Zinc (Zn) is considered an essential nutrient and is largely recognised for its ability to boost the natural immune system, stimulate growth and and encourage DNA synthesis. It is one of the most important trace minerals for humans, although we do not produce it naturally in our bodies. Therefore our zinc intake must come from our diet. After iron, zinc is the most abundant mineral in humans and is apparent in every cell in the body. The recommended daily intake of zinc is 8mg for women and 11mg for men. Zinc deficiency can cause many symptoms including acne, fatigue, memory loss, growth impairment and diarrhea. Zinc deficiency is most common among pregnant women, alcoholics, malnourished individuals such as people with anorexia or bulimia or those with gastrointestinal diseases. Although severe zinc deficiency is quite uncommon, it is estimated that 45 million people do suffer from a deficiency. Zinc is closely linked with longevity, especially when combined with copper (Cu). A study in China showed that the most elderly people, although all showing various mineral deficiencies, all showed high levels of both zinc and copper. The relationship between these minerals must be balanced and they both act as an antagonist to the other, which can lead to a build up of copper which has the potential to accumulate as a toxin in the body. The perfectly balanced copper/zinc ratio is thought to be 1:8. The balance between these two metals is essential for a long lasting lifespan according to clinical studies.
Foods high in Zinc include:
- Shellfish (oysters, crab, lobster)
- Legumes (chickpeas, lentils, beans, peas)
- Red Meat (lean beef)
- Seeds (pumpkin, hemp, sesame)
- Nuts (pine, peanuts, cashews, almonds)
- Whole Grains (quinoa, oats, wild rice)
- Fish (sardines, sole, salmon)
- Mushrooms (white, shitake, oyster)
Here are 5 benefits of zinc that perhaps you never knew before:
1. Growth and Development
Zinc plays an important role in growth and development. Growth occurs through cell division and requires DNA, RNA and protein synthesis. Zinc encourages this synthesis, allowing the body to grow and develop accordingly, especially in children. Studies show that children deficient in zinc can show signs of stunted growth and even behavioural problems such as ADHD. Zinc ions are also crucial in the process of secretion of Human Growth Hormone. The source of the growth hormone is the pituitary, a primary endocrine regulator of somatic growth. There are a several studies which have looked into the role of growth hormone in stunted growth due to zinc deficiency. The studies suggest that zinc deficiency caused failure of growth hormone secretion from the pituitary. Zinc also helps to accelerate metabolism, which allows the body to transform carbohydrates into energy.
2. Wound Healing
Zinc is often used to treat burns, ulcers and wounds in hospitals. It is often applied to the skin as it accelerates cellular growth. The skin alone actually stores approximately 5% of the body's zinc. Whilst people with a deficiency in zinc could experience a prolonged recovery, supplementation can help to speed up this process. This happens due to zinc's ability to aid cell division, which is necessary to create new tissues. This case study showed a dramatic improvement in recovery time on rats and pigs after being supplemented with zinc.
"Zinc deficiency has numerous clinical manifestations including the impairment of wound healing."
3. Immune Function
Zinc plays an important role in strengthening our immune system as it helps to produce T-cells, white blood cells which fend off illnesses. It is well known that zinc supplementation can speed up recovery when suffering from a cold or flu. A depletion of zinc in the body will not only heighten then chances of falling sick but also will increase the recovery time. Various studies show how taking 75mg of zinc significantly aided the recovery from common cold.
4. Enhances Senses
A lesser known benefit of zinc is its ability to enhance our senses. Our sense of taste and smell relies on a collection of nerves called the 'Olfactory bulb'. These nerves are found in the upper nasal passage and carry messages through to the hippocampus (part of the limbic system in the brain.) Without sufficient levels of zinc, these transmissions between the olfactory bulb and hippocampus are weakened which directly effect the sensation of taste and smell. Interestingly, taste and smell are triggers in terms of memory too, so if these senses are not functioning as normal, our ability to remember can also be effected.
But it's not only our sense of taste and smell that need zinc to function. Our eyes require high levels of zinc, especially in the retina, to maintain optical fluidity. Studies also show that low levels of zinc (among other vitamins and minerals) can also effect our hearing ability.
5. Improves Cognitive Function
Zinc is required for the brain to develop properly, especially in children during the time of rapid brain growth. As zinc is needed to help carry messages throughout the brain, a depletion can result in decreased brain activity and cognitive function.
"Zinc is essential for neurogenesis, neuronal migration and synaptogenesis. Deficiency could interfere with neurotransmission and subsequent neuropsychological behavior."
It is important for pregnant women to maintain healthy levels of zinc in order to encourage the neurodevelopment of their offspring, a lack of zinc can result in growth defects, cerebellum reduction and behavioural and learning difficulties. In elders, zinc deficiency can impair brain function and induce memory loss.
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