Zinc is a dietary mineral – (like calcium, magnesium, iron and copper) – that is essential to our health. Humans are unable to ‘produce’ zinc and therefore regular dietary intake is necessary for health.
Zinc is an important co-factor of metabolism. This means that many functions in the body depend on sufficient levels of zinc to ‘work’ effectively and efficiently. Zinc is of importance to a wide variety of physiological functions including our immune system, ability to taste food, bone-formation, ability of the liver to perform it’s detoxification function, formation and repair of skin, nails and hair and production of healthy sperm.
Zinc is stored in the body in small quantities. Because of this, levels may be too low for optimal health – but not low enough to manifest as an overt clinical deficiency. This is called a subclinical deficiency.
How would you know if your zinc intake is too low?
Since zinc affects so many systems in the body, low intake or absorption could result in vague and diffuse symptoms.
That said, like iron, low zinc intake is not uncommon –especially when fresh meat intake is low.
In addition, certain conditions or situations may also influence zinc requirements. This may result in lower body zinc. This, not necessarily as a result of insufficient intake – but rather as a result of increased ‘use’ or requirements in the body.
Increased losses or decreased absorption may also result in lower zinc status.
Genetics also play a role – certain people absorb less zinc and require more.
Who is at risk?
The following are common causes of increased requirements for zinc :
Low consumption of fresh meat
High consumption of refined foods
Alcohol intake – regularly – in moderation or in excess
Blood sugar abnormalities (Insulin Resistance or diabetes)
Zinc Deficiency Symptoms and conditions that may warrant increased zinc intake:
Enlarged tonsils in children
Cracks and splitting of the skin on the fingertips
Weak, thin fingernails that bend easily, frequently crack or chip
White spots on the fingernails
Reduced taste sensation that may present as an increased need for e.g. salt or sauces with food
Delayed wound healing
Researchers from Cincinatti Children’s Hospital even showed that children who are prone to allergies show an improved immune response when zinc intake is sufficient.
Does any of these symptoms mean I have a zinc deficiency?
No, not necessarily! One of the challenges of nutritional science is the delicate interaction between the different nutrients.
Many of the symptoms listed may also be the result of other deficiencies or sometimes even a specific medical condition.
However, no medical treatment can be effective if the body does not inherently have access to the building blocks to ‘heal’. Adequate nutrient intake – to ensure these ‘ building blocks’ are available, should be part of the treatment of any disease condition.
How do I increase my intake of zinc?
As a general rule of thumb, single nutrient supplementation should be avoided except when prescribed by a nutritional expert. High intake of one nutrient may very likely result in increased losses of another.
Rather, ensure regular intake of foods that contain zinc.