Zinc’s role in pregnancy and fetal brain development
Zinc is involved in numerous enzyme processes and proteins that are of importance to fertility and pregnancy. The nutrient also plays a role in fetal brain development and the child’s health later in life, according to a review article that is published in the scientific journal, Nutrients. The authors address the fact that zinc deficiencies are rather common and account for around 20 per cent of infant deaths, typically around the time of birth. It is therefore important to get plenty of zinc throughout life – especially for women before, during, and after pregnancy and while they breastfeed.
Zinc supports well over 300 different enzyme processes and is an integral part of more than 3,000 proteins. Zinc is found in different parts of the cells such as the cell nucleus and the mitochondria. In our cell membranes, zinc supports various transport proteins known as ZIPs (Zinc-regulated, Iron-regulated transporter-like Proteins) that ensure that the right genes are expressed at the right time. Zinc also supports an essential antioxidant complex known as SOD (superoxide dismutase) that protects cells against oxidative damage caused by free radicals. In other words, zinc is involved in a long list of processes inside our cells that are important for our metabolism, nervous system, immune defense, and a host of other functions.
Zinc also plays a vital role in male and female fertility. Men have a lot of zinc in the epididymis and in the sperm cells. The same goes for the woman’s ovaries and the matured egg on its way to the uterus. Inside the oocyte membrane, there are millions of zinc molecules that are packed in tiny packages. Immediately after fertilization, these packages are released and discharge zinc sparks into the oocyte, in what resembles fireworks. These zinc discharges from the membrane happen several times so that zinc can enter the many enzymes and proteins that are required in order for the fertilized egg to develop into a healthy embryo and a healthy fetus.
It should also be mentioned that zinc is important for the development of brain neurons and for protecting neurons against oxidative damage.
The mother’s milk also contains a lot of zinc so the infant gets plenty of zinc for proper growth and development. In the early stages of life, there is a relatively large need for zinc. Severe zinc deficiency during pregnancy and the first six months following childbirth may have serious consequences for the development of the child.
A zinc deficiency harms the fetus in several ways
It is commonly known that a zinc deficiency can result in reduced sense of smell, poor wound healing, skin disorders, hair loss, impaired immunity, and lack of appetite. Lack of zinc may also lead to lethargy, irritability, and depression.
In men, a zinc deficiency can cause poor sperm quality. In women, it can impair the quality of their eggs, or it can impair their chances of becoming pregnant or maintaining a healthy pregnancy.
Lack of zinc during pregnancy may disturb the development of the fetus in different ways. In their review article, the authors explain how it may affect the brain of the fetus because there is too little zinc to support vital cell signaling and antioxidant functions. Also, it may reduce the neuron density and cause unwanted structural changes in different parts of the brain. This may eventually damage the child’s cognitive and motor skills, but more studies are needed in this area.
- An estimated 17 percent of the world’s population is zinc-deficient
- Minor zinc deficiencies may also affect pregnancy and health in general
Many children die of zinc deficiency
The review article mentions that zinc deficiency during pregnancy accounts for around 20 percent of perinatal deaths. In addition, it is believed that 450,000 children die of zinc deficiency before they reach the age of five years, a problem that contributes with around 800,000 global deaths annually.
Zinc deficiency is rather common in underdeveloped countries because of malnutrition. In industrialized countries, zinc deficiency is often a result of poor diets and lack of animal protein, which is one of the best zinc sources. Other contributing factors include overconsumption of iron, calcium, and alcohol plus the use of certain types of medicine.
Zinc sources and supplements for pregnant women
Oysters are the best source of zinc, but most of us get enough of the nutrient from more common foods such as meat, fish, corn, beans, and nuts. Zinc from animal sources is absorbed better by the body than zinc from plant sources. In any case, it is essential for a woman to get plenty of zinc if she plans to become pregnant or is pregnant already.
The official recommendation for zinc in Denmark is 10 mg daily. Pregnant and breastfeeding women need a little more (11 and 12 mg, respectively)
It is always bet to get enough zinc from the diet. But there are also pregnancy supplements that contain organic zinc with good bioavailability.
Jeremy Willekens and Loren W. Runnels. Impact of Zinc Transport Mechanism and Brain Development. Nutrients 17 June 2022
Jiaomei Yang et al. Maternal Zinc, Copper, Selenium Intakes during Pregnancy and Congenital Heart Defects. Nutrients 2022
Preconception zinc deficiency could spell bad news for fertility. American Physiological Society April 2018
Science News: Radiant zinc fireworks reveal human egg quality. ScienceDaily 2016
Zinc | The Nutrition Source | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
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