15 Zinc Deficiency Symptoms and Best Food Sources

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zinc deficiency

15 Zinc Deficiency Symptoms

Zinc deficiency is a common problem throughout the world that contributes to many unwanted health problems.  Zinc is a foundational mineral that is essential to human and animal growth patterns and has an essential role in the development of hormones and immune molecules.  Zinc is one of the best mineral supplements to boost and balance out a tired and over stimulated immune system.  This article goes into detail on 15 zinc deficiency symptoms and best food sources.

Experts predict that almost 2 billion people which is roughly 25% of the world’s population is deficient in zinc (1).  This is thought to be from inadequate consumption through the individual’s diet.  From a functional health perspective there is a lot more zinc deficiency in our society due to poor biochemical pathways.

Depleting Our Zinc Stores:

When we have poor blood sugar signaling due to a diet that is high in sugar and carbohydrates we are unable to adequately absorb zinc.  Individuals with leaky gut syndrome often will develop a zinc deficiency from poor absorption.

Consuming high amounts of phytic acids in grains and legumes can adversely affect zinc levels. The regular use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) depletes zinc levels in the body as well.  Here are the most common symptoms associated with a zinc deficiency.

Zinc is Critical For Immune Health:

Zinc is critical for balancing the immune system and keeping the Th-1 and Th-2 systems in check.  Zinc potentiates the action of the human cytokine interferon alpha, a protein that inhibits viral replication.  This reduces immunological stress and improves the immune coordination (2).

Zinc is also a very specific component of specific enzymes in the body including superoxide dismutatse enzymes (SODs).  SOD is a powerful intracellular antioxidant that protects the cellular genomics and prevents against viral infection and toxic debris accumulation within the cellular matrix.

Zinc Reduces Inflammation in the Body:

When the immune system recognizes a pathogen it sets off a series of molecules to create a process that activates the innate immune response.  This process involves the Nuclear Factor – kappa Beta (NF-kB) pathway.  Healthy immunity depends upon sensitive NF-kB activity but must reduce the over stimulation of NF-kB or we risk chronic inflammation (3).

Zinc plays an important role at it binds to a protein within the NF-kB pathway that halts its activity (4).  This is a programmed shut down of the NF-kB pathway that reduces the effects of too much inflammatory activity within the cells.  Without adequate zinc the NF-kB pathway gets over stimulated and creates chronic inflammatory conditions that have been linked to degenerative disease processes (5).

Zinc Deficiency and Pyroluria:

Pyroluria, also called Malvaria, is a unique metabolic condition that is very rarely recognized in both the medical and natural health world.  It is considered by many in the functional medicine world the most common unknown disorder.

There are several waste products that are produced when the body makes hemoglobin for the red blood cells.  These waste products are called kryptopyrroles which are technically called hydroxyhemoppyrrolin-2-one (HPL) which are typically excreted by our body.  Individuals with pyroluria are unable to clear the HPL effectively and they build up in the system (6, 7).

The HPL binds strongly to zinc, biotin and vitamin B6 which are critical nutrients for cellular metabolism.   Over a period of time, the body becomes very deficient in these critical nutrients and symptoms arise.  These individuals need high doses of these key nutrients and typically will need 60-100 mg of zinc supplementation daily.

Zinc Helps Reduce Cancer Cell Growth:

Zinc’s modulatory effect on NF-kB makes it a formidable player in the prevention of cancer cell growth patterns.  It has been shown to decrease tumor cell angiogenesis and the induction of inflammatory cytokines.  It also increases apoptosis (programmed cell death) in abnormal cell lines which reduces the chances of cancer growth (8).

Research shows that zinc is particularly important in prostate and breast cancers.  A 2012 study showed that individuals with BRCA1 gene (strongly associated with breast cancer development) that had the highest levels of zinc had the lowest risk of cancer development.  The study also showed that those with the lowest zinc levels had significantly elevated risk of developing breast cancer (9).

Zinc Deficiency and Estrogen Balance:

In other research, Dr. David Watts reviewed the hair trace mineral reports of thousands of women and found that a pattern of elevated boron, copper and calcium levels with lower levels of zinc occurred in women with breast cancer.  Dr Watts’ understanding is that boron and copper appear to make the body more sensitive to the stimulatory effects of estrogen, and less responsive to the quieting effects of progesterone.

Zinc is the mineral that aids in the production and utilization of progesterone, so this pattern of mineralization makes women less progesterone responsive and more estrogen sensitive. Raising zinc levels and lowering boron, copper and calcium levels can bring these women into mineral balance and help in the creation of hormonal balance.

The primary gene protecting men from prostate cancer and women from breast cancer is the p53 gene.  This is thought to be the guardian of the human genome.  When this gene becomes mutated it allows for the development of cancer.  The gene requires zinc and zinc deficiencies are shown to cause mutated versions of the p53 gene (10).  This dramatically raises the risk of breast and prostate cancer cell development.

zinc deficiency

Relationship Between Zinc and Copper

Zinc and copper compete against one another as antagonist in order to properly regulate the physiological pathways in your body. The proper balance between the two trace minerals is critical to maintaining health.

Unlike zinc, copper can readily accumulate in the body into toxic concentrations. In order to maintain adequate zinc levels, a higher dose of zinc compared to copper is required daily.  Zinc is only stored for short durations in the blood and bone and is quickly excreted through our urine and fecal matter. (11)

Ideally, nutritional biochemist Dr. Paul Eck recommends that the proper intake of copper to zinc should be a 1:8 ratio (12). When properly concentrated in the right balance, zinc behaves like the bigger brother blocking copper in food and in the body from being absorbed (13).  Fortunately, the foods that are high in zinc, such as meat, seafood, nuts and pumpkin seeds are also very high in copper so you get both of these together in your diet.

We test plasma zinc and serum copper levels and the ideal ratio is roughly 1-1.2, meaning you should have equal or slightly higher levels of plasma zinc than you have serum copper.

zinc deficiency

How Much Zinc Should You Take In?

The best food sources of zinc include oysters, shellfish, meat, eggs, nuts and seeds.  I personally do not recommend relying only on nuts and seeds as they also contain phytic acids that bind to zinc and have reduced zinc absorption through the digestive system.  Seafood, grass-fed beef and organ meat and pasture raised eggs are much better sources.

Sprouting seeds helps to remove phytic acids and lectins and makes the zinc and other minerals more bioavailable and easy to absorb.  Look for sprouted pumpkin, sunflower, hemp and chia seeds for good zinc sources.

The recommended daily allowance for zinc is between eight to eleven milligrams for most adults.  However, for functional health most progressive nutritionists and doctors recommend between 30-40 mg/daily.  Zinc can be a problem when one takes in more than 100 mg/daily.    The preferred form of zinc is in an amino acid chelate such as glycinate chelate.

zinc deficiency

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Sources For This Article Include:

1. Zinc Deficiency Link Here
2. Ohio State University. “Zinc helps against infection by tapping brakes in immune response.” Science Daily.
3. Gerondakis S, Fulford TS, Messina NL, Grumont RJ. NF-κB control of T cell development. Nat Immunol. 2014 Jan;15(1):15-25. PMID: 24352326
4. Prasad AS, Beck FW, Snell DC, Kucuk O. Zinc in cancer prevention. Nutr Cancer. 2009;61(6):879-87. PMID: 20155630
5. Heyninck K, De Valck D, Vanden Berghe W, Van Criekinge W, Contreras R, Fiers W, Haegeman G, Beyaert R. The zinc finger protein A20 inhibits TNF-induced NF-kappaB-dependent gene expression by interfering with an RIP- or TRAF2-mediated transactivation signal and directly binds to a novel NF-kappaB-inhibiting protein ABIN. J Cell Biol. 1999 Jun 28;145(7):1471-82. PMID: 10385526
6. Walker JL. Neurological and behavioral toxicity of kryptopyrrole in the rat. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 1975 Mar-Apr;3(2):243-50. PMID: 1096175
7. Krischer K, Pfeiffer CC. Biochemical relationship between kryptopyrrole (mauve factor and trans-3-methyl-2-hexenoic acid (schizophrenia odor). Res Commun Chem Pathol Pharmacol. 1973 Jan;5(1):9-15. PMID: 4686114
8. Sunderman FW Jr. The influence of zinc on apoptosis. Ann Clin Lab Sci. 1995 Mar-Apr;25(2):134-42. PMID: 7785963
9. Kaczmarek K, Jakubowska A, Sukiennicki G, et al. Zinc and breast cancer risk. Hereditary Cancer in Clinical Practice. 2012;10(Suppl 4):A6.
10. Loh, S. The missing Zinc: p53 misfolding and cancer. Metallomics, 2010,2, 442-449
11. S. Department of Health and Human Services: Toicological Profile for Zinc Link Here
12. The Weston A. Price Foundation: Copper-Zinc Imbalance: Unrecognized Consequences of Plant-Based Diets and a Contributor to Chronic Fatigue. Link Here
13. Prasad AS. Discovery of Human Zinc Deficiency: Its Impact on Human Health and Disease. Adv Nutr. 2013 Mar;4(2):176-190. PMCID: 3649098

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  1. You talk about sun flower and pumpkin seeds as good sources of zinc but earlier you mentioned how phytic acid limits the absorption of zinc. So are they good sources?

  2. Mike, that is a great question. Both contain megadoses of zinc so they are very good sources but if they are not soaked or sprouted they will also leach some of the zinc out due to the phytic acids. However, both of these seeds have been proved to increase zinc levels in zinc deficient individuals.

  3. I would really apreciate if the letters of your post could be bigger or to be able to magnifie the by expanding the screen ..thank you so much

  4. Do you have a reference to verify that Dr David Watts, CEO of Trace Elements Inc, has studied HTMA reports of many women with breast cancer and that he noted that boron and copper seem to stimulate estrogen?

  5. To check for zinc deficiency do you recomend using this zinc specifically (to see if a subjct feels any taste): Zinc Status – Ethical Nutrients – 120ml – Liquid

  6. Hi, I was told by a nutritionist to get zinc only from whole foods but I don’t see how this is possible.
    I have white spots on my nails and also ridges, decreased sense of smell and taste, hair.loss and sinus infection for 3 months now.
    What amount of zinc should I start with and can taking zinc supplements cause any loss of smell?

  7. I have contact dermatitis , allergic to many things including metal, nail adhesive, hair color and many more. Is it safe to take a low dose of zinc? I was told it suppports the immune system.

    1. Hey Gaz, Yes, Zinc is a powerful antioxidant and helps inflammation, stress, digestive issues, etc. Correcting a deficiency in zinc is important for brain function and mental health. However, there are many important nutrients for brain health and it is important to correct any nutrient deficiencies. This article offers more information on improving symptoms of anxiety and a functional health practitioner can help you customize a health plan.

  8. I recently had my serum zinc level tested and it was high 160 compared to lab normals 44-115. What is the optimal level?

  9. Can you take Zinc if you have Stage 3 Kidney Disease and and also take Eliques? And have High Blood Pressure? Thank you… Beverly

  10. Hi I know that I need to take a zinc but every time I take zinc my iron plummets and I know that sink and iron compete for the same place in the body along with the copper how can I increase my zink up take without becoming so anemic

  11. Thank you, Dr. J for a fabulous article re zinc ! I learned sooo much from it. All of your articles provide such great education. Keep going ! 🙂

  12. I’m just getting over hip surgery I had necrosis of the ball joint and part of my femur I have a titanium hip and ball joint socket and I’m trying to promote bone growth and I’m hoping to get trying to get back on my testosterone that I had been taking probably about 3 or 4 mg of that monthlÿ

  13. Be careful with taking high doses of zinc without taking copper. I was taking around 50mg of zinc a day plus a high meat diet and it lowered my copper and iron ferritin. I had to start taking heme iron and 4mg of copper glycinate. I also cut back on zinc. My iron ferritin has increased and I feel better.

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