Zinc is an important trace element that is responsible for countless functions in the human body. Humans need a certain daily amount of zinc to maintain a healthy immune system and store energy.
However, there is often a zinc deficiency. This can be due to a lack of zinc-rich foods, a chronic illness, or the body's inability to store zinc. Here you can find out what causes a zinc deficiency, how you can tell that you may be suffering from a zinc deficiency and how it can best be remedied.
the essentials in brief
- Zinc plays a crucial role in our metabolism because it is an independent component for numerous enzymes. Without zinc, many biochemical processes in the body could not take place.
- Zinc is responsible for protein metabolism, cell division and the structure of skin and hair. Zinc is also extremely important for a strong immune system.
- Zinc deficiency is a common occurrence because zinc can only be stored in small amounts in the body. It is mainly absorbed through food, if this is not possible due to an illness or special diet, there are dietary supplements.
Definition: what is zinc?
Along with iron, zinc is one of the most important trace elements. Zinc can be perceived as an essential component of ferments, hormones and vitamins (1).
However, zinc only occurs in very small amounts in the human body. Zinc is essential for the metabolism because it is a component of various enzymes. Many biochemical processes take place in the body that would not be possible without zinc. On the one hand, this would be if the body obtains energy from protein, sugar or fats.
The body can only store small amounts of zinc.
Zinc can only be stored in small amounts in the body. Only about one to four grams can be stored for a short time. The rest has to come from food to ensure that all biochemical processes in the body work.
Zinc is also responsible for the defense against infectious diseases. It plays a role in wound healing and prevents bacteria or viruses from entering the body (2).
Background: What you should know about zinc deficiency.
Zinc plays an important role in the growth and development of the body. It is also an essential trace element for a healthy immune system and for wound healing (3).
For this reason, it is helpful to learn what effects zinc deficiency can have on the human body and what factors play a role.
In this guide you will find the most frequently asked questions and the corresponding answers.
How does zinc deficiency occur?
The human body has about 2-3 grams of zinc, replacing about 0.1% per day. When this level is less than 2 grams, physical and functional signs of zinc deficiency may appear.
A feature that could speak for a zinc deficiency would be a weaker performance and lack of concentration (3).
Furthermore, the wound healing can take longer than usual or hair can be pulled out more easily.
Zinc deficiency in children and adolescents
The correct dosage of zinc is particularly important for children and adolescents, since a deficiency can have a negative effect on growth and development. Later development of zinc deficiency can lead to dermatitis (3).
Zinc deficiency can have a negative impact on development.
Zinc deficiency in children in particular can significantly impair immune function and this can lead to infectious diseases such as diarrhea or pneumonia. However, there is enough zinc in breast milk provided the mother is not zinc deficient either. In the first few months of life, infants are adequately supplied with zinc from breast milk (4).
What are the main causes of zinc deficiency?
One of the main causes of zinc deficiency is sweat. During sports activities or at high temperatures, the body sweats more and zinc is released through this sweat.
With increased perspiration, zinc is released. (Image source: unsplash/ Hans Reniers)
Another cause could be diet. A vegetarian or vegan diet could lead to zinc deficiency, since zinc is high in red meat or seafood. Failure to replace these foods with plant-based zinc-rich foods could lead to a deficiency. Also, the small intestine absorbs zinc from non-animal foods much more difficult.
Stress can also be a trigger for zinc deficiency (5).
How can zinc deficiency be determined?
The most common way to diagnose zinc deficiency is through a blood test. Not much blood is required for the blood test. A small prick of the finger is enough to get the desired measurement results. This can be done at the family doctor. The results are checked in a laboratory and provide information about the zinc level. It is determined whether there is a zinc deficiency or even a zinc surplus.
There is also an alternative to the traditional blood test. This would be the hair analysis. A three-year study was conducted on children aged 1-15 to test whether hair analysis was informative about zinc levels.
The testing provided exact values for the zinc level in the body. Thus, the hair analysis is a meaningful alternative to the blood test (7).
What foods should you eat if you have a zinc deficiency?
Zinc is contained in a number of foods and can be taken daily without complex preparation. Animal products are the main sources of zinc. These products include red meat, fish and seafood. Eggs, cheese and other dairy products also contain zinc. The body can process animal products that contain zinc much more easily than plant products.
Zinc is also found in many plant-based foods. (Image source: unspalsh/ Dan Gold)
Of course, there are also herbal products that contain zinc. These would be: lentils, soybeans, nuts, wheat, pumpkin seeds, oatmeal and millet. Although zinc is plentiful in plant foods, the body cannot utilize them very well. These foods contain phytic acid, which makes zinc difficult to process and absorb (2).
What dietary supplements for zinc deficiency are there?
Taking supplements can increase zinc absorption by quite a bit. A poll by the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey shows that approximately 40% of the population takes dietary supplements to counteract zinc deficiency, for example. There is not enough zinc in the diet, so consuming zinc in a different form may be effective (3).
There are countless dietary supplements that can help against zinc deficiency.
Zinc supplements come in all forms:
- effervescent tablets
Taking zinc supplements is only helpful if a zinc deficiency has been diagnosed by a doctor. Simply taking zinc supplements without an existing deficiency could lead to zinc excess. Overcorrection with supplements can cause gastric irritation with nausea, vomiting, and gastric bleeding (11).
These dietary supplements, as the name suggests, should only be taken as a dietary supplement when the body is not getting enough zinc from the usual diet. This would be the case, for example, with a primarily vegan or vegetarian diet. It should be taken in conjunction with other substances in order to guarantee optimal zinc intake (6).
What are the symptoms of zinc deficiency?
Zinc is an important trace element in the body and has multiple functions. Therefore, the body notices if a zinc deficiency should occur. The most common symptoms include hair falling out more easily and nails starting to become brittle.
Other symptoms are:
|fatigue||If the body is undersupplied with vitamins and nutrients, then fatigue is a common consequence.|
|Slowed wound healing||Zinc is responsible for cell formation, cell division and cell metabolism. This is extremely important for wound healing.|
|erectile dysfunction||Zinc is responsible for the sugar, fat and protein metabolism and for the structure of the genetic material. A deficiency can lead to erectile dysfunction.|
|weight loss||If there is a zinc deficiency, it can lead to an increased susceptibility to infection. This also often leads to loss of appetite and weight loss.|
|muscle cramps||The body needs zinc to build muscle properly.|
|Increased susceptibility to infections, diarrhea||In order to form sufficient immune cells and to be able to protect itself against bacteria, the body needs sufficient zinc.|
These are some symptoms and a brief explanation. Other symptoms can also indicate a zinc deficiency. This differs from person to person.
What is the daily requirement of zinc?
With a body weight of around 70 kilograms, the body contains around 1 to 3 grams of zinc. The daily amount of zinc that the body needs to consume is very small in comparison. The required amount of zinc per day is 2 to 3 milligrams.
This table lists the ideal values per day:
|Old||Zinc in mg (milligrams)|
|Children under 1 year to 5 years||6.6 to 9.1|
|men and women over 20 years of age||9.0 to 13.5|
|men and women over 60 years of age||8.9 to 12.0|
Zinc is naturally excreted in small amounts in urine, sweat and stool. These can then be replenished with food.
How quickly can zinc deficiency be corrected?
In principle, the zinc levels can be improved with a balanced diet and foods containing zinc. However, this will not happen overnight. A zinc-rich meal is not enough to get the zinc balance going again. A continuously balanced diet is necessary so that the values are correct again. When supplements are taken, 3mg/kg per day usually clears all clinical symptoms within 1 to 2 weeks (11).
A balanced zinc-rich diet is important to keep zinc levels steady.
If the values cannot be improved with diet alone, there is the possibility of taking food supplements. It is best to consult your doctor.
Who is affected by zinc deficiency?
It is estimated that around 25% of the world's population is at risk of zinc deficiency. This 25% relates mainly to the poorer population who do not have access to a balanced diet.
Older people (> 69 years) have an increased need for zinc (3).
Zinc deficiency can often remain undetected for months because the symptoms are also blamed on other causes.
An unbalanced diet can lead to zinc deficiency. In other words, people who eat a vegan or vegetarian diet and do not consume any plant-based zinc-containing products can be zinc deficient.
There are risk groups that may have a zinc deficiency:
- Diabetics: Even with a zinc-rich diet, diabetics may not be able to absorb enough zinc. The reason for this is the disturbed metabolism and the increased excretion of zinc in the urine.
- Gastrointestinal patients: A lot of zinc is excreted through increased bowel movements.
- Metabolic diseases: In the case of acrodermatitis enteropathica (zinc utilization disorder), it is difficult for the body to absorb and utilize zinc from food.
- Liver and kidney disease: The storage and transport of zinc is particularly difficult when the kidneys or liver are diseased.
- Allergy sufferers: In order to be able to ward off allergy triggers, the immune system needs a lot of zinc.
- Cancer patients: During chemotherapy or radiation therapy, the body is exposed to extreme conditions that put a strain on the cells. Zinc is jointly responsible for cell regeneration. Because of this, the body needs more zinc to protect against the damage.
- Pregnant and lactating women: Zinc is given to babies through breast milk. Accordingly, the nut itself has to absorb more zinc than usual.
Zinc Deficiency: Helpful Approaches to Preventing and Correcting Zinc Deficiency
The following sections provide helpful tips for preventing and correcting zinc deficiency. Since zinc deficiency is mainly related to diet, the focus is primarily on that.
Which foods of natural origin contain a particularly large amount of zinc are listed, as well as luxury foods that inhibit the absorption of zinc.
It is difficult to prevent zinc deficiency in people with a chronic medical condition such as bowel disease. Usually only dietary supplements can help here. In order to prevent a zinc deficiency, it is often helpful to know the daily zinc requirement. This depends on age or special needs. These special needs include, for example, pregnant and breastfeeding women or athletes.
One of the most important forms of prevention is diet, which is described in detail in the next section.
Zinc supply is largely dependent on the amount and availability in our food.
|Animal products||Plant-based foods|
|calf liver||wheat bran|
|pork liver||pumpkin seeds|
|Gouda and other hard cheeses||rice|
Red meat has the highest zinc content. Avoiding red meat, which is mostly true for vegetarians and vegans, can have a profound effect on zinc levels in the body.
Zinc-inhibiting foods and luxury foods
Some foods and stimulants can inhibit the absorption of zinc. If you take too much per day, it can happen that zinc intake becomes more difficult despite a diet containing zinc.
These foods include:
- soft cheese
- Green and black tea
Zinc is an important player for numerous functions in our body. It ensures a good immune system, hair growth, wound healing and much more. The daily requirement of zinc varies and depends primarily on age and individual circumstances.
Anyone who pays attention to a balanced diet with lots of zinc-rich foods should have an adequate supply of zinc. However, this may not be the case due to special factors. People with a chronic illness or a vegan diet should pay particular attention to their zinc levels and possibly consider supplements after consulting their doctor.
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