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Trace elements

Last updated: April 28, 2021

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Essential trace elements are dietary elements including iron, copper, zinc, iodine, selenium, and sulfur that the body requires in minute amounts for proper physiological function and development. While most essential trace elements primarily function as cofactors for a variety of reactions, some also function as constituents of essential molecules (e.g., iron in hemoglobin and myoglobin), transcription factors (e.g., zinc finger), and amino acids (e.g., sulfur in methionine and cysteine). Excess and deficiency of essential trace elements can cause symptoms and diseases, the most important of which are discussed below.

  • Definition: In biochemistry, trace elements are dietary elements that the body requires in minute amounts for proper function and development.
Overview of the most important trace elements
Trace element Main function Deficiency Excess
Iron
Copper
Zinc
Iodine
Selenium
Sulfur

General

Iron absorption and transport [1]

Iron storage, recycling, and loss [2][3]

Function

Deficiency

For more details regarding the clinical features, diagnosis, and etiology of iron deficiency, see the article on iron deficiency anemia.

Excess

General

Function

Deficiency

Excess

General

  • RDA: 8–11 mg/d
  • Source: poultry, oysters, fish, meat, zinc-fortified food products (e.g., cereals), nuts
  • Metabolism

Function

Deficiency

Excess

  • Causes: rare, but can develop due to excess zinc intake
  • Clinical features

General

Function

Iodine deficiency

Iodine excess

General

Function

Selenium plays an important role in neutralizing oxidant stress as part of the glutathione peroxidase.

Deficiency

Excess

General

  • Source: meat, eggs, nuts, salmon, leafy green vegetables (e.g., kale, spinach), legumes

Function

Deficiency

Excess

  • Causes: excess consumption of sulfur-rich foods
  • Clinical features
  1. Iron Absorption. https://courses.washington.edu/conj/bess/iron/iron.htm. Updated: February 28, 2017. Accessed: February 28, 2017.
  2. Kumar V, Abbas AK, Aster JC. Robbins & Cotran Pathologic Basis of Disease. Elsevier Saunders ; 2014
  3. Soe-Lin S, Apte SS, Andriopoulos B Jr. Nramp1 promotes efficient macrophage recycling of iron following erythrophagocytosis in vivo. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2009; 106 (14): p.5960-5965. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0900808106 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  4. Leung AM, Braverman LE. Consequences of excess iodine. Nat Rev Endocrinol. 2013; 10 (3): p.136-142. doi: 10.1038/nrendo.2013.251 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  5. Markou K, Georgopoulos N, Kyriazopoulou V, Vagenakis AG. Iodine-Induced Hypothyroidism. Thyroid. 2001; 11 (5): p.501-510. doi: 10.1089/105072501300176462 . | Open in Read by QxMD