It is estimated that a quarter of the global population is zinc deficient. Individuals and those with health conditions are at an increased risk of developing zinc deficiency or insufficiency. Zinc deficiency could further impact the health of:
• Infants and young children
• The elderly
• Pregnant or breastfeeding women
• The malnourished or those with anorexia
• Those who consume excessive alcohol
• People with chronic diarrhoea
• Sufferers of digestive system disease e.g. Inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s and Coeliac’s disease.
• Vegetarians or vegan
Zinc deficiency may result in impaired immune function, poor wound healing, skin rashes, poor eye health, mood and behavioural problems, reduced appetite and an altered taste and/or smell sensation. In infants, children and teenagers, zinc deficiency can affect development, resulting in suboptimal physical and neurodevelopment, behavioural problems and delayed onset of puberty.
Increasing Your Dietary Zinc Intake
The richest sources of dietary zinc are animal based foods including oysters, crab, beef, chicken, turkey and dairy. These sources are considered highly bioavailable and a superior source of zinc compared to plant sources. Plant foods that provide zinc are beans, chickpeas, peanuts and almonds. The reduced levels of zinc found in plant foods is a contributing factor to the increased risk of zinc deficiency among vegetarians and vegans.
Phytates are compounds found in many plant foods which can reduce the absorption of zinc, therefore eating a healthy diet combining both plant and animal sources of this mineral is best to optimise your dietary zinc intake.
Zinc Supports Immune System Health
One of the most well-known roles of zinc is in immune system function. In response to infection by bacteria or viruses, our immune system launches a response to bring the infection under control. Zinc is required for proper immune cell development and their function as a part of this response, influencing key cells targeting infection such as neutrophils, macrophages and natural killer cells. If there is a deficiency of zinc, immune function suffers with atrophy of the thymus gland, and decreased numbers and activation of immune cells.
As we age, we experience a decline in immune system function. Research has found that supplementation of 25mg of zinc per day for three months in adults aged over 65 can increase immune cell levels. Low zinc levels in the elderly is also associated with an increased risk of developing pneumonia.
Zinc helps to reduce the release of inflammatory factors such as histamine and therefore may be beneficial in the management of allergic conditions.
Zinc Supports a Healthy Reproductive System
Zinc plays an essential role in maintaining the health of the male and female reproductive organs, as well as during preconception, pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Zinc plays a particularly important role for male fertility. Low serum levels of zinc are linked to poor sperm quality, quantity and motility, low levels of testosterone and low libido. Zinc supplementation (with folic acid) for male fertility has beneficial effects; increasing sperm counts and testosterone production. Zinc is also beneficial as men age, assisting in prostate health.
Zinc has demonstrated the ability to reduce the risk of preterm delivery in pregnant women, thus reducing the risk of associated preterm problems for the infant including developmental issues. As zinc is essential for proper growth and development, it is of vital importance in pregnancy.
Zinc Supports Skin and Connective Tissue Integrity
Everyone wants healthy, clear and glowing skin. Zinc is an essential mineral to maintain the integrity of the skin and other connective tissues.
Research supports the use of supplemental zinc for the management of acne, with 30 mg of zinc daily significantly reducing inflammatory acne lesions.
Zinc is also important for proper wound healing. Both topical application of zinc and oral zinc supplementation (with vitamins C and E) reduces oxidative stress in burns and wounds, increases the speed of healing and reduces associated infections.
Due to its role in collagen formation and phosphate metabolism, zinc is also beneficial for bone health. Zinc increases the activity of enzymes responsible for promoting the activity of osteoblasts, which are the cells responsible for the formation of new bone. In patients with bone fractures, zinc supplementation promotes the healing of bone tissue.
As you can see from its various biological roles, zinc truly is the multi-tasking mineral! Supplementation may be important during various life stages to ensure optimal zinc levels and health.