Zinc. How do I love thee....let me count the ways.
In my opinion it’s one of the most underrated and overlooked nutrients when it comes to health. Thankfully, it also happens to be one of the easiest deficiencies to correct with the right foods and if necessary, good quality supplements.
Let me introduce you to one of the best friends you’ll ever have...
I consider zinc to be a bit of an all-star wonder mineral. Not only is it involved in over 300 enzymes and biochemical reactions in the body, you may be surprised that the majority of your zinc is actually stored within your bones. Zinc is a trace mineral - which means that whilst it is a mineral that is essential, we only need it in small quantities. However, with these tiny amounts, it achieves some pretty remarkable accomplishments. Like these:
- It helps your immune system stay healthy. Zinc is one of the nutrients I pay attention to during the cooler months, to help boost immunity to colds, flus and other infections, as well as to aid recovery. An easy way to think of this is that zinc 'gives your immune system weapons'.
- It plays a role in the nervous system. Zinc has been shown to be important for mental health – a deficiency can be an overlooked driver of conditions such as anxiety and ADHD. It has also been shown to help support optimal growth and development in children, including improving hand-eye coordination.
- It's good for gut health. Zinc is a lovely soothing mineral that the digestive system really loves – especially if there are signs of digestive upset or leaky gut (also known as intestinal permeability). Zinc helps repair the cells that line your intestinal tract, and keep them strong and in tip-top shape so that they can do their vital work of absorbing nutrients.
- It helps you taste your food. Zinc plays a role in how you taste and smell different foods. This can be of particular importance for those who have a tendency to fussiness with food (children in particular, but sometimes adults fall into this category too!).
- You need it for skin repair. Wherever there are skin problems (acne, eczema, psoriasis, slow healing of wounds), then it is a good idea to consider zinc intake. Low levels of zinc in the body can inhibit the ability of the body to carry out its repair work to skin and other tissues.
- Your thyroid gland needs it. In the clinic, I continually see people who show signs of sub-optimal thyroid function. Your thyroid needs zinc to help your metabolism (the rate at which you burn food for energy) healthy. Zinc is one of the first minerals I think of when it comes to supporting thyroid health.
- It’s a sexy mineral. If you experience any issues with hormonal imbalances, or are trying to have a baby, it is imperative you consider your zinc intake, and make sure you are getting the correct amount. Zinc deficiency can affect testosterone levels, sperm health, sex drive (both men and women), and it is a key mineral for female hormonal balance.
Yes, it also protects your eye function, plays a role in the prevention of cancer, helps prevent diabetes, helps protect against the effects of ageing, and functions as part of your antioxidant defence network. Phew!
Are you getting enough?
Zinc deficiency is incredibly common – it amazes me how many patients I see who show signs of zinc deficiency, and who then find their symptoms improve relatively quickly with some appropriate supplementation. Studies have shown that up to 85% of men, and 65% of women do not obtain enough zinc through their diets.1 Particularly at risk are the elderly, children (if fussy eaters), those eating diets high in sugar and/or grain-based foods, those drinking alcohol regularly/excessively, vegetarians, and those taking an iron supplement (as iron and zinc can compete for absorption in the gut). Some pharmaceutical medications - including the oral contraceptive pill, medications for reflux, some antibiotics, certain blood pressure medications and drugs such as prednisone can also either decrease zinc absorption or increase the amount of zinc that your body excretes, potentially leading to a zinc deficiency.2
Where can you find zinc?
Zinc is widespread throughout our food, so it is really quite amazing in a way that so many people appear to show signs of deficiency. You can find zinc in the following foods:
- Whole grains
- Oysters (ever wondered why these have a reputation as an aphrodisiac? Now you know – zinc!)
- Egg yolks
- Pumpkin seeds
- Sunflower seeds
Where supplementation may be helpful – and where it is not.
Zinc is a mineral that I often prescribe as a supplement, however it is important to keep in mind that it is not always necessary. It is always preferable to consult a qualified natural healthcare practitioner who can help you work out whether a zinc supplement is appropriate for your situation. There are a few reasons why this is important. Firstly, taking too much zinc for too long in is not ideal – this can lead to a deficiency of other crucial minerals such as iron or copper, as these compete with zinc for absorption. Secondly, zinc can actually interfere with certain medications. Zinc has the ability to form ‘complexes’ with some pharmaceuticals – in a way it can ‘glue’ itself to the medication, and essentially it is removed from the body before it can be absorbed properly. Which is not ideal if you are taking a medication for an important reason! Lastly, as with all supplements (and particularly those that are available over-the-counter or via multi-level marketing companies) the quality and/or dosage contained in that supplement may not be fantastic. Many supplements contain zinc, but in form ‘zinc oxide’ which is not very easy for your body to absorb (and therefore, utilize).