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What are the symptoms of zinc deficiency? This is something that’s important to talk about because globally, it’s estimated that billions of people are zinc deficient. Our bodies don’t require huge amounts of zinc, but still, many of us don’t get enough. When you don’t get enough of this essential mineral, it can have far-reaching health effects.
What Does Our Body Use Zinc For?
Zinc is used for cell function. It helps the body do some of its essential functions, including helping your cells divide and ensuring your immune system works optimally. Zinc helps with wound healing, and it allows you to maintain your sense of taste and smell. Zinc supports growth and development, so it’s important for pregnant women and children.
Your body doesn’t store this mineral, so you need to either get enough from the food you eat or from a supplement.
Zinc Deficiency Symptoms
While worldwide zinc deficiency is common because of dietary limitations, in the U.S., this deficiency is fairly uncommon. Severe zinc deficiency symptoms include:
- Appetite loss
- Problems with immune system function
- Slow growth in children
- Delayed sexual maturity in children
- Lesions of the skin and eyes
- Strange taste sensations
- Hair loss
- Slow wound healing
- Unexplained weight loss
- Men and boys may experience hypogonadism and impotence as well, which means the male body doesn’t produce an adequate amount of testosterone
If You Have Zinc Deficiency Symptoms, How Is It Diagnosed?
With some deficiencies, your doctor can do a blood or urine test to check your levels, but this is more challenging if you believe you have zinc deficiency symptoms. Zinc is only present in small amounts in your cells, so it’s tough to diagnose your zinc deficiency symptoms this way.
If you believe that you do have symptoms of zinc deficiency, your doctor is more likely to go over your health history as well as what you eat each day to determine if this could be your issue.
Who Is Most at Risk for Zinc Deficiency Symptoms?
There are certain situations where someone may be more likely to have a zinc deficiency.
People at greatest risk for this nutritional deficiency include:
- Individuals with gastrointestinal diseases, such as Crohn’s disease
- People who abuse alcohol
- Vegetarians and vegans
- Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding
- Older babies who are exclusively breastfed
- People with anorexia or bulimia
- Individuals with chronic kidney disease
- People with sickle cell anemia
- Someone with cancer
Other chronic conditions that may be linked to the symptoms of zinc deficiency include people with celiac disease, chronic liver disease, diabetes, pancreatic disease, and ulcerative colitis.
For vegetarians and vegans, their levels of zinc tend to be lower because our bodies are more efficient at breaking down zinc in meat. Vegetarians may eat foods that have phytates as well. These bind to zinc and make it harder for the body to absorb it.
Older people may be at a greater risk of experiencing zinc deficiency symptoms because they might not eat a variety of foods, and some medicines they take may impact the body’s release of zinc. These medicines, for example, can include hydrochlorothiazide or chlorthalidone.
Medicines that can also contribute to zinc deficiency symptoms include stomach acid reducers like Prilosec and ACE inhibitors.
What Are the Benefits of Zinc?
There are quite a few benefits of zinc.
Zinc and Your Immune System
Zinc helps your immune system stay strong so it can function optimally. If you don’t have enough zinc, it can cause your immune system to be weakened. If you don’t get enough zinc from your diet or you have a condition that impacts how well you absorb it, a supplement can help your immune cells and can also reduce oxidative stress.
There was a review of seven studies that found anywhere from 80 to 92 mg of zinc a day can reduce the duration of the common cold by up to 22%.
In older people, zinc supplementation can also reduce the risk of infections.
Speed-Up Wound Healing
Your skin holds around 5% of your body’s total zinc content. Zinc also plays an important role in the synthesis of collagen and your inflammatory response, meaning it’s important for healing burns, ulcers and skin-related injuries.
If you have a wound, using a zinc supplement can help speed up the healing time.
Protect Against Age-Related Diseases
Infections, pneumonia, and macular degeneration are often linked to older age. If you are zinc deficient and use a supplement, it can help reduce oxidative stress. It may also help your immune system by increasing the activity of what are called natural killer cells, better protecting you from infection.
One study found supplementing with 45 mg of zinc a day reduced infections in older people by almost 66%.
Overall, zinc reduces inflammatory proteins, and that is beneficial to prevent the risk of developing inflammation-related chronic illnesses which can include cognitive illnesses, cancer and heart disease.
Blood Sugar Control
Zinc may help you maintain steady blood sugar levels, and also improve your body’s insulin sensitivity. There was one review in particular that found zinc supplements help short- and long-term blood sugar control in individuals with diabetes. Zinc may also help reduce insulin resistance, meaning your body may be able to more effectively use insulin to maintain normal blood sugar levels.
Using a zinc supplement can help with skin health and may treat acne. One type of zinc, in particular, zinc sulfate, may be especially useful for treating acne.
Zinc Deficiency and Erectile Dysfunction
Erectile dysfunction is a relatively common sexual problem that men face. Many factors tend to play a role in erectile dysfunction, including nutritional deficiencies.
Zinc is necessary for the male body to produce testosterone, so having low zinc levels could mean that you have symptoms of erectile dysfunction.
There was a study in 1996 that highlighted the relationship between testosterone and zinc levels. There was a group of young men in the study who had a low-zinc diet. Then, after following that for 20 weeks, there was a nearly 75% decrease in testosterone levels.
The same study also looked at the use of zinc supplements in older men. With increases in their zinc intake, testosterone levels in elderly study participants almost doubled.
There was an animal study in 2009 in which rats were treated with 5 mg a day of a zinc supplement. The supplementation seemed to improve sexual function, including having positive effects on maintaining an erection and arousal.
Many men who have erectile dysfunction don’t necessarily have low testosterone levels. However, low testosterone can be one reason for ED, as can hypogonadism, which is also related to zinc deficiency.
For men, the recommended amount of daily zinc is 11 mg a day. For women, it should be 8 mg a day.
Zinc Deficiency and Autoimmune Diseases
Autoimmune disease prevalence is increasing among Americans and in western countries in general. Autoimmune conditions include:
- Addison disease
- Crohn’s disease
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Ulcerative colitis
- Type 1 diabetes
- Multiple sclerosis
- Celiac disease
With any autoimmune disease, the body is attacking its own cells. The problem is usually with the regulatory system that controls the activity of T cells and sometimes D cells. The mechanisms that usually control these cells stop working, and then the immune cells can get out of control.
There are some growing theories looking at the links between growing zinc deficiency in the U.S. and upticks in autoimmune diseases.
In a German study in 2016, the use of zinc supplementation helped reduce autoimmune symptoms in lab-based research. A separate study in 2016 found using a zinc supplement helped reduce the expansion of T cells and also stabilized cytokines. Cytokines are often involved in autoimmune responses.
Summing Up—Understanding Zinc Deficiency Symptoms
Zinc deficiency symptoms are becoming more prevalent as this becomes a growing issue not only in developing countries but western countries as well. Zinc deficiency symptoms can be far-reaching and may include poor immune system function, appetite loss and in children, slow growth.
Severe zinc deficiency symptoms may include lesions, hair loss, problems with wound healing, lethargy, diarrhea, and in men impotence and hypogonadism.
If you are experiencing any of these zinc deficiency symptoms, speak to your doctor. You may need to alter your diet to get more zinc or take a zinc supplement.