Zinc is an essential nutrient that helps strengthen the immune system in its fight against viruses and bacteria and treat common cold, ear infections etc. Zinc is required to manufacture DNA and proteins and for proper growth and development in children. Other benefits of zinc include treatment of macular degeneration, cataracts, asthma, diabetes, AIDS, high blood pressure, male infertility. Athletes use zinc supplements to enhance performance. Zinc citrate is used as a mouthwash and in toothpaste to prevent gingivitis and plaque formation.
Zinc is critical for other reasons such as balancing blood sugar levels, gene transcription, cell growth, stabilization of metabolic rate and maintaining sense of smell and taste. A zinc supplement or foods enriched in zinc is said to improve memory power and attention span in teenagers. Mental stress, pollution, obesity all increase free radicals in the body and this leads to oxidative stress, aging and other chronic diseases. Zinc protects the body against this oxidative stress.
While most people do not suffer from zinc deficiency, there are certain vulnerable groups.
- Digestive disorders: People suffering from malabsorption disorders like celiac disease or Crohn’s disease, those who have ulcerative colitis or sickle cell disease may be deficient in zinc because their disease reduces the amount of zinc that can be absorbed by the body and they could be on a restricted diet due to their illness.
- Vegetarians can suffer from a deficiency since they do not consume meat and seafood rich in zinc. Foods like grains and beans prevent zinc from getting absorbed completely. Hence, vegetarians require twice the amount – at least 50% more than the required quantities – of zinc-rich foods as do non-vegetarians.
- Breastfed infants older than 6 months do not get enough zinc from breast milk. Hence, older babies who do not drink baby formula can be given pureed meat that is rich in zinc. Infant formula contains adequate quantities of zinc. Hence babies who drink enriched formula get sufficient daily requirement of zinc.
- Alcoholics suffer from zinc deficiency symptoms and the reasons could be – they do not eat sufficient quantities of zinc-rich foods; alcohol increases the quantity of zinc lost through urine and reduces the ability of the body to absorb zinc.
- Bariatric surgery is done to help obese people lose weight. Such a gastrointestinal surgery can reduce the ability of the body to absorb the required quantities of zinc. Such people also lose excessive amounts of zinc through the urine and suffer from a deficiency.
- Elderly : Since most functions – digestive, absorption etc. – in the elderly is reduced due to age or some illness, this is also a group vulnerable to zinc deficiency.
- Anorexia: As this is an eating disorder, those who are anorexic will suffer from various nutrient deficiencies including zinc.
Zinc Deficiency symptoms
Those who do suffer from zinc deficiency display symptoms such as:
- Stunted growth in children
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Lack of taste
- Poor wound healing
- Acne, atopic dermatitis, psoriasis
- Hair loss
- Irregular menstruation
- White spots on fingernails
- Night blindness
- Low insulin levels
- Dry skin
Most people are not tested for zinc deficiency and even the tests do not present an accurate picture. This is why the above common signs are what people must be aware of and if they do suffer from it, make sure they check their zinc levels.
Since zinc is an essential component for the human body, a deficiency can result in disastrous symptoms. The key to taking zinc supplements is to understand who needs to take them and when. An assessment by a doctor is needed to establish an individual’s daily requirement for zinc supplements. The doctor will study your specific set of symptoms and then decide the right dosage depending on age and health condition. The ‘Recommended Dietary Allowance’ per day of zinc is 10mg for men and 12mg for women.
Taking zinc supplements indiscriminately can lead to many problems. If you do not need excess zinc and take a supplement, it increases the risk of prostate cancer in men, anemia and various stomach irritations. High doses of zinc can lead to deficiency in copper. This is why most zinc supplements also include copper equivalent to 2mg.
There are many forms of zinc supplements available like zinc sulfate, zinc picolinate, zinc acetate, zinc citrate, zinc monomethionine, zinc glycerate. Zinc sulfate is the cheapest supplement but causes stomach upsets. If you do experience stomach problems with zinc sulfate then switch over to zinc citrate. There are zinc lozenges for treating sore throats and coughs. Nasal sprays that contain zinc can ease sinus and nasal congestion.
Precautions while taking zinc supplements
Zinc supplements must always be taken with juice, water or with meals. It must not be taken along with calcium or iron supplements. Make sure you take zinc multivitamins along with copper. Less than 40mg is the safe daily dosage of zinc. Some side effects of taking zinc supplements are:
- Upset stomach
- Metallic taste
High doses of zinc results in:
- Excessive sweating
- Poor muscle coordination
- Alcohol intolerance
Very high doses can lead to lowering of good HDL cholesterol and increasing bad LDL cholesterol
Some zinc products contain cadmium, an excess of which can lead to kidney failure. Zinc gluconate supplements have the lowest levels of cadmium. Sometimes nasal sprays containing zinc can lead to loss of the sense of smell. In 2009, the USFDA advised people not to use nasal sprays containing zinc after it was reported that over 100 people reported loss of smell.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women must be especially careful to take the correct daily requirement of zinc for deficiency can lead to stunted growth in infants.
Zinc deficiency needs to be corrected with adequate supplements otherwise there can be serious consequences that can lead to increased risk of infectious diseases, lowered immunity, cancer and DNA damage.