From immunity to fertility to healthy skin – Zinc is a true all-rounder when it comes to minerals required by the body. Found in most animal produce and that ever-famous ‘food of love’ the oyster, Clinical Nutritionist, Suzie Sawyer tells us just why Zinc is so important for so many different bodily functions.
It was first realised that low zinc could cause symptoms of deficiency relatively recently, during the 1960’s. In fact, this mineral was discovered as being essential to so many different functions in the body, the slogan ‘Think Zinc’ is actually very appropriate.
So starting with the basics, what is a mineral?
Minerals are the basic constituents of all matter. They can exist organically as part of living tissue, as well as existing in their inorganic form within the earth. Around 2.5 grams of zinc is stored in the body at any given time: it is termed a ‘trace mineral’, even though it has so many important functions.
What are the main functions of Zinc?
This is probably what zinc is best known for; it appears to help regulate the function of white blood cells which are key in the healthy working of the immune system. Research has shown that zinc will certainly shorten the duration of cold and reduce its severity. So, with winter not that far around the corner, it makes sense to ensure you’re eating enough foods containing zinc to help support your immune system.
An enzyme is a molecule that speeds up chemical reactions. Enzyme reactions are involved in almost every bodily function and since zinc is used in over 200 enzyme reactions, it shows just how important it is! For example, it is part of ‘alcohol dehydrogenase’ which helps the liver to detoxify alcohols, so zinc deficiency can be an issue in those who drink a bit more than they should! It is also part of ‘superoxide dismutase’, an antioxidant enzyme which helps to protect the body from free radical attack, thereby further supporting the immune system.
Zinc helps to metabolise and maintain body levels of vitamin A, and it is through this action that zinc plays a key role in maintaining healthy skin. It is useful for skin healing, for skin problems such as acne and psoriasis and also supports the processes involved in generating new skin. By helping collagen production, it can also maintain the skin’s youthfulness – clearly a very good reason for making sure your levels of zinc are optimal! Additionally, it can be applied topically to help heal wounds and is often found in skin preparations, particularly those used for burns.
We have all heard that oysters are an aphrodisiac and for very good reason; they are one of the richest sources of zinc – and zinc is essential for healthy fertility and sexual development. Zinc is particularly important for male fertility, playing a significant role in the production of healthy sperm and optimising testosterone levels. So ladies, make sure your gentlemen visit the local fishmonger this weekend!
Whilst there’s a high concentration of zinc in the skin, our nails, hair and teeth also contain some zinc, demonstrating that it is important for keeping these tissues healthy too.
Zinc needs adequate stomach acid to aid its absorption, and, like other minerals, it competes for absorption. For example, zinc and iron actually compete with each other, but some of the richest sources of both minerals are found in animal foods, particularly red meat. A lack of certain nutrients in the diet is often only realised when deficiency symptoms are apparent, which is why supplementation is a good insurance policy, particularly if you’re keen to have luxuriant hair!
One of the signs of zinc deficiency are white spots on more than three of your fingernails. Additionally, a loss of taste and lack of smell are also signs, which in turn can affect appetite – this is one reason why people with eating disorders have often been found to be deficient in zinc.
The daily nutrient reference value or NRV for short (i.e. the minimum amount you should have per day) of zinc is 15 milligrams. However, this really is the minimum needed and is not a sufficient amount for any therapeutic use. When you consider that zinc is best absorbed from animal sources, and the average diet only contains around 10 milligrams of zinc at most, it’s no wonder that deficiency is fairly common. This is why zinc is always found in good quality food supplement formulations.
Take into consideration every day occurrences such as mineral depleted soils, general aging, the female contraceptive pill, the refined Western diet and the prevalence of houses containing copper pipes (copper also competes with zinc for absorption) and it’s no wonder that people will often suffer with zinc deficiencies.
The good news is that with some mindful food choices and a daily supplement, you can keep your body in good working order! Zinc is found in a wide range of foods; for example, most animal foods including red meats, liver, egg yolks, milk as well as seafood, wholegrains, nuts and seeds. Additionally the well-known aphrodisiac the oyster is one of the richest sources.
So turn the lights down, prepare your oysters and steak, and get ready to increase those zinc levels with a romantic night in!
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 Zinc for the treatment of the common cold; a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. Science M et al. CMAJ 2012 Jul 10;184 (10): E551-E561