It’s winter. It’s cold. We’re feeling under pressure balancing work and home life, and it’s tricky to eat healthily on top of everything we have going on. To make matters worse, everyone at work is sniffling and coughing, and we’ve noticed that we are picking up more colds than normal and that our mood has dropped too.
Do you resonate with this? If so, you are not alone!
A common finding in this scenario is a sub-optimal zinc status, which is a widespread issue nowadays with an estimated 2 billion individuals, 1 or around 20% of the world’s population,2 being at risk.
Why is Zinc So Important?
Zinc is a mineral naturally abundant in animal protein, especially red meat, turkey, oysters, and shrimp. Plant foods also provide zinc, particularly pulses, legumes, nuts, and seeds, such as cashews, pumpkin seeds, beans, lentils, and quinoa.3 It is important for the functioning of over 300 enzymes and underlies the physiology of every body system.
Zinc supports the growth and function of the cells in charge of our immune defences.4 In doing so, it helps us to have a strong immune system capable of fighting off viral and bacterial threats. 5 It also supports the function of the enzyme superoxide dismutase (SOD) which protects body cells (e.g. sperm 6) from oxidative damage caused by exposure to environmental toxins, for example.
Furthermore, it is involved in the production of the neurotransmitters involved in mounting a response to stressors, including adrenaline, as well as dopamine which helps to regulate our mood, concentration, and motivation. When we are under chronic stress, whether emotional (e.g. work, bereavement) or physical (e.g. trauma, overtraining), we are at risk of using up zinc more quickly than we are able to replenish it. This can leave us prone to a sub-optimal zinc status which may make us even more vulnerable to infection7,8 as well as other health issues, such as depression.9
Zinc also plays an important role in many other aspects of our health, not least growth and development, 10tissue healing, 11thyroid function, 12reproductive health (e.g. testosterone production,13 prostate health14), stomach acid production,15 the barrier function of the gut wall,16 and sense of taste and smell.17 This means that low zinc status can manifest as a wide range of signs, symptoms, and conditions, including:
Recurrent and/or long lasting infections
Slow growth in early years
Slow wound healing
Loss of sense of taste, smell, and appetite
Low mood, memory, concentration
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
We may be at risk if we are exposed to the following drivers of a low zinc status:
Inadequate dietary intake - vegans and vegetarians are susceptible to this18 because plant foods are less abundant in zinc than animal protein, and often rich in a substance called phytic acid which inhibits the absorption of minerals.19
Poor absorption - common amongst those with chronic digestive conditions (e.g. inflammatory bowel disease20) and diarrhea. Low stomach acid levels driven by ageing and stomach acid lowering medications, can also impair zinc absorption.21 This is common amongst the elderly, and this may partially account for why they are at high risk of zinc deficiency22 and immune complications such as pneumonia.23
High utilisation, or ‘draining’, of zinc - often due to high stress, as well as pregnancy, breastfeeding,24,25 high alcohol intake,26 and chronic use of other ‘zinc-depleting’ medications such as diuretics.27
If any of this sounds familiar, optimising your zinc status may well be the missing link in your path to optimum health. Zinc supplementation has been shown to be beneficial for a wide range of clinical scenarios, including depression,28 intestinal hyperpermeability (or ‘Leaky Gut’),29 respiratory infections, 30 and low testosterone levels. 31
How Do I Increase my Zinc Status?
Increase your daily intake of a range of zinc rich foods. If vegetarian, also include organic free range eggs.
To improve the absorption of zinc from phytate-rich plant foods such as pulses, legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds, try soaking, fermenting, or germinating (‘sprouting’) them, as these methods can reduce the phytate content.32 This is especially important for vegans and vegetarians.
Support your ability to handle stress by practicing a daily relaxation technique and increasing your intake of calming herbs and nutrients, such as magnesium,33 lemon balm,34 and L-theanine.35 Also reduce your alcohol intake.
Support your digestion and absorption, starting with mindful eating and probiotic and digestive enzyme supplementation.
Consider daily zinc supplementation, especially if you are vegan, vegetarian, pregnant, breastfeeding, and for children as well, and seek the advice of a Registered Nutritional Therapist for tailored advice according to your unique health needs.
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Or head to our advice page where you can find Healthnotes.
1 Prasad AS. Discovery of human zinc deficiency: its impact on human health and disease. Adv Nutr. 2013; 4 (2): 176-190.
2 Wuehler SE et al. Use of national food balance data to estimate the adequacy of zinc in national food supplies: methodology and regional estimates. Public Health Nutr. 2005; 8 (7): 812-9.
3 Data available from: http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=nutrient&dbid=115. Accessed 14/02/19.
4 Encyclopedia of Human Nutrition. Caballero B, Allen L, Prentice A (eds.). Academic Press, San Diego, 447-454
5 Wessels I et al. Zinc as a gatekeeper of immune function. Nutrients. 2017; 9 (12): 1286.
6 Murawski M et al. Evaluation of superoxide dismutase activity and its impact on semen quality parameters of infertile men. Folia Histochem Cytobiol. 2007; 45 Suppl 1: S123-6.
7 Beck FW, Prasad AS, Kaplan J, Fitzgerald JT, Brewer GJ. Changes in cytokine production and T cell subpopulations in experimentally induced zinc-deficient humans. Am J Physiol 1997;272:E1002-7.
8 Solomons NW. Mild human zinc deficiency produces an imbalance between cell-mediated and humoral immunity. Nutr Rev 1998;56:27-8
9 Amani R et al. Correlation between dietary zinc intakes and its serum levels with depression scales in young female students. Biol Trace Elem Res. 2010; 137 (2): 150-8.
10 Maret W, Sandstead HH. Zinc requirements and the risks and benefits of zinc supplementation. J Trace Elem Med Biol 2006;20:3-18.
11 Schwartz et al. Zinc and Skin Health: Overview of Physiology and Pharmacology. Dermatologic Surgery. 2005; 31: 837-47.
12 Chen MD et al. Investigation on the relationships among blood zinc, copper, insulin and thyroid hormones in non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus and obesity. Zhonghua Yi Xue Za Zhi (Taipei). 1991; 48(6):431-8.
13 Prasad AS et al. Zinc status and serum testosterone levels of healthy adults. Nutrition. 1996; 12 (5): 344-8.
14 Wei et al. Differential expression of metallothioneins (MTs) 1, 2, and 3 in response to zinc treatment in human prostate normal and malignant cells and tissues. Mol Cancer. 2008; 7: 7.
15 Kohlmeier M. Nutrient Metabolism: Structures, Functions, and Genes. 2nd editionAcademic Press. 2015.
16 Finamore A et al. Zinc deficiency induces membrane barrier damage and increases neutrophil transmigration in Caco-2 cells. The Journal of Nutrition. 2008; 138 (9): 1664-1670.
17 Prasad AS. Zinc: an overview. Nutrition 1995;11:93-9.
18 Hunt JR. Bioavailability of iron, zinc, and other trace minerals from vegetarian diets. Am J Clin Nutr 2003;78 (3 Suppl):633S-9S.
20 Naber TH, van den Hamer CJ, Baadenhuysen H, Jansen JB. The value of methods to determine zinc deficiency in patients with Crohn’s disease. Scand J Gastroenterol
21 Farrell CP et al. Proton pump inhibitors interfere with zinc absorption and zinc body stores. Gastroenterology Res. 2011; 4 (6): 243-251.
22 Prasad AS et al. Zinc deficiency in elderly patients. Nutrition. 1993; 9 (3): 218-224.
23 Barnett JB et al. Zinc: a new risk factor for pneumonia in the elderly? Nutr Rev. 2010; 68 (1): 30-37.
24 Caulfield LE, Zavaleta N, Shankar AH, Merialdi M. Potential contribution of maternal zinc supplementation during pregnancy to maternal and child survival. Am J Clin Nutr 1998;68 (2 Suppl):499S-508S.
25 Krebs NF. Zinc supplementation during lactation. Am J Clin Nutr 1998;68 (2 Suppl):509S -12S.
26 Skalny AV et al. Zinc deficiency as a mediator of toxic effects of alcohol abuse. Eur J Nutr. 2018; 57 (7): 2313-2322.
27 Chiba M et al. Diuretics aggravate zinc deficiency in patients with liver cirrhosis by increasing zinc excretion in urine. Hepatol Res. 2013; 43 (4): 365-73.
28 Lai J et al. The efficacy of zinc supplementation in depression: systematic review of randomised controlled trials. J Affect Disord. 2012; 136(1-2): e31-9.
29 Sturniolo et al. Zinc supplementation tightens "leaky gut" in Crohn's disease. Inflamm Bowel Dis. 2001; 7(2): 94-8.
30 Girodon et al. Impact of trace elements and vitamin supplementation on immunity and infections in institutionalized elderly patients: a randomized, controlled trial. MIN. VIT. AOX. Geriatric network. Arch Intern Med. 1999; 159: 748-54.
31 Kilic M. Effect of fatiguing bicycle exercise on thyroid hormone and testosterone levels in sedentary males supplemented with oral zinc. Neuro Endocrinol Lett. 2007;28(5):681-5.
32 Gupta RK et al. Reduction of phytic acid and enhancement of bioavailable micronutrients in food grains. J Food Sci Technol. 2015; 52 (2): 676-684.
33 Abbasi et al. The effect of magnesium supplementation on primary insomnia in elderly: A double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial. J Res Med Sci. 2012 Dec; 17 (12): 1161-9
34 Cases J et al. Pilot trial of Melissa officials L leaf in the treatment of volunteers suffering from mild to moderate anxiety disorders and sleep disturbances. Med j Nutrition Metab 2011;4(3):211-218.
35 Kimura K et al l-theanine reduces psychological and physiological stress responses. BiolPscyhol 2007;74(1):39- 45.
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