How Zinc Deficiency Affects The Whole Body

How zinc Deficiency affects the whole body

I find it ironic that I had a zinc deficiency for years without realizing it… especially because I’d written a senior biology paper on the functions of zinc in human biology.

Like magnesium, I knew the many ways that zinc functions within the body, but I assumed I was obtaining enough from food. Many processed foods are fortified with zinc, and it also occurs naturally in foods such as oysters, beef, chicken, pumpkin seeds, lamb, spinach and yogurt.

The Role of Zinc In the Body

Zinc is a master-mineral of sorts (along with magnesium), and is needed for many reactions within the body. Unlike fat soluble vitamins, zinc is not stored for long periods of time in the body, so we need a constant supply of quality zinc from diet.

We don’t need large amounts of zinc each day, but it is absolutely vital that we get enough. Zinc is technically an essential trace element that is important for:

  • Proper immune function
  • Skin health and hair growth
  • Metabolism of food and absorption of other nutrients
  • Hormone balance
  • Gut health
  • Mental clarity
  • Wound healing
  • DNA synthesis
  • For eye health
  • Proper cell division (one of the reasons it is vital during pregnancy)
  • Even adequate taste and smell

We know that zinc is involved in thousands of reactions within the body and recent research is even showing that zinc might be vital in protecting the body against various types of cancers.

Zinc is especially important for fertility and during pregnancy and while nursing, although pregnant and nursing women and young babies may be most at risk for zinc deficiency. Some studies have even shown that zinc is vital for avoiding premature labor and low birth weight in infants, though more research is needed in this area.

About 90% of the body’s zinc is found in muscle and bone tissue, making it difficult to test for zinc deficiency. In fact, plasma zinc only makes up about 0.1% of the zinc in the body. When consumed, zinc is absorbed in the small intestine and it is excreted though the skin, the kidneys and the bowels.

Signs of Zinc Deficiency

Zinc may be a larger problem worldwide than once thought. While severe zinc deficiency can cause a variety of extreme symptoms, researchers estimate that a large percentage of the world’s population may have a mild zinc deficiency.

Pregnant and nursing women are considered higher risk of zinc deficiency (and this was my reason for deficiency), as are those with gut problems, babies born prematurely, or those who have consumed a high-grain or vegetarian diet (especially for a long period of time). Those with liver or kidney disease, diabetes, gastrointestinal diseases and those taking large amounts of Iron are also at risk.

Though symptoms can vary, these are often related to zinc deficiency:

  • Poor memory
  • Weakened immune system or constant minor illnesses like colds
  • Loss of taste or smell
  • Sleep problems (zinc is needed to make melatonin)
  • Hair loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Low libido
  • Diarrhea
  • Brain fog
  • Slow wound healing
  • White spots on fingernails
  • In severe cases: growth retardation in children

One source even links severe zinc deficiency to serious problems including:

Delayed sexual maturation, impotence, hypogonadism, hypospermia, alopecia, dermatitis, paronychia, intellectual disability, impaired nerve conduction and nerve damage and macular degeneration. (source)

Medical texts explain that zinc deficiency may be difficult to diagnose, as plasma/serum zinc levels are not necessarily a good measure of the body’s zinc levels and that signs of zinc deficiency may be present even with normal lab results. For this reason, doctors often diagnose zinc deficiency based only on symptoms.

Zinc and Pregnancy

Zinc is especially important for pre-conception, pregnancy, and nursing. It plays a vital role in cell division and while researchers don’t completely understand how, it also seems to support full-term pregnancy and reduce instances of pre-term labor in some women.

One theory is that zinc is essential for balancing the hormones that contribute to labor, while another theory suggests that zinc’s role in maintaining immune function helps reduce the instances of uterine infections or other infections that may lead to preterm labor.

As zinc is necessary for the proper assimilation of other nutrients, it may also be that zinc helps a mother maintain her overall nutritional status during this time of increased nutrient need. For this reason, I found that it was important to supplement with zinc as part of an overall nutritional plan that included synergistic nutrients and a wide variety of nutrient-dense foods.

Ironically, fortified breakfast cereal and oatmeal (and to a lesser degree, chocolate) are excellent sources of zinc, and many women (including me 😉 )report craving these foods during pregnancy.

Recommended Amounts of Zinc

Like many things in life, more is not necessarily better. Zinc is needed in specific amounts and either extreme (too much or too little) can be harmful.

In fact, the National Academy of Sciences sets an RDA of at least 8 mg/day and a maximum of 40 mg/day from all sources for women over 18:

Daily RDA for Zinc Intake

Source: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/#h8

In a perfect world, this amount could be obtained from food, though due to depleted soil quality and other dietary factors, this may  not always be possible.

It is important not to supplement with zinc without checking with a health practitioner, as consuming too much can lead to reduced iron and copper levels in the body and in severe cases even vomiting and GI issues (though this is usually only found in those consuming 100-200 mg of zinc per day or more and is not generally considered a concern with dietary zinc).

Foods High in Zinc

Obtaining nutrients from food is important and even the best supplement can’t take the place of a nutrient-dense diet (though some people do find the need to supplement with certain nutrients in cases of deficiency).

For most adults who consume a high-quality varied diet, it should be possible to obtain enough zinc from food, especially if a person eats the foods highest in zinc, like oysters and meats.

Oysters are the highest natural source of zinc with 10x the level of zinc of next highest source (beef). In fact, one oyster contains enough zinc to meet the recommended daily consumption and a 3 ounce serving of oysters contains 74 mg of zinc compared to 7 mg in 3 ounces of beef.

Other great food sources of zinc include:

  • Veal liver– about 10 milligrams per 3 ounces
  • Pumpkin Seeds– About 9 milligrams per 3 ounces
  • Tahini– about 9 milligrams per 3 ounces
  • Dark Chocolate– 8-9 milligrams per 3 ounces
  • Crab– 6.5 milligrams per 3 ounces
  • Lobster– 3.4 milligrams per 3 ounces
  • Pork– 2.9 milligrams per 3 ounces
  • Beans– 2.9 milligrams per 3 ounces
  • Dark meat chicken– 2.4 milligrams per 3 ounces

Other lesser food sources include yogurt and dairy, cashews, and oatmeal. It is also important to note that many foods, like grains, contain phytates which bind to zinc, making these foods a lesser source of zinc and sometimes interfering with zinc levels in the body. This is one of the reasons that long term consumption of a high-grain or vegetarian diet is considered a risk factor for zinc deficiency.

Personal note: When I was struggling with unknown zinc deficiency, I found that I craved oysters, chocolate and cereal, especially while pregnant. Though I still love oysters and chocolate, these cravings went away when I addressed the zinc deficiency with my naturopath.

Zinc Supplement: Yes or No?

That is the question. And the answer is that it depends and that an individual should consult with a qualified practitioner, doctor, or midwife before making that decision. Some times when zinc supplementation is often recommended are:

In cases of cold and flu: Zinc is considered a remedy for cold and flu and is often recommended to shorten the duration of illness. As zinc is necessary for proper immune function, this makes sense. A Cochrane review found that zinc supplements reduced the severity and duration of an illness when taken as soon as the illness began, though of course, it would be important not to exceed the upper limits for zinc intake. Another randomized, double-blind placebo study found that those who took zinc acetate lozenges had a significantly shorter duration of a cold compared to those who took a placebo. (source)

Diarrhea in children: Not as much of a concern in the US, but the World Health Organization recommends zinc supplementation for children with acute diarrhea, especially in the developing world, as this is a leading cause of mortality in children around the world. In these cases, the WHO recommends up to two weeks of zinc supplementation at 20 mg twice daily for children over 6 months, or 10 mg twice daily for children under 6 months. (source)

Risk of pneumonia: Another Cochrane review found that children under age 5 who were at risk for pneumonia benefitted from zinc supplementation and saw fewer instances of pneumonia and fewer deaths related to it. (source)

It is also important to choose a high quality source of zinc for supplementation if it becomes necessary. The body can only readily absorb certain forms of zinc that are bound to other minerals. In food, zinc is naturally bound to other minerals and typically easy to absorb.

In supplements, chelated forms are typically considered most absorbable, and these forms typically end in “ate” such as zinc gluconate, zinc acetate and zinc citrate.

Total Zinc vs. Elemental Zinc

In supplements, the total amount of zinc may also not accurately represent the amount of bioavailable elemental zinc (which is what the RDA refers to). Dr. Mercola explains that the RDA for zinc (listed in the charts above) refers to elemental zinc and that every form of zinc can contain a different percentage of elemental zinc.

This information should (but isn’t always) listed on the supplement container. As an example, zinc sulfate (a zinc salt and not one of the most absorbable forms) is only 23% elemental zinc, meaning that it would take almost 200 milligrams to reach the upper daily limit for this form and taking only the recommended 8-12 milligrams per day of zinc sulfate would yield only a small percentage of the actual recommended amount.

Other substances in foods or drinks (like caffeine and phytates) can inhibit zinc absorption so if zinc foods or supplements are consumed within a few hours of foods containing these supplements, absorption may be inhibited.

What I Did

As I said, I took supplemental zinc after consulting with a doctor and now take small amounts during pregnancy/nursing and am also careful to consume a very nutrient rich diet during these times.

For me: In the past, I took this form of zinc citrate balanced with Vitamins C and B6. I have now found a high quality prenatal that contains 20 mg of zinc and take this daily during pregnancy and nursing instead (this particular prenatal also has high quality methylated forms of b-vitamins which are essential for those with MTHFR mutations). I did find that I still needed additional magnesium and fat soluble vitamins D and K2 even with taking this prenatal but these nutrient needs vary drastically from person to person (and I have a VDR mutation that increases my need for Vitamin D).

For my family: I keep a low-dose zinc lozenge on hand for cold and flu relief, as these do seem to help ease symptoms and even the kids like them.

Again, this is just my personal experience and it is important to talk to a qualified professional before supplementing with any nutrient, especially zinc and especially above the recommended daily maximum.

Bottom Line

Zinc is a vital nutrient that the body needs for literally thousands of reasons, but like all good things in life, moderation is key. While severe zinc deficiency is not common in the developed world, there is increasing evidence that low-level zinc deficiency may be prevalent and may affect skin, eye, hair and immune health.

With the guidance of a qualified doctor or practitioner, certain people may benefit from increasing dietary or supplemental zinc as a way to boost overall health and immune health. More research is definitely needed, especially about the role of zinc for fertility and during pregnancy as preliminary research shows the potential for zinc to reduce the chance of premature labor, preeclampsia, and low birth weight.

Ever taken zinc? Craved chocolate? What was your experience?

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Reader Comments

  1. Thanks for another great article. I’m curious whether you’ve had any stomach issues when you take zinc. I’ve found that I cannot take the zinc citrate, but am fine with the zinc picolinate.

    • I haven’t really had any issues, but thanks for mentioning this. It’s good for people to know that it could happen.

  2. Can you comment on the balance of zinc and copper? I ask, because my practitioner assumed I would be low in zinc and was planning to supplement it. Test revealed, however, that I was HIGH in zinc and Low in copper. Come to understand that the two are inter-related. Thank you.

    • Yes, excess zinc can decrease copper and vise versa (one of the many reasons it is important not to exceed the higher dose. I take blackstrap molasses for copper.

    • I learned the hard way too much zinc can cause major problems. I didn’t think I was taking way too much zinc, but tests proved my zinc was way too high and no trace of copper could be found. Which in turn affected my thyroid, slowed it WAY down which affected my heart. One must be very careful.
      Thanks for the great posts! With such a large family it is incredible you take the time to share with us your wealth of knowledge! Thank you!

      • Mary,

        I just had bloodwork..it showed my Zinc was very high. What did you do to bring your zinc down?

  3. Hey! Besides the prenatal you mentioned, what other supplements do you take during pregnancy? Do you have a fish oil you recommend?

  4. Sometimes I crave chocolate, too, but chocolate is very high in COPPER, which also competes with ZINC absorption. If your body can’t handle high copper levels, it can lead to insomnia and many other problems. The proper ratio is higher zinc/lower copper.

    I quote from Dr Kaslow.com: “It has been reported (HRI-PTC) that 80% of hyperactive patients and 68% of behavior-disordered patients have elevated blood copper levels. Their families often report worsened hyperactivity/behavior after consuming vitamin supplements or cereals rich in copper. In many cases, symptoms may be provoked by consuming chocolate (rich in copper) or food dyes rich in hydrazines, which lower blood zinc levels.”

    I also quote from The Radiant Life Blog: “Overall, copper is not a sweepingly bad nutrient- in fact it is critical to the formation of many essential enzymes and is necessary for normal metabolism, neurotransmitter synthesis and red blood cell formation. However, copper is highly reactive and needs to be consumed within a relatively narrow range and balanced by zinc intake- else it easily becomes dominant and suppresses the levels of other trace minerals. Because grains and other plant-based foods tend to have a higher copper to zinc ratio, those judiciously following a Standard American Diet can be unknowingly driving copper levels up if intake is not properly balanced with adequate zinc-rich meats, organ meats and seafood.”

    So, chocolate for me is a treat every now & then, and not a great source of zinc because of the high copper it also contains. Tea is also high in copper. Here is an in-depth article about correcting the imbalance – http://www.westonaprice.org/modern-diseases/copper-zinc-imbalance-unrecognized-consequence-of-plant-based-diets-and-a-contributor-to-chronic-fatigue/

    • Thank you for this detailed information, Terelyn.

  5. Have you heard of pyrolurria? It’s a deficiency of vitamin B6 and zinc and can cause all kinds of mental health problems. MD’s tend to dismiss it, but testing is cheap and my own experience verifies it. I get sleepless, depressed, and anxious when I don’t take these two supplements.
    I’m beginning to suspect my six year old has it too. Thanks for posting dosage guidelines for children, too.

  6. I bought a bottle of Liquid Zinc Assay by Premier Research Labs (10 mg of zinc sulfate heptahydrate in purified water, nothing else added). Put a teaspoon in your mouth and hold for 15 seconds to see if you react to the taste (if you taste nothing, the claim is that you’re likely deficient in zinc). You can also use it as a zinc supplement. Wonder how much zinc I’m actually getting based on your note about zinc sulfate.

  7. My pediatrician recommended zinc when my daughter had warts. After a couple
    of months taking 15 mg of zinc her warts just melted away.

  8. When I crave something, I never know what it is that I’m missing and needing. I tend to gravitate back to nuts, chocolate, or peanut butter when I’m scrounging through the kitchen trying to find what I’m lacking. I eat mainly homemade granola with lots of nuts and seeds for breakfast, a large fresh salad and some kind of meat for lunch, but rarely eat anything in the evening except for a fruit of some kind. I take all kinds of vitamins and herbs and have done so for decades. With chocolate, it’s as if I can’t get it dark enough and have eaten the 86-90% kind just to satisfy the cravings. Of course, I found out too late that the zinc I bought had wheat in it, so am intending to try again with another brand.

  9. How do you take those zinc lozenges that you listed? It does not say on the amazon link, only says you can cut them if you want a smaller dose. So are they chewable? Or must be swallowed? Thanks!

  10. I was allergic to what is call cedar five in Austin Texas. I also suffered from rag weed. I started taking zinc around August of every year, you must take it after you eat a meal, because it will make your stomach hurt.
    This was one of the best vitamins I had ever taken. I do not sufer from allergies like i use to and I have not had a cold or been sick in 35 yrs. I also eat my green vegetables . Zinc really worked for me. I am 65 and in great health.

  11. Thank you for the amazing article. It was very informational. I crave chocolate, and I hate to say it, but eat more than I should. Unfortunately my “drug” of choice is semi-sweet chocolate chips. Now that I know about the copper to zinc ratio, maybe that will be enough to wake me up so I won’t eat it any more. I’m hopeful. I’m glad to hear that pumpkin seeds have a high content. I’ve recently gotten into eating more of them, soaking and re-hydrating them using Himalayan salt and a low degree oven. Tasty. I try to eat healthy, eat organic food, and take a variety of supplements. I always thought I was doing great, but a couple of years ago I found that my thyroid numbers were not great and my female hormones were off after several years of menopause. I also found out that I also have the MTHFR gene defect. What an education I’ve gotten in the last couple of years!

  12. Meat, pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate – sounds good to me. Great info. We have been eating lots of pumpkin seeds this year. We used to keep zinc and C lozenges on hand, liked those and they worked well for colds.

  13. I always wondered why zinc in prenatals ends up being over 100% of the daily value! I personally had a very hard time with zinc. It made me sick if I was taking in over 100% of the daily value. Anything over 99% makes me ill (vomiting, diarrhea, headache, etc) and severely affects the pain I have with fibromyalgia–anyone else note an increase in pain? It took some time of taking individual supplements to find out zinc was the cause and later blood work showed my copper is low and zinc was high. Too much zinc can prevent the absorption of vital nutrients in the digestive track like people mentioning copper, but it can also lower the absorption of many others and cause low white blood count. I was only informed recently, by an endocrinologist, that due to my intrinsic platelet disorder I need to be very careful about balancing my nutrients. It’s always a process of learning and relearning new information. I’m so glad you posted this article though because it really brought some things into perspective.

  14. Hi Katy – I recently had a miscarriage and was intrigued by the part of your post of the role Zinc has to play in cell division….. does anyone out there have more information on these links? And can just a simple blood test at the doctor’s show up a need for supplementation or does it need something more in depth than that?
    Thanks in advance

  15. Is there a good dark chocolate recommended? Has anyone heard anything about “Chocoperfection”? Both my husband and I love it but prefer to steer away from the sugar.

  16. I have been looking for these facts . It will change my world.
    Thanks,
    JER

  17. Hi,

    Is there anything you could recommend for age spots/ dark spots?

    Thanks

    • As far as I’ve heard, for age spots Frankincense Oil is supposed to work. From what I understand, age spots have to do with the liver…”liver spots”. Mine have lightened up quite a bit using a combo (as a daily oil all over) Coconut Oil with Frankincense Oil.
      As for dark spots? I haven’t a clue. I have one on my face I’ve had for a long time. Frankincense Oil doesn’t work on that. If you find out, please post it. I’m sure there are others who might want to know.

  18. That’s really interesting . I do use frankincense cream but maybe the oil would be better.
    Thanks

    • You’re welcome. Hope that works for you.

  19. Is there a brand you recommend for kids to take?

  20. I was taking zinc to assist with some skin issues only to then have my hair start falling out. I learned that zinc depletes copper which is necessary for hair growth. I went off zinc and had no more hair issues. Just as an FYI to anyone who is going take zinc, try and get a combination of zinc ‘with a side’ of copper to maintain the necessary balance. 🙂

  21. Hey Wellness Mama! Huge fan.
    If the study suggests that the form of Zinc Acetate is worthwhile for colds, can I ask why you’re using the Zinc Bisglycinate? What’s the difference? I’m having trouble finding Zinc Acetate lozenges.

  22. What type of prenatal – postnatal vitamin did you find that has high zinc? I am trying to find the best one to use while breast feeding and I have low zinc. Thanks!!!!

  23. I have Hashimoto’s disease and started to feel better this week after I started taking Zinc. Does Zinc help regulate the thyroid? I found this post so helpful.

  24. Out of curiosity, I make all my own skin and personal care products, and I include zinc oxide in several of them. I know that on the skin it offers physical protection from UVA and UVB, and that it has healing properties for the skin. My question is, can we use zinc oxide transdermally as a “supplement”?
    Thank you for all the hard work you put in to this blog. I love it!
    Elizabeth