Zinc is one of the most important nutrients for contributing to the normal function of the immune system. Yet, as many as two billion people don’t get enough of this vital mineral.
In addition to those older than 60, there are several other groups who may be at a greater risk of developing a zinc deficiency, such as:
Bioavailable zinc is highest in animal foods, like oysters, liver and pastured beef. Not only are they the best sources of zinc, eating these foods may also enhance your absorption of zinc from all sources.Plant sources of zinc are not absorbed nearly as well as animal sources. If you are a vegetarian, you may need as much as 50% more zinc than meat eaters.
- Grain, seed, nut and legume eaters
Many legumes, whole grains, seeds and nuts contain phytates and other compounds that bind to zinc and make it harder for your body to absorb.While vegetarians tend to eat plentiful legumes, grains, nuts and seeds, even if you’re not a vegetarian but eat a lot of these foods, you may also be at greater risk.
- Pregnant and nursing women
A developing fetus requires high levels of zinc. If a woman starts her pregnancy with marginal zinc levels, she may be at risk of developing a zinc deficiency. Lactation can also deplete a mother’s zinc stores.
- Those with excessive alcohol consumption
Up to half of alcoholics have low zinc levels. The consumption of ethanol both decreases intestinal absorption of zinc and increases the excretion of zinc in the urine. Plus, many alcoholics don’t get enough zinc in the types and amounts of foods they typically eat.
While zinc deficiency may be widespread, few people – and doctors – ever consider zinc when looking further into many health issues. Why is that?Because the signs of possible zinc deficiency mimic other common conditions, your doctor may not recognise zinc as a potential culprit.
Why Normal, Healthy Immune Function Requires Zinc
The only mineral more common in your body than zinc is iron.
However, unlike iron, your body cannot store zinc. You must consume it daily to have adequate levels.
A healthy and normal immune system can’t function without it. Zinc is a key messenger of immune cells and the zinc inside your cells participates in important signaling events.
Your body requires zinc to produce its white blood cells that circulate throughout your blood, on alert to mount attacks against invading pathogens.
Zinc also influences antibody and cytokine production, phagocytosis – or the ingestion of unwanted cells or particles, and gene regulation within your white blood cells.
As important as it is for your normal immune health, zinc has taken a back seat to other nutrients over the years. Conventional medicine just hasn’t given zinc the attention it deserves, but fortunately that’s starting to change.
One reason for this neglect is related to zinc levels being difficult to measure. There are very few accurate methods for testing, unlike iron. Because of that, most people have never been tested for zinc.
While zinc is found throughout your body as part of proteins and nucleic acids, your serum zinc levels don’t always reflect your true zinc status. The same holds true for urine tests and hair analysis.
How Zinc Helps Protect Your Body Against the Effects of Cellular Ageing
Besides contributing to the normal function of the immune system, zinc is essential for the healthy functioning of your brain, heart, liver, pancreas, kidneys, bone and muscles. At the cellular level, your cells use the DNA present in the cells as their blueprint each time they replicate.
Throughout your life, your body is able to reproduce DNA. However, as you age, this ability becomes impaired, leading to the deterioration of your body systems.
Recently it’s been discovered that zinc plays a role in how fast your cellular DNA break down. Too little zinc impacts your body’s ability to repair the normal damage that occurs to your DNA from oxidative stressors.
This is because excessive oxidative stress causes damaging free radicals, which can lead to accelerated cellular ageing.
Other stressors like normal bodily processes – such as respiration – as well as pollution, poor diet and obesity can contribute to DNA damage.
Zinc plays an important role in helping to reduce oxidative stress and repair DNA, especially as you age.
As beneficial as zinc may be, it is possible to get too much zinc. This is a problem because excessive amounts of zinc can reduce your immune function and also lower your “good” HDL cholesterol levels.
Plus, excess zinc can adversely affect your copper levels as well as your hearing and taste. As little as 60 mg per day of zinc has been shown to have a negative effect on your copper status.
That’s why it’s vitally important to get the right amount of zinc – and not too much.
Even If You’re Getting Enough Zinc, You May Still Be Deficient
Because it’s not routinely tested, many people are deficient in zinc but don’t know it.
Even if you do get enough zinc in your daily diet, certain conditions can keep you from absorbing and utilising the essential mineral. Gastrointestinal and bowel concerns are often linked to zinc deficiency.
If you struggle with a sensitivity to gluten, you’re more likely to be deficient in zinc. Complaints of gluten intolerance have been rising among Americans over the past 50 years.
In celiac disease or gluten intolerance, your body attacks your gut lining in response to gluten. This can lead to inflammation and the wearing away of the tiny nodules in your small intestine’s lining called villi.
Because your intestinal villi are responsible for absorbing food nutrients, a loss of villi can lead to serious nutritional deficiencies, including a zinc deficiency.
You don’t need to be sensitive to gluten for this to happen to your gut lining. Other types of bowel and gastrointestinal concerns can also cause the breakdown of intestinal villi.
So other than gastrointestinal complaints, what signs suggest you may have a zinc deficiency?
13 Red Flags for a Potential Zinc Deficiency
The important thing to know about zinc is even a mild deficiency can seriously affect your immune system – and your entire body. Here are some signs that suggest a shortage of zinc:
- Frequent respiratory illnesses or other infections
- Difficulty sleeping
- Low energy
- Slow wound healing
- Decreased sense of sight, taste or smell
- Skin rashes
- Lack of focus and brain fog
- Diminished hearing
- Occasional moodiness and feeling blue
- Increased food and environmental allergies
- Thinning hair or baldness
- Male infertility
All of these signs can mimic other conditions, so most people – and doctors – rarely suspect a zinc deficiency, as none of these symptoms alone stand out as a zinc deficiency red flag.
If you have one or several of these signs, and neither you nor your doctor can identify the underlying cause, then I suggest trying a high-quality zinc supplement. You may be one of the many who are deficient, and observing to see if your symptoms improve is probably the best way to confirm zinc deficiency.
How Stress Can Contribute to a Zinc Deficiency
Would you describe your lifestyle as stressful? Do you find yourself sometimes feeling overwhelmed with life’s many responsibilities?
If so, you may be deficient in zinc.
Emotional stress is one of the biggest factors behind zinc deficiency.
When you’re stressed, your body shunts zinc to your brain, organs, muscles, and skin to help repair damage from stress.
Prolonged stress can deplete zinc concentrations and increase levels of cortisol in your blood – your stress hormone.
If you’re unable to control the stress in your life, it can affect your adrenal health. In turn, adrenal fatigue can lead not only to a zinc deficiency but calcium and magnesium deficiencies as well.
For a healthy balance of hormones, including your thyroid hormones, you need adequate levels of zinc. This is because zinc helps produce progesterone, cortisol and aldosterone – hormones essential for optimal well-being and a healthy inflammatory response.
How Advancing Age Can Set You up for Zinc Deficiency
There are many factors that come into play as you age and your risk of zinc deficiency grows.
According to one government survey, up to 45% of adults aged 60 and over were found to have zinc intakes below the estimated average requirements of 6.8 mg per day for senior women and 9.4 mg per day for men.
As you age, your ability to absorb and utilise zinc declines. And if you’re not getting enough zinc in your diet, that factor puts you at an even greater risk of deficiency.
Too little bioavailable zinc – or zinc that your body can easily absorb and utilise – can lead to more frequent changes in your body.
Here’s something else to keep in mind: The part of your brain that stores zinc is the cerebral cortex, including your hippocampus and amygdala. This crucial region is responsible for cognitive function.
Having the right amount of zinc is essential for healthy brain function and mood.