Henry Schroeder: The Biological Importance of Minerals

Part 3 of the series,
Mineral Balancing Giants

by Jon Sasmor RCPC (Mineral Guide, MinBalance LLC)
Updated October 16, 2021

Trace Elements: "The Basic Spark-Plugs in the Chemistry of Life"

Henry Schroeder, M.D. (1906 - 1975) illuminated the essential nature of minerals as the centerpiece of nutrition. Dr. Schroeder believed the trace minerals are even more important than vitamins, because minerals, unlike vitamins, cannot be synthesized by living matter.

Dr. Schroeder operated a trace elements lab on an isolated hilltop in Vermont and spent his career researching minerals. He was Professor of Physiology at Dartmouth Medical School. Dr. Schroeder found both nutrient mineral deficiencies and toxic mineral excesses to be common. Toxic minerals, Dr. Schroeder found, could wreak havoc in the cells by substituting for missing nutrient minerals in enzymes.

Nearly 50 years ago, Dr. Schroeder made an inventory of the flux of minerals. He warned that the changing balance of minerals at the earth's surface — by mining and dispersion of metals, and by depletion of nutrient minerals from the soil — was of urgent environmental concern to life on earth.

For example, human mining and industry have brought far more cadmium, lead, and other toxic metals to the earth's surface environment than what was present throughout the evolution of life. In contrast, human agriculture has depleted magnesium, zinc, and other nutritional minerals from the soils, to lower levels than present throughout the evolution of life.

Now, even more so than in Dr. Schroeder's time, mineral redistribution is even more pressing and applicable to each of us. Most people today have nutritional mineral imbalances and toxic metallic mineral accumulations at the cellular level. These mineral imbalances emphatically affect not only one's body, but also mood, creativity, brainpower, attention, and spirituality.

With mineral imbalance in the cells, one may feel sad, tense, worried, tired, brain fogged, spacey, burnt out, or spiritually empty.

MinBalance follows Dr. Schroeder's lessons about the importance of minerals. We use mineral levels and ratios as indicators of biological function at the cellular level. We make recommendations to bring those crucial minerals into better balance.

Annotated References:

Schroeder, Henry A., M.D. (1974). The poisons around us: Toxic metals in food, air, and water. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Dr. Schroeder calculates redistibution of metals to the Earth's surface by mining and pollution. He compares these figures with the respective natural fluxes at the surface. He also measures the depletion of nutrient minerals by processing food. Schroeder views metals as a form of pollution which alters the surface chemical environment in which life has lived and evolved, unlike organic substances which are eventually biodegradable. There's much to learn from his attention to toxic metals replacing nutritional minerals in our bodies and environment.

  • Schroeder calculates lead and cadmium pollution to be causing major toxicity to humankind. (chs. V, VII).
  • Today we might disagree with some details of Schroeder's conclusions (e.g. that mercury bioaccumulated in fish isn't of quantitative concern [ch. VI]).
  • Dr. Schroeder additionally calculates how difficult it is to obtain enough nutrition when 10-50% of diet is "empty calories" from sugar, grains, alcohol, and refined foods, even if the remainder were from healthful whole foods. (pp. 123-5).
  • "Some people will say that we do not yet know enough about the exact mechanisms of disease from pollutants, and until we do, we have no justification for controlling them. That, of course, is nonsense. A poison is a poison, and most of us do not need to know exactly how it poisons before we begin to avoid it." (p. 136).
  • Schroeder believed that with a logical plan about each individual element, it is well within mankind's ability to keep metal pollution under control.

Schroeder, Henry A., M.D. (1976). Trace elements and nutrition. London: Faber and Faber. [Originally published in 1973 as The trace elements and man. Old Greenwich, CT: Devin-Adair Co.]

  • Similar chemical elements can substitute for each other in enzymes in the body. Sometimes, one element is preferred over another, and the enzyme will have less or no function with the less preferred replacement (such as cadmium replacing zinc, or arsenic replacing phosphorus). Other times, both elements have essential roles, and they interact with each other (such as calcium and magnesium, or sodium and potassium). (pp. 15-18).
  • "The trace elements are more important in nutrition than are the vitamins, in the sense that they cannot be synthesized by living matter, as is the case with vitamins. Thus they are the basic spark-plugs in the the chemistry of life, on which the exchanges of energy in the combustion of foods and the building of living tissues depend." (p. 10).
  • "For an element to take part in living matter, it must be:
    1. abundant where life began, in sea water;
    2. reactive, that is, able to join up or bond with other elements;
    3. able to form an integral part of a structure; and
    4. in the case of the metals, soluble in water, reactive of itself with oxygen, and able to bond to organic material . . . ." (pp. 14-15).
  • Some elements may not be strictly essential for human life, but still may perform special purposes required for optimal function. (p. 36).
  • When life emerged from sea water (which was then more dilute) to live on land, mineral resources no longer were evenly distributed, as they had been in the sea water. Then lifeforms evolved mechanisms to survive and thrive across a broad range of distribution of the elements on land. They did so by excreting or blocking absorption of excessive minerals, and by retaining scarce minerals. Therefore we are very adaptable. (chs. 2-3).
  • However, compared with the ranges of intake for which life evolved, the distribution of the chemical elements has changed. Processed, non-whole foods have fewer nutrient minerals. Mining has brought many metals to much greater concentrations at the earth's surface than before. For certain specific elements, but not others, we are moving outside the range of intake of the chemical elements for which life evolved. (chs. 4-5, 7, 11-12).
  • Dr. Schroeder assessed individual chemical elements with many methods of inquiry:
    • location on the Periodic Table
    • chemical properties
    • concentration in sea water, both now and when life emerged onto land
    • concentration in Earth's crust
    • concentration in air
    • known biological functions or toxicity
    • total human body content
    • daily need
    • distribution in the body organs
    • comparison of content in primitive man and modern man
    • comparison of content in wild animals and modern man
    • intake from food, water, and air
    • absorption rate
    • output in urine, feces, sweat, and hair
    • net loss or bioaccumulation with aging
    • requirements for pregnancy and lactation
    • content in processed and natural foods
    • content in foods grown with and without superphosphate fertilizers
    • comparison of content in human diet with animal feeds
    • content in drinking water, beverages, and natural waters
    • amount toxic or beneficial to lab animals when added to drinking water for their lifetimes
    • content in diseased patients
    • content in polluted waters and in fish living there
    (data presented in tables throughout the book).

Schroeder, Henry A., M.D. (1968). A matter of choice. Brattleboro, VT: Stephen Greene Press. Available to borrow at https://archive.org/details/matterofchoice00schr. A scientist's advice for younger generations, including his grandchildren. About integrity, science, religion, politics, business, love, death, and more. For a funny joke-story, see pages 70-71. For advice to young scientists, see pages 161-2.

Schroeder, Janet Gregg. (circa 1977). The other side of the coin. Dr. Schroeder's widow collects stories, essays, letters, poems, and photos in tribute to Dr. Schroeder, "whose human qualities of heart and head caused him to touch the lives of many who came in contact with him" (p. 74).