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Zinc: Not Just for Colds

Many people associate zinc with immunity, taking it when they feel a cold coming on. While zinc is an important part of maintaining a healthy immune system, it actually does so much more for us. In fact, zinc supports upwards of 300 bodily functions!

Zinc is what’s known as an essential mineral, like calcium and magnesium, meaning your body can’t produce it on its own and you must get it from the food you eat. It is also a trace mineral, meaning you don’t actually need a lot to meet your recommended daily intake (RDA). That’s just 11 milligrams for men and 8 milligrams for women (though women who are pregnant or breastfeeding need more).

However, an estimated 12 to 15 percent of Americans don’t get enough zinc and are at risk for deficiency, and a whopping 40 percent of people 60 and older don’t get enough either. The reasons for suboptimal levels are many. These include:

·       Vegetarian or vegan diet. Although zinc is found in many grains and legumes, it is less bioavailable than the zinc found in animal proteins, as these foods contain anti-nutrients called phytates. Soaking, sprouting, or fermenting these foods can reduce the amount of phytates, making the zinc more easily absorbed by the body.

·       Diabetes. Zinc is necessary for the processing, storage, and secretion of insulin as well as protecting against beta-cell loss, a hallmark of diabetes. Zinc deficiency is linked to poor beta-cell function and a higher risk of insulin resistance.

·       Inflammatory bowel disease. Higher zinc loss is associated with diarrhea and chronic intestinal inflammation also leads to malabsorption.

·       Pregnancy and lactation. Increased bodily demands for growing and feeding a baby can deplete levels.

·       Too much alcohol. Alcohol impairs intestinal zinc absorption and increases excretion through urine.

·       Age (60 and older), as absorption appears to decrease with age.

·       History of eating disorders or malnutrition.

Symptoms of zinc deficiency include slow wound healing, feeling rundown and/or a higher frequency of colds and infections, digestive problems such as diarrhea, acid reflux, and IBS; reduced appetite and/or weight loss, thinning hair, brain fog, and depression.

Health Benefits of Zinc

Getting enough zinc is critical for so many aspects of health and wellbeing. These include:

1.     Immunity. Zinc not only reduces cellular inflammation and prevents oxidation, but protects our white blood cells, including neutrophils, macrophages, B-cells, and T-cells. A strong immune system is important not just for preventing the sniffles, but in preventing more serious diseases, like cancer, too.  

2.     Eye health. Research shows that zinc supplementation may support healthy eyes by slowing down the progression of age-related macular degeneration by increasing cellular cleanup and reducing oxidative stress.

3.     Fights inflammation. Zinc has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and even a minor deficiency can lead to a heightened inflammatory response. High levels of inflammation over a long period of time can lead to chronic illness and disease.

4.     Boosts skin health. About six percent of your body’s zinc is stored in the epidermis (your outermost layers of skin), and there appears to be a correlation between low levels of zinc in the skin and skin conditions like acne and psoriasis. It is also critical to cellular turnover and regeneration, making it essential for fast wound healing. Both topical and oral zinc treatments for inflammatory acne have been proven effective as well.

5.     Supports a healthy gut. Too little, or even too much, zinc can weaken the intestinal barrier. It can also upset the gut microbiome, leading to diarrhea and inflammation. Zinc also appears to help acid reflux and restore adequate secretion of HCl which is necessary for proper digestion.

6.     Aids healthy development in children, adolescents, and pregnant women. As zinc plays an important role in so many biological processes, it makes sense that it’s such an important building block of childhood, adolescence, and pregnancy. Inadequate zinc impairs childhood growth and makes you more susceptible to infections, and it also impairs fetal central nervous system development.

7.     May support neurological and psychiatric health. Although research is ongoing, it shows that people who suffer from depression have lower levels of zinc than people who don’t, making it a potential treatment for mood disorders. There is also growing evidence that zinc may improve memory and learning, as well as prevent neurological disorders like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. This is linked to higher concentrations of zinc in the brain’s hippocampus, which controls both memory and mood. The mineral’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties may protect this important region from excessive stress and oxidation, which may play a role in neurological disorders.

8.     May lower blood sugar and cholesterol in people with type 2 diabetes. Although more research is needed, several studies have found that zinc may help lower blood sugar and cholesterol, both of which increase the risk of stroke and heart disease. It may even help regulate blood sugar levels in pregnant women with gestational diabetes.

Top Food Sources

While not an exhaustive list, here are some of the best sources of zinc from a variety of zinc-rich categories including red meat, seafood, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains.

Oysters, 33 mg per 3 oz

Ground beef, 5.3 mg per 3 oz

Bison, 4.5 mg per 3 oz

Alaskan king crab, 7.6 mg per 3.5 oz

Dark chocolate, 3.3 mg per 3.5 oz

Hemp seeds, 3 mg per 3 tablespoons

Cashews, 3 mg per 1.7 oz

Lentils, 2.5 mg per cup

Chickpeas, 2.5 mg per cup

Shrimp, 1.6 mg per 3.5 oz

Oats, 1.5 mg per ½ cup

Greek yogurt, 1.5 mg per 7 oz container

While I always advocate for getting your vitamins and minerals through diet first, sometimes a supplement is necessary. You should never take high doses of zinc for more than few days unless directed by a doctor, and most people can meet their zinc needs by including a multivitamin alongside a healthy diet. If you do need to supplement, however, it’s recommended that you take 2 milligrams of copper with a zinc supplement as zinc limits the amount of copper your body can absorb. Extended zinc supplementation can lead to copper deficiency—and a host of different problems.

As you can see, zinc does so much for your body and it’s so important to get enough of it through your diet. If you think you may be experiencing suboptimal zinc levels, or have a health condition that could be better supported with a higher zinc intake, please contact me. Together we can determine the best food sources for you, as well as if you might benefit from a high-quality zinc supplement.


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