just one more reason to cut down on sodas!)  If you crave “bubbles,” experts at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health advise opting for seltzer water instead.  But, of course, pure, filtered water - flavored with a squeeze of lemon or lime juice - is an even better choice for hydration.

While phosphorus levels usually aren’t a problem in healthy people, both too much phosphorus and too little can sometimes cause serious problems.  Your integrative healthcare practitioner can help you assess your levels if you are concerned.  In the meantime, eating a healthy, organic diet is an excellent way to ensure you have enough of this “unsung hero” for optimal health.

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