The body needs a variety of vitamins and minerals to function optimally. One essential mineral is zinc, which is found in small amounts in food.
Although the body does not require large amounts of zinc, it is possible for a person to be zinc-deficient.
If the body does not have the zinc it needs, a person could experience symptoms associated with zinc deficiency.
Fast facts on zinc deficiency:
- The body uses zinc for several important processes.
- The National Institutes of Health say zinc deficiency is rare in the United States. However, if a person has a poor diet, they are more likely to be deficient.
- Doctors often recommend supplements for zinc deficiency.
What does zinc do in the body?
Zinc does many things in the body.
Zinc supports cell function, helping an estimated 100 enzymes — molecules that make chemical reactions happen — perform their duties.
Zinc plays additional roles in the body, including:
- boosting immune function
- helping cells divide
- maintaining the sense of smell and taste
- promoting wound healing
Zinc also supports a person's growth and development. As such, it is an essential mineral for pregnant women as well as growing children.
A person's body does not store zinc, which means getting enough of the mineral from food is important in preventing a deficiency.
Symptoms of zinc deficiency tend to be linked to the roles that zinc performs in the body. Some of the most common zinc deficiency symptoms include:
- appetite loss
- slower than expected growth
- poor immune system function
Severe zinc deficiency can cause even more concerning symptoms. Examples include:
- delayed sexual maturity
- eye and skin lesions
- feeling lethargic
- funny-taste sensations
- hair loss
- poor wound healing
- unexplained weight loss
Worldwide, about 1.1 billion people are zinc-deficient due to inadequate dietary intakes, according to an article published in the journal Scientific Reports.
However, there are three chief causes of an underlying zinc deficiency:
- not taking in enough zinc through one's diet
- losing excess amounts of zinc from the body, such as through poor absorption
- people with chronic conditions
People with the following chronic conditions may experience zinc deficiency:
- alcohol addiction
- celiac disease
- chronic diarrhea
- chronic kidney disease
- chronic liver disease
- Crohn's disease
- pancreatic disease
- sickle cell disease
- ulcerative colitis
Link to vegetarianism
Vegetarians traditionally have lower zinc levels because the body breaks down zinc found in meats more efficiently.
Vegetarians tend to eat higher levels of legumes, soybeans, beans, nuts, and whole-grain food products. While they are healthful food choices, they can impair the body's ability to absorb zinc due to the presence of phytates. These substances bind to zinc, so the body cannot absorb it.
Link to age
Older adults are at risk for zinc deficiency because they may not eat or have access to a wide variety of foods. Taking some medications can also increase the body's release of zinc.
Examples include taking thiazide diuretics, such as chlorthalidone or hydrochlorothiazide.
There is also a rare medical disorder called acrodermatitis enteropathica, which affects the body's ability to absorb zinc.
While a doctor can order a blood test or urine test to check zinc levels, these may not give a definitive result. This is because zinc is only present in small amounts in the body's cells.
In diagnosing a zinc deficiency, a doctor will need to take a full health history. They will ask questions about a person's dietary intake. If a person does not take in enough calories daily or eat enough of a variety of foods, it is possible a zinc deficiency could be an underlying cause.
Supplements are available at most pharmacies and health stores. Supplements can contain different amounts of elemental zinc (the weight of the actual zinc molecule) and are labeled as zinc gluconate, zinc sulfate, or zinc acetate.
Each supplement should have information about how much elemental zinc is available in each type. Zinc is also a common component of throat lozenges, as zinc is thought to help treat the common cold.
A person can also try to increase their intake of zinc-containing foods. Examples of these include:
- beef chuck roast
- fortified breakfast cereals
- baked beans
- instant, plain oatmeal
A person who eats a wide variety of foods is more likely to take in enough zinc in their daily diets. This includes lean meats, fruits, vegetables, and dairy products.
There are ways a person can prepare and eat foods to make zinc more available in their daily diets.
For example, a person can soak beans in water before cooking them. This reduces the presence of phytates, making it easier for the body to process the zinc.
Choosing leavened grain products can also help reduce the number of phytates, increasing the amount of zinc for the body to use.
Just as there are problems with zinc deficiency, a person can also take in too much zinc. This usually occurs when a person takes an excess of zinc supplements to boost their immune system.
Too much zinc intake can cause symptoms that range from nausea and vomiting to impaired immune system functioning. For this reason, adults older than age 19 should not take more than 40 milligrams (mg) of zinc a day.
If a person thinks they may have a zinc deficiency, they should talk to their doctor about supplementation or other treatments.