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Nutrient - Zinc - an overview

By Jenny Bodenham BA (Hons) DipION MBANT

Zinc is an important trace mineral and is second only to iron in its concentration in the body. It is found in every cell and is central to more chemical reactions in the body than any other mineral. It is necessary for the metabolism of carbohydrate, energy and protein synthesis. Additionally, it is a key mineral for cell and tissue renewal, sensory function, sexual function, skin health, stress response, brain chemistry and immunity. High concentrations of zinc have been found in the brain and it is believed by some medical researchers that zinc is a neurotransmitter. The demand for zinc increases under psychological and physiological stress.

Food sources of zinc

  • Shellfish
  • Beef
  • Chicken and turkey
  • Haddock
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Wholegrains, e.g. wheat, oats, rye, buckwheat
  • Peas and beans
  • Nuts, e.g. Brazil nuts, almonds, walnuts, peanuts, hazelnuts
  • Garlic
  • Ginger root
  • Carrots and potatoes

Zinc absorption

Zinc from plant sources is less bioavailable. This is because it binds to phytic acid (a fibre compound) to form an insoluble zinc-phytate complex that is not absorbed. Because the high levels of phytic acid in plant foods reduce zinc absorption, strict vegetarians / vegans, whose main food sources of zinc include grains and legumes, may have as much as a 50% increase in their zinc requirement.

Copper is antagonistic to zinc, which means that if you have too much copper in your body, your zinc supplies will be low (and vice versa). Raised copper and depressed zinc levels may be associated with hyperactivity, attention deficit disorders, behaviour disorders and depression. Copper is found in high levels in calf’s liver, cashew nuts and sesame seeds. It’s also worth checking that your water supply is not delivered via copper piping, as this may increase your copper levels.

Zinc deficiency

Zinc deficiency may occur where there is decreased intake and / or use of zinc. Additionally, certain prescribed drugs may reduce zinc absorption. Malabsorption syndromes, such as Coeliac disease, may increase susceptibility to zinc deficiency, as may IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and IBD (inflammatory bowel disease).

While severe zinc deficiency is uncommon, signs of a marginal zinc deficiency may include:

  • White spots on the fingernails
  • Increased susceptibility to infections
  • Decreased sense of taste or smell
  • Poor wound healing
  • Mouth ulcers
  • White coating on the tongue
  • Decreased ability to see at night or in poor light
  • Skin conditions such as eczema, acne or psoriasis
  • Dandruff and hair loss 

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