What is zinc?
Zinc is a mineral found in the earth’s crust. Nutritionally, zinc is considered a trace mineral. It is essential for healthy bodily function but is only needed in very small amounts. Historically, it has been ingested in sufficient amounts from both animal and plant sources. Like many nutrients, however, overzealous farming practices have caused the depletion of zinc in soils. The effects of this state result in plant foods containing far less zinc than they once did. Food processing also causes loss of zinc from foods, particularly grains. Zinc deficiencies are common.
What Does it Do?
Zinc is quite the heavy hitter when it comes to minerals. It is required for the proper function of hundreds of enzymes and also plays a large part in diverse roles from sexual and immune function to eye and skin health. According to Dr. Elson Haas, “[Zinc] is probably involved in more body functions than any other mineral.”
Specific examples are many, but here are a few.
The production of stomach acid relies on a plentiful supply of zinc, however, a certain level of stomach acid is needed to liberate elemental zinc from zinc-containing foods. The consequences of low zinc intake create a downward spiral effect on stomach acid production and can lead to additional deficiencies. Zinc is also needed for the senses of taste and smell to function fully. Sufficient zinc intake is needed for collagen in skin to cross-link efficiently, preventing stretch mark formation and skin breakdown. The enzyme that breaks down alcohol in the liver requires zinc to function, healthy bones and teeth contain good amounts, and healthy insulin activity also relies on zinc.
Signs of Deficiency
The potential effects of zinc deficiencies are many. The eyes can be affected producing night blindness. With very low zinc levels, appetite can be reduced to levels so extreme as to cause anorexia, which will cause other deficiencies across the nutritional spectrum. Poor nail, skin and hair quality may indicate a zinc deficiency, and children can display slow growth and development when they are not getting enough of the mineral.
Testing for zinc sufficiency is inexpensive and can be done at home. It can be easily detected by pouring a small amount of aqueous zinc in the mouth. Good bodily zinc levels will cause an immediate metallic or “furry” taste, but zinc deficiency will result in no flavor after 30 seconds.
Supplements and Food Sources
If zinc deficiency is suspected, intake can be increased through supplements and zinc rich foods. Fortunately, there is little risk of zinc toxicity so upping zinc intake is probably a good idea for almost everyone. In supplement form, zinc is available in lozenges and tablets. Some good forms are zinc gluconate and zinc sulfate, but other forms can also lead to positive results. Shooting for 15-30mg per day is a good start, but more may be needed in certain cases.
In foods, zinc is better absorbed by the body from animal sources, such as liver, oysters, and meats. There are high levels of zinc in whole grains, but those levels are depleted in grain flours. Beans such as black-eyed peas, green peas, garbanzo beans and lentils are other sources. All grains and beans should be properly prepared by overnight soaking to reduce phytates and lectins and increase zinc absorption. Eggs and dairy provide zinc. Try to use organic and pastured products.
Because of zinc’s wide-reaching effects in the body and the many positive benefits that good zinc levels have on health, this mineral really gives you the most “bang for your buck.” It is truly worth the extra effort to assess your personal levels and put some thought into boosting your intake.
This information is for educational purposes only and should not be used as medical advice.
Weatherby, D. (2004). Signs and Symptoms Analysis from a Functional Perspective. Bear Mountain Publishing, Jacksonville.
Haas, E. M. (2006). Staying Healthy with Nutrition. Celestial Arts, Berkeley.
Editor’s Note: Sara Kennedy is a certified nutritional therapy consultant. She is the owner of Renegade Wellness found on Facebook at www.facebook.com/paleoalaska. Reach her online at www.thriveak.com.