Could you be zinc deficient? Zinc is a mineral that helps direct hundreds of pathways in the human body that affect many aspects of health. If zinc is low, these reactions may not take place with the same efficiency and your health suffers.
Why does your body require zinc? You need it for the following functions:
- Wound healing
- Cell replication
- Growth and development during pregnancy and childhood
- Immune health
- Protein synthesis
- The ability to taste and smell
As with other vitamin and mineral deficiencies, if you don’t have enough, it can lead to mental or physical health issues.
How much zinc do you need? Current recommendations are that men consume 11 milligrams of zinc per day and women 8 milligrams, but not everyone meets these requirements. Studies show that certain people are at higher risk of zinc deficiency and may need to consume more zinc-rich foods, and in some cases, take a supplement. You also need zinc every day since your body can’t easily store zinc.
Are you getting enough? Let’s look at 5 factors that increase the risk of zinc deficiency.
If you’re physically very active or do long or intense workouts, you may need more zinc in your diet. In one study, researchers found when male athletes dropped their zinc intake by 2/3 their cardiovascular fitness declined too. Therefore, they weren’t able to sustain sub-maximal exercise for as long. Also, research shows endurance athletes are at higher risk of zinc deficiency.
Researchers believe that not consuming enough zinc reduces an enzyme called carbonic anhydrase that helps remove carbon dioxide from the body through the lungs. When this doesn’t occur as quickly, it decreases exercise endurance. Plus, some research shows that not consuming enough zinc reduces muscle strength too.
If you have certain medical problems, your body may require more zinc than a healthy person. For example, some health conditions make it harder to absorb zinc from the digestive tract. These include inflammatory bowel disease, short bowel syndrome, and chronic diarrhea for any reason.
Also, people who have chronic liver disease, kidney disease, diabetes, cancer, and sickle cell disease are more likely to be zinc deficient. If you fall into these categories, talk to your health care professional about whether you need a supplement.
Research shows the risk of zinc deficiency increases with age. One study found that zinc deficiency is the most common in people over the age of 75. The reason? Older adults are more likely to have health conditions that boost the risk of zinc deficiency. But there can be absorption issues too. For example, the elderly also don’t absorb zinc as well. One concern is that low levels of zinc in the elderly may raise the risk of infection. Zinc deficiency is a real concern even in healthy older people. A study called the NHANES III study showed around 40% of adults age 60 and over don’t get enough zinc in their diet.
Medications can affect zinc status too. If you take a diuretic for high blood pressure or a heart condition, you lose more zinc in your urine and can become deficient. Also, medications that suppress acid secretion by the stomach, such as acid reflux medications, reduce how much zinc your gut absorbs from zinc-rich foods. Other medications that lower the amount of zinc in your body include aspirin and corticosteroids. One mineral can also affect the absorption of another. If you take a calcium or copper supplement, it can restrict zinc absorption since they compete for the same receptors in the gut.
Plant-based diets have benefits, but if you eat a vegetarian or vegan diet, you’re at a higher risk of zinc deficiency. Zinc is abundant in seafood, shellfish, beef, pork, dark-meat poultry, and dairy foods. However, you can also get zinc from plant-based foods with a little effort. These include almonds, cashews, whole grains, and foods fortified with zinc such as breakfast cereals.
Plant-based sources of zinc have one drawback. The fiber in plant-based foods contain phytates that reduce zinc absorption, so you may have to consume more foods high in zinc if you get it from plant-based sources. Soaking nuts, seeds, beans, and grains in water before eating them reduces phytates and boosts how much zinc your body absorbs when you eat plant-based sources of zinc.
What Are the Symptoms of Zinc Deficiency?
Classic signs and symptoms of zinc deficiency include depression, itchy skin, skin rash or sores, slow wound healing, reduced sense of taste and smell, brain fog, weight loss, infertility, muscle pain, headache, and diarrhea. You might have all or only a few of these symptoms if your zinc levels are low. You can also be deficient in zinc without having obvious symptoms.
How do you know if you’re low? Doctors can perform a zinc blood test where they check how much zinc is in the blood, although this test is not very sensitive for zinc deficiency. In some cases, a plasma or urine test may be more helpful. Most doctors don’t routinely check zinc status, so talk to your physician if you suspect you’re deficient in zinc.
The Bottom Line
Getting enough zinc in your diet is important for immune health, wound healing, and fertility, but research also shows that zinc may lower the risk of age-related macular degeneration, a common cause of visual loss in older people. So, make sure you’re getting enough zinc-rich foods and if you’re in a high-risk group or have symptoms, ask your health care provider to check your zinc level. They may recommend adding more zinc to your diet or taking a zinc supplement. Even if they don’t, make sure you’re getting enough zinc-rich foods in your diet for optimal health.
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