Zinc plays a vital role in our bodies, but more than a billion people are deficient. Learn about what causes zinc deficiency, plus get natural remedies.
- Written by Genevieve Howland
- Updated on May 24, 2019
Although it is an essential mineral, zinc doesn’t get as much attention as other minerals like calcium or magnesium. But it really should. Because it plays a role in many life-sustaining functions, a zinc deficiency is something to take seriously.
It’s time to give zinc the attention it deserves. Read on to learn:
On this page…
- How common is zinc deficiency?
- What causes zinc deficiency?
- Symptoms of zinc deficiency
- How to test for zinc deficiency
- How to get more zinc
- Should you take a zinc supplement?
- The best zinc supplements
How Common is Zinc Deficiency?
Worldwide, an estimated 1.1 billion people have a zinc deficiency. Unlike some other minerals, zinc is not stored in our bodies for extended periods of time. Therefore, we need a consistent flow of this nutrient from foods. If we don’t get it daily, it can lead to a deficiency.
What Causes Zinc Deficiency?
- Not getting enough zinc through food sources: This is the leading cause of zinc deficiency. Therefore, in many cases, simply adding zinc-rich foods is an effective way to correct a zinc deficiency.
- Poor absorption: Even people who eat plenty of zinc-rich foods can become deficient in it. That’s because it’s not just how much you consume that matters; instead, it’s how much you your body actually absorbs. Alcohol, chronic disease like Crohn’s and celiac, and low stomach acid can all hamper zinc absorption.
Risk Factors for Zinc Deficiency
While anyone can develop a zinc deficiency, some groups are more prone to a zinc deficiency than others. Those who are more at risk for developing a zinc deficiency include:
- Vegetarians: The body absorbs more zinc found in animal products than the zinc in legumes, grains, soybeans, and nuts. This is because plant-based sources of zinc contain lectins and enzyme inhibitors that can impede the body’s ability to absorb zinc. Fortunately, research suggests cooking and eating these foods with garlic and onions increases the bioavailability of zinc. Soaking grains, nuts, and seeds can also help, since doing so decreases these anti-nutrients. According to studies, pressure cookers (like The Instant Pot) significantly reduces anti-nutrients, like phytates, tannins and trypsin inhibitors.
- Pregnant women: Pregnant women need more zinc, but food aversions, nausea, vomiting, and lack of appetite can make it harder to meet daily zinc requirements. (source)
- Breastfeeding women: The daily recommended allowance for zinc for breastfeeding women is higher than it is for non-lactating women. Therefore, breastfeeding women are more likely to have a zinc deficiency. (source)
- People who drink heavily: Up to 50 percent of heavy drinkers have low zinc status, because alcohol causes our bodies to excrete more zinc and decreases the absorption rate. (source)
- People with chronic conditions that affect their GI tract, like Crohn’s disease and celiac disease: Because zinc is absorbed in the small intestine, diseases that negatively impact the gut, like Crohn’s and celiac, make it difficult for people to absorb zinc and other vital nutrients from their food. (source)
Symptoms of Zinc Deficiency
When you’re zinc deficient, your body can’t produce healthy, new cells. As a result, you may develop symptoms such as:
- Unexplained weight loss
- Wounds that won’t heal
- Lack of alertness
- Decreased sense of smell and taste
- White spots on fingernails
- Low libido
- Loss of appetite
- Picky eating, especially an aversion to meat*
Interesting to note: My daughter, Paloma, developed an aversion to eating meat. I started putting one zinc lozenge in her lunch. After about three months, she resumed her regular meat consumption. Low zinc status can cause low hydrochloric acid production (source). Because meat is harder to digest, some low-zinc people may naturally want to avoid eating meat.
How to Test for Zinc Deficiency
Zinc levels can be tested in a number of ways, including:
- Testing blood plasma: This is the more common method of testing. It involves a simple blood test taken from a vein in your arm, so the lab can measure the amount of zinc in your blood plasma. But it’s important to confirm your provider is testing your plasma levels—though blood serum tests are more common, plasma tests are more reflective of the blood circulating in your body and give more accurate results. (source)
- Urine testing: In some cases, your healthcare provider may ask for a 24-hour urine sample. This involves collecting all urine passed over a 24-hour period of time.
- Hair testing: Though hair analysis may be presented as an option, it’s important to note that research suggests it’s not as accurate as blood plasma tests. If you have a hair test, experts suggest confirming results with a blood test.
- Zinc tally test: This is a relatively inexpensive over-the-counter taste test. While manufacturers claim a lack of taste or a delayed taste perception suggests a possible zinc insufficiency, research suggests these tests are not accurate markers. It may, however, be a good place to start if you’re looking for a low-cost DIY option.
Since some conditions can lead to zinc deficiency, your doctor may also do other tests to uncover the underlying cause of the deficiency.
Why is Zinc So Important?
Zinc is essential to many bodily functions, including:
- Immune system: Zinc plays a key role in cell development, including the cells that make up a key part of our immune system. You can learn more about boosting your immune system here. (source)
- Wound healing: Zinc is involved in nearly every stage of wound healing, which is why zinc supplementation plays such a critical role in wound and burn care in hospitals. (source)
- Hair growth: Because it is an important part of cell membranes and structure, zinc supports the optimal health of the cells responsible for hair growth and oil gland function. Therefore, in those with zinc deficiency related hair loss, zinc supplementation reduces hair loss. (source, source)
- Hormone balance: Zinc plays an important role in signaling the release of hormones, like insulin-growth factor. (source)
- Gut health: A 2015 study links zinc to gut microbiome alterations, suggesting zinc status also impacts gut barrier function. (source) Zinc also directly impacts hydrochloric acid (or stomach acid) production. Therefore, zinc deficiency may be the root cause of digestion problems triggered by low quantities of stomach acid. (source)
- Sense of smell and taste: An enzyme responsible for the proper growth of smell and taste cells is zinc dependent. Therefore, without enough zinc, those cells won’t develop or function properly. (source)
- Eye health: Zinc plays a vital role in the metabolism of vitamin A, one of the most important nutrients for vision. (source)
- Cell growth and division during pregnancy: Because pregnancy is a time of accelerated growth for both baby and mom, zinc, a key nutrient for cell growth, is necessary for a healthy pregnancy. (source)
- Sperm health: Sperm are incredibly sensitive to oxidative stress. Fortunately, zinc is an antioxidant and protects sperm from oxidative damage. (source)
How to Get More Zinc
Making dietary changes is the number one way to get more zinc. Simply adding more zinc-rich foods to your diet can go a long way in upping your zinc levels.
The number one superfood for zinc, and many other minerals, is oysters. In fact, they are often called the “liver” of the sea, because, like liver, they are incredibly nutrient dense.
You may have heard you should only eat raw oysters in months that contain the letter “R.” But if you’re eating oysters in the U.S. you’re free to eat them safely year-round. This advice came before strict regulations, improved testing practices, and refrigeration. Just remember: If you’re pregnant, your best bet is to avoid uncooked seafood regardless of the time of year.
Other dietary sources of zinc include:
- Pumpkin Seeds
- Wild rice
- Sunflower seeds
If you have older kids who don’t like to eat zinc-rich foods, you can try throat lozenges, like the ones made by Zand.
Should You Take a Zinc Supplement?
Though you should talk to your doctor about supplementing if you have a zinc deficiency, many times you can get what you need from the real food sources above.
Zinc supplementation is often recommended to:
- Shorten the duration of colds or boost immunity during the cold season: Although research is inconclusive, overall zinc appears to shorten the duration of colds. (source)
- Improve symptoms of diarrhea: Although it’s unclear whether or not zinc supplementation shortens diarrhea duration in children with adequate zinc levels, zinc does seem to have a positive impact on diarrhea in children who are zinc deficient. (source)
Which zinc supplement is right for you?
The research to support taking one form of zinc over another is lacking. With the exception of zinc picolinate, all forms of zinc have a similar bioavailability. The tricky thing about this? Though zinc picolinate is more readily absorbed, it’s also excreted at a higher rate. (source)
Note: People taking certain medications should not supplement with zinc. If you’re being treated with any of the following medications, you should not use zinc without talking to your healthcare provider:
- Amiloride (Midamor)
- ACE Inhibitors
- Cisplatin (Platinol-AQ)
- Deferoxamine (Desferal)
- Immunosuppressant medications
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Thiazide diuretics (water pills)
Zinc is very important for our bodies to function, but in the vast majority of cases, zinc deficiency isn’t a chronic issue. It’s very treatable just by tweaking your diet and perhaps using a short-term supplement.