Zinc is an essential mineral that is required to maintain normal health, not unlike iron – and just like iron, zinc too is accountable for a plethora of different functions in the human body.
Its role is vital in not only helping stimulate the enzymatic system and the functioning of more than 100-300 types of enzymes, it is also necessary for the human growth processes as well – including gene expression, synaptic plasticity and metabolism.
With regard to its presence in living organisms – it is the second most abundantly found transition metal, after iron. The deficiency of zinc can cause a lot of problems, so it is important that a well-balanced diet include food items rich in zinc content.
Benefits of Zinc
Zinc enables cell division and growth, and is thus vital during pregnancy. The developing fetus requires proper concentrations of zinc in order for its cells to divide rapidly. Zinc acts as a preventive measure against preterm delivery and congenital abnormalities as well.
It is not just the growing fetus that benefits from zinc; zinc is required by infants and teens alike for the stimulation of the growth process. It activates bone development, height and weight.
In males, zinc sheaths the prostate gland from infection and subsequent enlargement. It also helps maintain good fertile health by regulating sperm count and mobility, as well as levels of serum testosterone. Females benefit from zinc as it helps alleviate problems related to menstrual stress.
Among all the vitamins and minerals, zinc shows the strongest effect on our all- important immune system (1). Zinc plays a unique role in the T-cells. Low zinc levels lead to reduced and weakened T-cells which are not able to recognize and fight off certain infections.
An increase in the zinc level has proven effective in fighting pneumonia, diarrhea and other infections. Zinc can also reduce the duration and severity of a common cold.
Zinc has anti-inflammatory benefits and is helpful in cases of blisters, gum diseases and poison ivy. Apart from this, zinc is also specifically helpful in the cases of acne, cases of allergic inflammation, and with regard to asthma and other diseases that affect the airway.
Since zinc activates the receptors in the brain responsible for processing information about taste and smell, it is important for the appetite. It influences other nutrients too, helping improve taste preferences. As a result of this, zinc is often used to treat anorexia.
Sources of Zinc
Although the concentration of zinc in plants depends a lot on the zinc content in the soil, it is generally present in beans, whole grains, pumpkin seeds, nuts, almonds, sunflower seeds and blackcurrant.
The cereal that is known to have the highest content of zinc (given the right soil conditions) is wheat. In a non-vegetarian diet, zinc is found in poultry, fish, red meat, seafood and dairy products.
The bioavailability of plant-based foods is limited, owing to dietary fibre and phytic acid which inhibit the absorption of zinc – you must be careful about the combination of foods you eat.
While you may believe that you are getting the right amount, it may still prove to be insufficient in the presence of these inhibiting factors.
Zinc supplements or daily multi-vitamin/multi-mineral supplements may be consumed if one’s nutritional intake is not up to par.
Deficiencies of Zinc
Zinc deficiency is a serious problem in many developing countries. Zinc deficiency is ranked as the 5th leading risk factor in causing disease, especially diarrhoea and pneumonia in children, which can lead to high mortality rates in these underdeveloped regions.
Other severe deficiency symptoms include stunted growth and impaired development of infants, children and adolescents.
Early zinc deficiency also leads to impaired cognitive function, behavioural problems, memory impairment and problems with spatial learning and neuronal atrophy.
Public health programs involving zinc supplementation and food fortification could help overcome these problems. Thus, the ones at real risk of a zinc deficiency include children in developing countries, and the elderly.
In industrialized countries, cases of mild zinc deficiency can be observed. The most common symptoms include dry and rough skin, dull-looking hair, brittle finger nails, white spots on nails, reduced taste and smell, loss of appetite, mood swings, reduced adaptation to darkness, frequent infections, delayed wound healing, dermatitis and acne. Note that the deficiency is not necessarily due to a low intake of zinc; it may be due to mal-absorption or other factors as well.
Mild zinc deficiency symptoms can usually be corrected by supplying the body with the right amount of zinc each day. Supplemental zinc not exceeding the recommended daily allowance might be taken. Therapies involving larger doses of zinc should always be discussed with your physician.
Therapeutic doses typically range from 20-30 mg and in some rare cases doses might be higher.
You must make sure that the required tests are conducted before issuing the supplements, as there might be other deficiencies that may hinder growth even after the zinc deficiency is accounted for.