A zinc deficiency is rare and is seen most commonly in people who do not absorb it well due to digestive disorders such as inflammatory bowel diseases or who have undergone gastrointestinal surgery. Those with chronic liver or kidney disease are also at risk. Excessive or prolonged diarrhea can lead to a zinc deficiency, as well as severe conditions with increased zinc needs like burns and sepsis (an infection caused by harmful bacteria entering the blood). It is more efficiently absorbed when taken in smaller doses and in people who are deficient in the mineral.
What Is Zinc?
Zinc is one of the most important nutrients that we need in our diets. It’s involved in a number of important bodily functions on a daily basis, including our hormonal production, the growth and development of our bones, our immunity, and our digestion. It also has a number of acute benefits on its own, such as managing inflammation and helping to promote sexual health. These are a few of the reasons that people choose to supplement it in their diets.
It is one of the few nutrients that is actually present in all of our body tissues. Knowing this, it’s easy to see how important it is to ensure that we get it in our diets. It’s also necessary for cell division, an important process that determines how well and how quickly we can grow on a physical level.
If you substantially increase your calcium intake, you may need more of it. It is fairly easy to get enough from a healthy diet. Vegetarians sometimes have a hard time getting enough of it because soy foods and whole grains are high in substances that are natural inhibitors of zinc absorption. It is also found in animal foods, especially red meat, seafood and eggs, is absorbed up to four times more effectively than zinc found in plant foods.
Spinach (and other leafy greens) seems to have a little bit of everything that’s good for you: folate, plant-based iron, fiber, vitamins A, C, E, K and magnesium to name a few. But spinach happens to be one of the few vegetables that have zinc. A 1-cup serving of cooked spinach contains 12 percent of your daily requirement, 20 percent for vitamin C and 25 percent for vitamin E.
The recommended daily amount of zinc is 8 milligrams (mg) for women and 11 mg for adult men. As mentioned this can be easily obtained by a healthy diet.
Evidence of Supplementation
Research on oral zinc for specific conditions shows:
- Zinc deficiency. People who have low levels appear to benefit most from supplements. This kind of deficiency isn’t common in the United States.
- Colds. Evidence suggests that if zinc lozenges or syrup is taken within 24 hours after cold symptoms start, the supplement can help shorten the length of colds. However, use of intranasal come of these products has been linked with the loss of the sense of smell, in some cases long term or permanently.
- Wound healing. People with skin ulcers and low levels of zinc might benefit from oral supplements.
- Diarrhea. Oral supplements can reduce the symptoms of diarrhea in children with low levels of zinc, such as from malnutrition. There isn’t enough evidence to recommend use of oral zinc for children with diarrhea who have a healthy, varied diet.
- Age-related macular degeneration. Research suggests that some oral products might slow the progression of this eye disease.
Zinc that’s used topically is known as zinc oxide. Zinc oxide cream, ointment or paste is applied to the skin to prevent conditions such as diaper rash and sunburn.
More or Less?
Increased or decreased nutrient needs should always be discussed with your healthcare professional. You might need higher than recommended amounts of zinc if you are older than 70, drink heavily or fasting.
A deficiency may lead to poor night vision, slow wound healing, a decrease in sense of taste and smell, a reduced ability to fight infections, and poor development of reproductive organs.