Who is zinc deficient?
In the countries with well-fed populations, zinc deficiency is not thought to be prevalent. However, a large study of the eating habits of the UK population did note a lack of zinc1. Mainly in the 20-30s age bracket. Men were significantly lower in zinc than the women studied. This is the demographic that may be eating a lot of food on the go. Take-away food and rushed lunch may not be providing enough.
Modern farming methods have reduced the nutrient values of much of our food.
Vegan and vegetarian foods may not be as nutritionally dense as meat This just means that vegans need to eat more. This is a massive plus in my mind but may be an issue with a picky eater.
Symptoms of a zinc deficiency will depend on how low zinc levels are. Also for how long the problem has existed. If the zinc levels are just a little low, the symptoms will be mild. Here's what to look out for.
A loss of appetite.
Low zinc levels may cause a loss of taste and smell. This is especially common in elderly people. A loss in sensory sensitivity can cause a preference for very salty and sweet food, in an attempt to hit up the less sensitive receptor sites. These foods are often low in nutritional value. My dad is hitting eighty and seems to want to live on plastic packets of Tiramisu. Unhealthy food choices like this will worsen zinc levels further. If you don't eat very much, the nutritional value of food becomes even more important.
This is a symptom of low zinc levels. Diarrhoea can also cause zinc and other deficiencies - food can pass through too quickly and fail to provide any nourishment. Crohn's disease sufferers, for example, often suffer diarrhoea and subsequent zinc deficiency. It's a vicious circle.
Zinc is necessary for the protective barrier lining our digestive system. Our protective barrier is a mucosal layer that protects the stomach wall from stomach acid. The wall stops harmful substances and microbes from entering the bloodstream. Zinc deficiency leaves our intestinal wall and stomach unprotected and vulnerable to damage. This exposed wall can be become oversensitive, prone to muscle spasm and diarrhoea.
Read more about the importance of zinc for digestion in our blog - Is zinc good for the digestion?
Zinc deficiency may interfere with the ability to break down and absorb nutrients. This is because it is necessary for the production of digestive enzymes. Digestive enzymes are proteins that chemically digest our food. A lack of these, along with diarrhoea and loss of appetite, can cause weight loss. It's important that sudden weight loss is investigated by doctor.
Zinc helps with food metabolism (as explained above) and how well we break down food to produce energy. This is one reason why a lack of zinc can impact our energy levels. Often people who are very tired are simply not getting enough sleep. Zinc is necessary for good sleep quality.
Read about how much of an impact zinc can have on sleep here - Can zinc help your sleep?
Zinc deficiency can affect how well the immune system works. The immune system responds to illness using an arsenal of weapons, one of which is an ability to raise body temperature. This can kill off microbial invaders that may be heat sensitive. The inflammatory response needs to stop once the threat is under control. Zinc helps regulate this; it acts like a coach, calming down the immune cells after a fight, mopping their brows and sending them back to ‘guard’ position. We also need zinc to repair any damage done during an infection. If we don’t have enough zinc, our recovery from illness will be slower.
Read more about this is our blog - How does zinc benefit the immune system?
Zinc is essential in order for the skin to function normally. Zinc deficiency can cause the skin to become cracked and fissured. This can affect the skin around the mouth and on the hands2.
Problems with eyesight.
Low levels of zinc are bad for the eyes. It is one of the nutrients that have been linked to age-related macular degeneration3. This is a common cause of sight loss in older people. The retina is at the back of the eyeball. It's the part where all the light sensitive cells are connected to the nerves that lead to the brain. It makes me think of an old photograph fading. As the retina becomes worn or damaged, the eyes start to fail.
For more information on zinc and eyes read ou blog - How does zinc affect your eyes?
50% of all the men you know will have an enlarged prostate by the time they are fifty. It's like their menopause. By the time men reach their eighties they will have whopping 95% chance of an enlarged prostate. The symptoms include the loss of a strong urine flow. The prostate gland surrounds the plumbing and squeezes it. There'll be some stopping and starting; getting up in the middle of the night; not being able to empty the bladder properly. These symptoms must be checked out by a doctor. BPH (Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia) is a potential diagnosis and this is associated with lower zinc levels4. There is usually less zinc found in the surrounding tissue and more zinc excreted in the urine.
In children there may also development issues, with delays in growth or puberty. There can be learning difficulties.
Before you all go popping zinc supplements to beat the band - please note!
Zinc acts as a moderator in many chemical and nerve reactions in the body. This is a fine balancing act. The body does not store zinc and we need enough in our diet daily to not fall short. But just enough. It is possible to get too much zinc. This can cause as many unpleasant symptoms as a deficiency. It can also affect our levels of other vital trace nutrients like copper. 5-15mg is the maximum dose that should be taken on a daily basis. High dose and long-term zinc supplementation should only be taken under supervision, preferably by either a doctor or qualified practitioner.
Having a zinc-rich diet is the most sensible long-term plan. There are lots of zinc-rich foods that you can include in your diet. This shouldn't break the bank or require anything too adventurous.
Here are a few suggestions -
|Meat||Beef, lamb and pork.|
|Fish||Fish Salmon, bream, cod and haddock||A.Vogel Fish recipes|
|Shellfish||Oysters, prawns, mussels and crabmeat||Prawn & Papya Salad|
|Wholegrains||Wholewheat bread, oats, quinoa and brown rice||Spiced Porridge Two Ways|
|Nuts||Pine nuts, cashews, almonds, and peanuts||Roasted Spicy Nut Mix|
|Sprouts, beans & seeds||Alfalfa, mung, pumpkin, sunflower, lentil, flax and chia||bioSnacky Sprouting Seeds|