Why is everyone talking about zinc right now?
With talk of viruses so prevalent, many people have been introduced to the concept of zinc deficiency. However, this is not a new thing – in the 1930s zinc was found to be essential for humans. In the 1960s it was found that deficiency of zinc can cause several symptoms. More recently we have been finding more and more symptoms associated with zinc deficiency as the world seems in general very zinc deficient. Some estimates show that zinc is involved in more body functions than any other mineral.
What are signs of zinc deficiency?
Lack of appetite
Loss of smell or taste
Sexual function (especially in men)
….and so many more…
How do we test for zinc deficiency?
At Be Well Clinic we are really big on seeing the signs the body is telling us before running blood tests. Frequently your symptoms (those above, plus others) can tell us if you have a zinc deficiency. We then can also tell by looking at your fingernails – based on if you have white “zinc spots” or pale nail beds. We also may do a “taste test” in the office which helps us identify the level of deficiency. These tests are easy and painless and very indicative of your zinc status.
Why are so many people deficient in zinc?
There are several factors that contribute to deficiency. One of the first reasons is that in the United States, about 70% of zinc comes from animal and fish sources. Therefore, vegetarian and vegan diets usually do not produce sufficient zinc. On top of this, absorption rates vary tremendously, between about 12%-59% of the zinc that we eat actually being utilized. This can be due to low stomach acid levels, or low protein taken along with the zinc. Alcohol consumption depletes zinc levels, as do other stressors such as, sugar consumption, external stress like problems at work or with family, or illness. The reasons why these factors deplete zinc is because they require a lot of zinc for recovery, thus using up available stores of zinc. So, during sickness, in injury, stress, alcoholism, sexual dysfunction, etc, it is generally necessary to increase dietary zinc.
Where do I get zinc?
Supplementation is available, as tablets or drops. However, my preferred method is always through food. As stated above, zinc is predominantly found in animal sources. Red meats, oysters, liver, herring, egg yolks and milk products provide some of the highest levels of zinc and are most absorbable by the body. Zinc can also be found in properly prepared whole grains and beans. It is very important that grains are properly prepared because refining them can lower zinc content up to 80%. Properly prepared nuts and seeds such as pecans, Brazil nuts and pumpkin seeds can provide absorbable zinc, as can ginger root, mustard and black pepper. If someone is trying to obtain all of their zinc through non-animal sources, they should be able to consume adequate amounts if they are very intentional about the foods they eat, but due to absorption difficulty with zinc from plant sources, they probably need to also take zinc supplements.
Last but not least:
While zinc is extremely important, and getting enough zinc in your diet is imperative, it is also important to realize that taking any nutrient as a supplement rather than as a whole food (i.e. taking a tablet instead of eating meat) can cause toxicity (although this is rare with zinc) and can interfere with absorption or balance of other nutrients. This is why food is always preferable – whole foods come as little packages with balanced nutrients, and your body tells you when to stop eating, rather than you just taking several tablets without knowing the amount your body actually needs.
Always try food first, supplementation next. Supplementation can be extremely beneficial and necessary at certain times, but long-term, always strive to get your nutrients through food rather than from a capsule.