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Zinc deficiencies are a global health problem

- here is a check list of typical signs and diseases

Zinc deficiencies are a global health problemAn estimated two billion people worldwide lack zinc. The essential trace element is involved in more than 1,000 different enzyme processes, besides being a powerful antioxidant that protects the body’s cells. Even minor zinc deficiencies can lead to impaired digestion, infections, skin problems, fatigue, impaired fertility, and DNA damage. Such deficiencies can eventually increase the risk of cancer and other diseases. People with unhealthy diets, vegetarians, vegans, older people, and pregnant and breastfeeding women are at particular risk of lacking zinc. Even if your diet provides sufficient amounts of zinc, different factors can affect the uptake and utilization of the nutrient, thereby increasing your body’s actual need.

A team of scientists from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) has discovered that even minor zinc deficiencies can, after a short while, harm the digestive system and thereby affect many other body functions. That is because zinc is involved in more than 1,000 different enzyme processes. Zinc also supports a number of transport proteins in the cell membranes, which ensures that the proper genes are expressed at the right time. Therefore, zinc has vital importance for a host of different physiological processes, as seen below:

The brain and nervous system

Recent studies reveal how zinc forms the synapses between brain neurons. A zinc deficiency can disturb the neurons that are relevant for early development of the brain, thereby increasing the risk of autism. It is known that blood levels of zinc are lower in patients with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. A study carried out on rodents shows that zinc can counteract depression.

The immune defense

Lack of zinc can cause impaired immunity. Studies show that there is a link between zinc deficiencies in older people and lowered activity of the thymus, an organ that is responsible for maturing the immune system’s white blood cells. Lack of zinc can lower a person’s response to vaccinations. Supplementation with zinc in large quantities over a short period of time can reduce the duration of colds and pneumonia.

Skin, hair, and wound healing

Our skin contains more zinc than any other organ. Lack of zinc is linked to delayed wound healing, sensitive skin, acne, eczema and other skin diseases, and hair loss. Zinc is vital for all healing processes, including recovery from stomach ulcers, especially in the early stage.

The cardiovascular system

Zinc functions as a powerful antioxidant that protects cells against oxidative stress caused by free radicals. Oxidative stress increases the risk of atherosclerosis. Zinc also plays a role in blood pressure regulation.

Fertility and pregnancy

Zinc is important for the maturation of eggs in the ovaries during the menstrual cycle. Lack of zinc can therefore lower a woman’s chances of conceiving. Even a minor zinc deficiency during pregnancy can cause taste disorders, increase the risk of post-term pregnancy, and interfere with normal fetal development.


Zinc is essential for the pancreas and its synthesis and excretion of insulin, which is needed to channel blood sugar into the cells. There is a link between low zinc levels in diabetics (type 1) and related complications such as elevated blood pressure and elevated triglyceride levels in the blood.

The liver

Zinc deficiencies are common among patients with liver cirrhosis and liver diseases caused by alcohol and other factors.


Zinc deficiencies have been observed in many cancer patients. A team of scientists from the University of Texas at Arlington, the United States, has found that the zinc-dependent mechanisms that protect health cells and block the development of cancer cells in the esophagus.

Zinc sources, RI (reference intake), and upper safe intake level

We get zinc from fish, shellfish, meat, dairy products, nuts, kernels, and beans. Animal sources of zinc are absorbed better than plant sources. The reference intake level (RI) is 10 mg.
According to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the upper safe intake level for adults and pregnant women is 25 mg daily. It is not dangerous to consume a large quantity of zinc over a short period from sources such as oysters or supplements.

Zinc content in mg per 100 grams

Oysters (raw) 84
Pumpkin seeds, linseeds, sesame seeds, approx. 7
Liver 7
Meat 4-6
Cheese 2-3
Almonds 3
Fruit and vegetables 0.1 - 0.3
Plant oils 0

Zinc deficiencies are common

Lack of zinc can be a result of poor diet habits, lack of animal protein, large intake of calcium, overconsumption of alcohol, celiac disease (gluten intolerance), diarrhea, diuretics, birth control pills, prolonged use of antibiotics, and copper toxicity
An estimated 12 percent of the American population lacks zinc, of which 40 percent is represented by seniors. A similar pattern is expected to be seen in other Western countries.
The widespread lack of zinc is mainly caused by the fact that our zinc uptake decreases with age. Even if an older person gets enough zinc from the diet, there may be a relative zinc deficiency at a cellular level due to the poor absorption of the nutrient. Another problem that contributes to zinc deficiency is the use of medicine, which is quite common among older people.

How to test for zinc deficiency

It is possible to test for a zinc deficiency by using a blood test, but the test is not reliable, as most of our zinc is stored in the cells of different tissues. The best way to detect a zinc deficiency is to focus on the following signs, which may indicate that there is an increased need for the nutrient:

  • Frequent colds and other infections (also, don’t forget the importance of vitamin D during the winter period)
  • Skin and hair problems
  • Lack of appetite
  • Taste and smell disturbances
  • Growth retardation in children

Choose organic zinc supplements, which the body can absorb and utilize

It is always best if you can get enough zinc from your diet.
With regard to supplements, it is important to know that many supplements contain inorganic forms of zinc such as zinc sulphate or zinc oxide, which are difficult for the body to absorb. Make sure to study the label and stick with organic forms of zinc such as zinc gluconate and zinc acetate that the body can easily absorb.

The reason why a zinc deficiency can cause such a variety of symptoms is that all cells need the nutrient and it is involved in over 1,000 enzyme processes.


Huong T.T. Ha et al. Shank and Zink Mediate an AMPA Receptor Subunit Switch in Developing Neurons. Frontiers in Molecular Neuroscience. 2018.

Frontiers. Autism and zinc deficiency in early development. ScienceDaily November 2018

Daniel Brugger et al. Subclinical zinc deficiency impairs pancreatic digestive enzyme activity and digestive capacity of weaned pigs. British Journal of Nutrition 2016

Institute of Food Technologist (ITF). Eight ways zinc affects the human body. ScienceDaily 2014

Sangyong Choi et al. Selective inhibitory effects of zinc on cell proliferation in esophageal squamous cell carcinoma through Orai1. The FASEB Journal 2017

Emily L Guo and Rajani Katta. Diet and hair loss: effects of nutrient deficiency and supplement use. Dermatol Pract Concept 2017

Oregon State University. Zinc Deficiencies A Global Concern 2009

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