Next to iron, zinc is the most common mineral in the body – and is absolutely essential to the functioning of more than 300 hormones and enzymes. Although serious zinc deficiency is rare in the ‘modern’ world, mild deficiencies are not and the effects are NOT good.
Did you know that a shortage of zinc can impair your sense of taste and smell, cause problems with cognition and memory, and virtually derail the immune system, leaving you vulnerable to disease? Let’s take a closer look at the signs and symptoms of zinc deficiency – and what you can do about it.
Zinc deficiency causes a reduction in disease-fighting cells
As zinc activates and supports T-lymphocytes – which target and destroy infected cells – a shortage of zinc can decrease the body’s supply, resulting in a lowered ability to fight infection and heal wounds.
Zinc deficiency is linked with many diseases and conditions, including anemia, impaired growth in children, higher incidence of diarrhea and pneumonia in infants, and higher infant mortality.
Zinc is also important in supporting the thymus gland, an important component of the immune system. The thymus decreases in size and function as people age, but new research suggests an encouraging finding – zinc can help maintain healthy function of the thymus gland in elderly people.
A University of Florida study found that healthy participants taking 15 mg of zinc a day had improved T-cell function, increasing their ability to ward off infection – and confirming that zinc strengthens the body’s immune defenses.
In addition to supporting immune system function, zinc – a powerful antioxidant – scavenges free radicals which would otherwise damage lipids, proteins and cell DNA – and possibly trigger disease. It is a key constituent of copper/zinc superoxide dismutase, a powerful antioxidant enzyme associated with longevity.
Zinc deficiency can contribute to the growth of tumors
Studies have shown that zinc regulates production of the pro-inflammatory enzyme COX-2, which has been associated with the growth of certain cancers – particularly of the esophagus and tongue. Researchers say that patients with these types of cancer are often deficient in zinc, while displaying elevated COX-2 levels.
Animal studies have revealed that zinc deficiency encourages tumor growth and COX-2 – with the reverse also true. Bringing zinc levels up to optimal resulted in less production of COX-2 – and less incidence of tumors.
It almost sounds too easy – and good – to be true. But research supports the ability of healthy zinc levels to help prevent certain types of cancer.
Zinc deficiency causes slowed growth, cognitive deficits and depression
Zinc is necessary for normal growth and development, and shortages can cause cognitive deficits and slowed growth among males and females alike. Animal studies have shown that even moderate zinc deficiency causes disruptions in normal growth and maturation, with behavioral changes – such as lethargy – appearing before other symptoms are apparent.
This essential mineral is vital to learning and memory – and for the formation of new nerve connections. Lack of zinc can trigger changes in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, with animal studies showing that diets low in zinc cause depression, poor motivation and social withdrawal – along with decreased sense of taste and smell.
In humans, zinc deficiency is associated with impairments of normal bone mineralization, short stature and developmental delays.
The good news: these changes are reversible. Researchers conducting a review of clinical trials noted that zinc supplementation produced highly significant and positive responses in height and weight. In one study, researchers found that zinc supplementation promoted the production of insulin-like growth factor, as well as other proteins involved in bone development and overall growth.