Zinc is a trace mineral which is required by our body to stay healthy. Zinc benefits our body by playing a multitude of roles from maintaining our immune system to fighting deadly diseases such as cancer. This element is present in our body mostly inside the cells and helps in cell growth and healing. The most important thing to know is that it is a part of many clinically vital enzymes in our body.
An enzyme is a protein which accelerates biochemical reactions and enhances the outcome. Biochemical reactions make several macromolecules in our body like proteins, carbohydrates, nucleic acids. There are more than a million enzymes in our body, and zinc activates a significant number. Zinc plays an important role here as its absence could stop the enzymes functioning.
An adequate amount of zinc benefits us during pregnancy and childhood since the body requires zinc for proper growth. It is worth to mention that overdose of zinc might lead to vomiting, loss of appetite, diarrhoea, headaches, stomach cramps, etc.
Dietary sources that are rich in zinc
Zinc is present in meats like chicken, seafood, beef, lamb etc. It is also present in other proteinaceous vegan sources like legumes, whole wheat, nuts, beans, yeast and dairy products.
When it comes to rich zinc dietary sources, plant sources are not as good as non-vegetarian options since plants contain phytic acid, which hinders the absorption of zinc from the gastrointestinal tract.
Fact: Levels of intestinal metallothionein, a transport protein, plays a vital role in regulation zinc absorption (1).
So, it is imperative for the vegan or vegetarian population to consume zinc in other forms such as supplements, multivitamins, etc. Zinc is also available in the form of syrup, gels, capsules, etc. These supplements may have this element in the form of zinc acetate, zinc sulfate or zinc gluconate.
Signs and Symptoms of zinc deficiency
- Loss of appetite
- Slow growth
- Taste and Smell changes
- Skin abnormalities like acne, eczema, impaired wound healing.
- Loss of libido
- Cognitive impairment
Conditions other than dietary insufficiency that can cause zinc deficiency
There is a genetic condition known as Acrodermatitis enteropathica, which produces zinc deficiency due to the defect in the absorption of zinc from the intestine.
Also, patients suffering from dermatitis, alopecia, neurological abnormality, infections, etc. are the ones who are susceptible to zinc deficiency.
Other conditions which put people at risk are digestive pathologies which hinder absorption of micronutrients such as tropical sprue (2) or any absorption disorders.
Recommended intake to maximise zinc benefits on our health
The recommended daily intake of zinc for adult males and females are 11 mg/day and 8mg/day respectively. But the requirements may shoot up during periods of high metabolism such as pregnancy and lactation. Recommended zinc intake per USDA (3) is as follows:
Infants & Children (RDA)
- 0 to 6 months – 2 mg/day
- 7 to 12 months – 3.0 mg/day
- 1 to 3 years – 3 mg/day
- 4 to 8 years – 5 mg/day
- 9 to 13 years – 8 mg/day
Adolescents and Adults (RDA)
- Males, age 14 and over – 11 mg/day
- Females, age 14 to 18 – 9 mg/day
- Females, age 19 and over – 8 mg/day
- Pregnant females, age 19 and over – 11 mg/day
- Lactating females, age 19 and over – 12 mg/day
Zinc is an essential constituent of our diet, and if your diet is not able to meet the requirements then it must be met through supplements or over the counter drugs.
Nourishes our brain
According to studies (4), zinc is necessary for transmission of impulses inside your brain. There are areas of the brain which are dependent on zinc. In the absence of adequate zinc levels, these areas start malfunctioning.
Also, these areas of your brain include centres for smell and taste (olfactory) and memory and learning functions. For instance, Gusten is a zinc-containing protein in our saliva, necessary for the proper taste sensation. Zinc benefits disease like hypogeusia, where taste sensitivity decreases (5).
Regulation of our immune system
Zinc deficiency has proven to decrease the efficiency of all our white blood cells and has an activation effect on natural killer cells. These cells have a significant role in killing harmful pathogens, and they require certain levels of zinc for their initiation and multiplication (6).
Precursors of T-lymphocytes also require zinc in their development or the entire process goes haywire, and the cytolytic action of the cells declines. Also, zinc deficiency is also linked to thymic atrophy, which proves that zinc is significant in the maturation and differentiation of T-cells.
Secretion of dysfunctional T-helper cells has also been noticed in zinc insufficiency. Our B-cells, which produce antibodies, undergo a suicidal mechanism called apoptosis under the same conditions.
Due to these impacts on our immunity, it is natural that resistance to pathogens will be reduced and the individual will be more prone to infections.
Counteracts age-related vision deterioration
After various studies conducted on zinc supplementation affecting the physiology of vision, the conclusion remains that zinc slows down the damage caused by oxidative stress on cells responsible for sight or vision.
This may be attributed to zinc antioxidant effect and its stimulatory action on the proliferation of pigment retinal epithelial cells (7).
Zinc also blocks neovascularisation (a process in which new leaky vessels are formed) and thus hinders the progression of diabetic retinopathy.
Zinc is cardioprotective
Research (8) shows that zinc benefits heart health by playing an active role in the development of the heart and its molecular embryology. Zinc can act as a natural remedy to cure high blood pressure as it helps in healthy blood circulation.
Adequate levels of zinc can avoid heart disease like cardiomyopathies where the incomplete formation of some regions of the heart muscle occurs.
Zinc aids in increasing insulin levels in Type II Diabetes
Type II diabetes is mainly due to insulin resistance. There are some zinc transporters (9) which occur at various points in glucose metabolism, and zinc tries to increase sensitivity to insulin.
In simple words, zinc helps in storing insulin in pancreas and releases when glucose enters the bloodstream.
Zinc is an antioxidant
Zinc is a cofactor of an enzyme known as superoxide dismutase (SOD) and its actions as an antioxidant are prominent. During inflammatory damage in a cell, there are specific reactive oxygen species (free radicals) produced which can damage membranes.
SOD is an enzyme which converts these free radicals into harmless easily destroyable substances.
It increases fertility and helpful during pregnancy
Healthy levels of zinc in male serum can transformation the level of testosterone for good. Its deficiency can cause lower libido and impact on fertility.
Zinc deficiency is responsible for defects in spermatogenesis and malformations in the foetus. In a case of a pregnant female, zinc supplementation can cause positive changes in the development and lifespan of ovarian follicles (10) and thus increase the fertility of women.
When zinc levels in the blood aren’t adequate during pregnancy complications like pre-eclampsia, spontaneous abortion, dysfunctional foetal development, placental abruption are common (11).
It keeps the healthy gut microbiota intact
The healthy bacteria in our gut play an important role. Any instability could lead to a lot of upheavals. It has been proved that extra dietary zinc can preserve the flora and prevent leaky gut syndrome (12).
Zinc protects against certain cancers
As mentioned before, Zinc helps in the regulation of natural killer cell activity which has a significant role in the defence against cancer. It has also been found that zinc prevents the formation of new blood vessels and suppresses inflammation, which is not desired in cancers.
A deficiency of zinc may be a part of the pathogenesis in various cancers of the oesophagus, head and neck and even gastrointestinal tract.
It also prevents mutations in the p53 gene, which is essentially a tumour suppressor gene. It is known as the protector of the genome as its products regulate cell cycle and prevent over-proliferation (13).
Side effects of excess zinc intake
As told you before, there are several zinc supplements and multivitamins available in the stores. But you must be cautious while taking these supplements. Excess zinc in your body can cause copper or iron deficiency.
Also, consumption of an excess amount of zinc in the form supplements can cause short periods health issues like nausea or vomiting, diarrhoea and abdominal cramps. Over the counter drugs like nasal sprays might have zinc and sometimes cause side effects such as short-term loss of smell sensation.
Final words on zinc benefits
Zinc is the second most abundant trace element in our body after iron, and its deficiency can lead to a myriad of problems. It is an easy fix to start zinc supplements or to include a zinc-filled diet but be watchful in your intake since excess zinc can cause the negative impact on your health.
Very soon, you may notice small but prominent healthy changes in your body with proper zinc intake. Your body requires vital nutrients, so don’t deprive yourself of zinc.