Pumpkin seeds are a good source of plant based zinc.
Guest Author: J. E. Williams, OMD, FAAIM
With so much natural health buzz about new herbs, exotic diets, and novel nutraceuticals, zinc has been largely forgotten as one of the most important and essential nutrients. Let’s revisit zinc and find out why you need it every day.
Atomic Number 30, zinc is an essential trace element necessary for sustaining all life and human health. At least 3,000 different proteins in the body contain zinc where its ions serve as neurotransmitters and help cells function in the salivary gland, prostate, and intestine. Newly discovered zinc metalloproteases include the digestive enzymes carboxypeptidases and matrix metalloproteases (MMPs) involved in tissue remodeling and the prevention of cancer.
Zinc is necessary for the sense of smell, important in the transport of carbon dioxide in the blood, and prevents birth defects.
Zinc and Immunity
Zinc salts are effective against pathogens. Viral gastroenteritis is slowed down by the ingestion of zinc due to direct antimicrobial action of the zinc ions in the GI tract. Zinc is the keystone molecule for thymic proteins, immune substances made in the thymus gland – no zinc, no immunity.
Zinc is my first choice for defense against the viruses that cause the common cold and garden-variety seasonal influenza. A review of the medical research on zinc from the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, a respected medical clearinghouse for medical studies from England, shows that common cold sufferers have a better option than chicken soup (here). Zinc even beats Vitamin C and Echinacea; the main stays of natural health advocates.
According to the Cochrane Review, when taken within 24 hours of the first symptoms of a cold (runny nose, headache, and sore throat – we all know what it feels like), zinc lozenges, tablets or capsules, or syrups can cut colds short by several days and sharply reduce the severity of symptoms (here). My clinical experience confirms zinc is the keystone to immune health.
The review found that not only did zinc reduce the duration and severity of common cold symptoms, but regular zinc use also worked to prevent colds, leading to fewer school absences and less antibiotic use in children.
Zinc is an essential mineral, and one of the few nutrients for which a number of people are mildly deficient. Zinc deficiency is especially common in adolescents, infants, seniors and women in general. Certain drugs may increase the need for zinc supplements, such as ACE inhibitors, thiazide diuretics and medications that reduce stomach acid (Prilosec or Pepcid). Increasing the intake of zinc-containing foods or taking zinc, either alone or in a multivitamin and mineral, may be a prudent form of nutritional insurance.
Those consuming primarily plant-based diets that are low in bioavailable zinc and high in phytic acid foods often have low level zinc deficiencies. The requirement for dietary zinc may be as much as 50% greater for strict vegetarians and vegans whose major food sources are grains and legumes because their high levels of phytic acid reduce zinc absorption.
Individuals at risk of zinc deficiency:
- Infants and children
- Pregnant and breast-feeding women
- Patients receiving intravenous feedings
- Malnourished individuals and anorexia nervosa
- Severe or chronic diarrhea
- Malabsorption syndromes including celiac disease
- Inflammatory bowel disease including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis
- Alcoholic liver disease (causes increased) urinary zinc excretion and low liver zinc levels
- Sickle cell anemia
- Adults 65 years and older
- Strict vegetarians and vegans
Signs of severe zinc deficiency include hair loss, skin lesions, diarrhea, and wasting of body tissues. Eyesight, taste, smell and memory are connected with chronic zinc deficiency, as is acne. White spots on the fingernails can be an indication of zinc deficiency. Gradual depletion of zinc tissue stores or less than optimal dietary intake of bioavailable zinc can cause symptoms associated with chronic fatigue, frequent cold and flu, lack of muscle strength, and over all poor body function.
Children and women are particularly sensitive to zinc deficiency. Cognitive and motor function may be impaired in zinc deficient children. Zinc deficiency can interfere with many organ systems especially when it occurs during a time of rapid growth and development when nutritional needs are high, such as during infancy and is associated with increased emotionality, poor memory, and abnormal response to stress, which can interfere with performance in learning situations. Low maternal zinc status has been associated with less attention during the neonatal period and worse motor functioning.
Zinc deficiency is associated with anorexia. Zinc deficiency causes a decrease in appetite, which could degenerate in anorexia nervosa in emotionally susceptible individuals. Appetite disorders, in turn, cause inadequate zinc intake – a vicious cycle.
Getting Zinc From Food
Oysters have very high zinc content (about 8 mg of zinc per oyster). Other kinds of shellfish, organ meats, beef, pork and chicken are rich sources of zinc. Whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds provide zinc as well, but in small amounts ranging from 0.2 to about 3 mg per serving. However, the high phytic acid content of these foods reduces zinc’s availability. Cooking helps to reduce levels of phytic acid. Other food sources include fish, kelp, egg yolks, mushrooms, soybeans, and pumpkin seeds.
Taking too much zinc can be harmful. Excessive absorption of zinc can also suppress copper and iron absorption. However, it takes relatively high dosages over time to cause severe toxicity. The USDA RDA is 15 mg of zinc daily. It’s not recommended to take more than 120-150 mg of zinc daily, unless under the supervision of physician skilled in nutritional medicine, because of potential toxicity.
How to Take Your Zinc
As a dietary supplement, zinc is found in many forms, including zinc gluconate, zinc acetate, zinc citrate, zinc sulfate, zinc chelates, zinc carbonate, zinc orotate, and zinc picolinate (a bioavailable form of zinc).
Zinc experts say that many over-the-counter zinc products may not be as effective as those studied by researchers because commercial lozenges and syrups often are made with different formulations of zinc and various flavors and binders that prevent the release of zinc reducing effectiveness of the treatment.
For zinc to be effective against a cold, you have to take small amounts every 2-3 hours for at least four to five consecutive days. The average dose is 15 mg per dose for a total of 60-90 mg daily. Zinc also works for prevention during cold and flu season with a typical dose of 15-30 mg daily.
High intakes of calcium, iron and copper may limit zinc absorption. Drinking coffee when you take zinc may reduce absorption. The amino acids cysteine and methionine improve zinc absorption as does yeast found in leavened bread.
Zinc supplementation has been shown to provide positive support for:
- Mild to moderate mood changes and depressed mood caused by everyday stress
- Occasional overactive behaviors like nervousness and nervous tension
- A lack of focus or mental clarity caused by stress
- Lack of smell
- Reduce severity of the common cold
Bottom Line: Get enough zinc. Make zinc your favorite element, and don’t forget to take it zinc daily.
We want to know your thoughts: Do you take zinc? Why or why not?
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