To detect and monitor a mineral deficiency or excess; sometimes to evaluate your nutritional status
When you have symptoms or signs of a mineral deficiency or excess; as indicated by your healthcare provider when you have a condition that affects mineral absorption, use, or storage
Trace mineral testing is usually performed on a blood sample obtained by inserting a needle into a vein in the arm. Sometimes a 24-hour urine collection is obtained. Special metal-free blood or acid-washed urine containers are used to minimize the potential for sample contamination by any outside sources of minerals. Rarely, hair may be collected or a biopsy may be performed to obtain a tissue sample to evaluate mineral deficiencies, excesses, and storage that have occurred over time.
Check with your healthcare practitioner to find out if fasting is needed before your test.
Trace mineral tests measure the concentration of specific minerals in a sample of blood, urine, or other body fluid or tissue. These minerals are substances that the body needs in minute amounts on a regular basis for normal functioning. They are absorbed from the diet and are used in the production of enzymes and hormones, in the regulation of glucose, and in the formation of bone, teeth, muscles, connective tissue, and blood cells. The minerals assist in the metabolism of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, promote wound healing, and are vital for the transport of oxygen throughout the body.
Trace minerals are a subset of micronutrients and essential minerals. They include:
- Fluoride (usually included but rarely tested)
The World Health Organization lists iodine, iron, and vitamin A as the most important micronutrients in terms of global public health. In the United States, deficiencies and excesses of trace minerals are less common, although iron deficiency remains a potential problem.
Examples of causes of trace mineral deficiencies include:
- Not eating enough food or a variety of foods – may be caused by malnutrition or a restricted diet; sometimes seen when someone receives only intravenous nutrition.
- An inability to absorb enough nutrients – may be seen with a variety of chronic conditions, such as celiac disease, and is associated with malabsorption or with surgeries that remove part of the stomach or intestines.
- Inability to use – some people may not be able to properly utilize one or more trace minerals.
- Increased use or need – pregnant women, children, and those recovering from an illness or injury typically have an increased requirement of nutrients.
- Excess loss of nutrients – an example is the loss of iron that occurs when red blood cells are lost due to acute or chronic bleeding.
- Interference – an example is the decrease in copper often associated with an excess of zinc.
Trace mineral excesses may be seen with:
- Too much intake – this may occur over long periods of time (chronic), such as taking too many supplements for several months, or can happen quickly (acute), such as accidental or occupational exposure.
- Decreased elimination from the body – with conditions such as kidney and liver disease, the body may not be able to remove trace minerals at a normal rate. With some inherited conditions, the body may store minerals in tissues and organs, which can cause damage. An example includes an excess of copper storage seen in Wilson disease.
How is it used?
Trace mineral tests are typically ordered individually to detect, evaluate, and monitor mineral deficiencies or excesses. A healthcare practitioner may select one or more tests based upon the signs and symptoms or underlying conditions the patient has.
Sometimes more than one test is ordered to detect a single deficiency or toxicity, such as copper and ceruloplasmin tests to evaluate the amount of copper in the body or a group of iron tests (iron, total iron binding capacity, and ferritin) with a CBC (complete blood count) to evaluate iron deficiency as a potential cause of anemia.
If a person is malnourished or has a condition associated with malabsorption, a practitioner may order several trace mineral tests for an initial evaluation, then order one or more tests periodically to monitor the person's nutritional status and/or the effectiveness of treatment.
If someone has an inherited condition that leads to excess concentrations of a mineral, or has been exposed to toxic concentrations, a test for such a mineral may be ordered to help detect and diagnose the condition. Additional tests may be ordered at intervals to monitor the person's condition.
When is it ordered?
With the possible exception of an iron test, trace mineral tests are not routinely ordered. Rather, they are ordered when a mineral deficiency or excess is suspected due to a person's medical history or signs and symptoms.
Depending on the mineral(s) that are lacking, signs and symptoms may include:
In children, deficiencies can cause congenital abnormalities, delay growth, and affect mental development and sexual maturation.
Excess amounts of trace minerals can cause signs and symptoms associated with toxicity that may range from mild to severe, such as:
- Skin rash or pigmentation
- Hair loss
- Peripheral neuropathy
- In severe cases, kidney or liver failure, shock, coma, or an increased risk of lung cancer
One or more tests may be ordered periodically to monitor the status of a person with an underlying condition that causes malabsorption or the excess buildup of a trace mineral.
What does the test result mean?
In general, low concentrations of a mineral indicate a deficiency and high concentrations indicate an excess. Successful treatment for a deficiency should show increasing mineral levels and a decrease in symptoms while treatment for mineral toxicity should show decreasing mineral levels and a corresponding decrease in signs and symptoms.
Trace mineral test results must, however, be interpreted with a degree of caution. Certain treatments for excess minerals can actually increase mineral concentrations in blood and urine samples temporarily. Some minerals, such as copper and zinc, may be increased temporarily due to infection, inflammation, or pregnancy, for example. The healthcare practitioner will interpret findings in conjunction with the person's symptoms and clinical history.
Is there anything else I should know?
Trace minerals are found in varying concentrations in a wide variety of foods. Some forms of minerals are more "bioavailable" (or better absorbed) from an animal source than from a plant source, such as heme-iron found in meats versus non-heme iron found in vegetables, grains, and beans. Minerals are also added to foods to make them more readily available, such as "fortified" grains and cereals, fluoridated water, and iodized salt.
Should everyone have their levels of trace minerals tested?
It is generally not necessary. Most people in the United States who eat a variety of foods will get a sufficient amount of trace minerals from their diet.
How long will it take to get the results of my test?
Should I take mineral supplements?
Talk to your healthcare practitioner about taking supplements. If you are deficient, supplements may be of benefit to you, but there is no strong evidence to suggest that they benefit the average individual and may, in fact, increase your risk of toxicity. Those who take excess zinc can inhibit their use of copper. People who store excess iron or copper in their bodies must restrict and monitor their intake of these minerals as the buildup can damage tissues and organs.
What other minerals are required by the body?
Macrominerals are minerals that are required in greater amounts than trace minerals. They include sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, chloride, and phosphorus. Some also include sulfur in this category.
What other micronutrients are required by the body?
Micronutrients include trace minerals, the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, and the water-soluble vitamins C and B complex (biotin, folate, niacin, pantothenic acid, riboflavin, thiamin, B6 and B12).