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Zinc at a glance - The most important answers about the effect, dosage and deficiency symptoms
Nutrition

Zinc at a glance - The most important answers about the effect, dosage and deficiency symptoms

19/08/2021
Zinc at a glance - The most important answers about the effect, dosage and deficiency symptoms

The origin of the trace element zinc

Zinc is an essential trace element that belongs to the transition metals. In the earth's crust, the mineral is relatively abundant compared to other metals. Significant deposits of zinc ore can be found in the People's Republic of China, Australia, Peru, Canada and the USA. It is also found sporadically in Europe[1]. Its diverse industrial uses range from various alloys and batteries to the production of hydrogen. However, it has not only been an indispensable part of our lives since the industrial revolution, but has always had a positive influence on the human organism.

What is the influence of zinc in the body?

Zinc is involved in the human body in the activity of about 300 different enzymes. In the various functions, the trace element supports the body in the acid-base metabolism, DNA synthesis, cell division and serves to protect against oxidative stress. In addition, zinc contributes twice to the maintenance of vision, a functioning immune system, and healthy skin. And why? Firstly, it is needed by the body itself for these functions and secondly, it supports the normal metabolism of vitamin A, which is also involved in the processes mentioned.  

In its ionized form, the nutrient is also an essential component for over 50 metalloenzymes, which cannot fulfill their function without zinc. It has a catalytic effect on the enzymes, stabilizes their structure and protects them against heat and fluctuations in pH. Without a sufficient supply of zinc, the human organism is not able to function optimally [2]. In the body itself there are about 2-3 grams of pure zinc. The largest proportion (about 70%) is found in bones, skin and hair[3].

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Studies show positive effect of zinc on the immune system

It has long been known that vitamin C plays an important role for our immune system. But zinc is at least as elementary. Because the function of our immune system also depends on whether our body has enough zinc available. If there is a zinc deficiency, the immune system cannot function optimally, which can be associated with an increased rate and duration of infections [4]. Thus, a study by the Society for Biofactors found that zinc supports both parts of the innate and acquired immune defenses[5].

The placebo-controlled double-blind study with 53 elderly people from nursing homes (age ≥ 65 years) showed that additional zinc supplementation in case of deficiency benefits the immune system. Over a period of three months, a test group was given 30 mg of zinc per day and then compared to the placebo group. Not only was their zinc serum concentration about 16% higher than before supplementation, but the T cells involved in the immune system had also increased significantly[6].

In another randomized double-blind study, the positive effect of an adequate zinc intake was again confirmed. In the study, 50 healthy volunteers aged 55-87 were each given 45 mg of zinc per day for 12 months. Compared to the placebo group, the zinc level in the blood plasma was significantly higher in the zinc group. In addition, significantly fewer infections occurred in the zinc group, and the generation of tumor necrosis factor α and oxidative stress markers was significantly lower in the zinc group than in the placebo group [7]. Thus, it is not surprising that more and more physicians are also focusing their attention on this indispensable trace element.

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High demand among diabetics

Without sufficient zinc, neither normal carbohydrate nor normal fat metabolism is possible. Therefore, it is important for diabetics, among others, to ensure a sufficient supply. It is estimated that 25% of the world's population suffers from a zinc deficiency, and diabetics are very likely to be affected even more frequently. Whether a zinc deficiency is one of the causes or consequences of diabetes has not yet been fully clarified. However, it is already known that diabetics lose more zinc than healthy people. As a result of the hyperglycemia (excess sugar) and proteinuria (excessive excretion of protein in the urine) caused by diabetes, there is increased zinc excretion in both type 1 and type 2 [8]. The amount here depends on the duration of the disease and how much renal function has already declined. Therefore, zinc can help to support blood glucose regulation and is already additionally prescribed by many physicians.

In addition to its many tasks in the body, zinc is also indispensable for the function of the insulin molecule. For example, for its synthesis and storage. But also for the secretion of insulin, which as an important hormone for the metabolism serves to transport glucose from the blood further into the cells [9]. A meta-analysis has confirmed that properly adjusted zinc supplementation can significantly lower glucose levels both before and after a meal [10]. Therefore, experts recommend that diabetics have their endogenous zinc levels checked regularly by a physician to counteract deficiency.

Support for skin, hair and nails

It has long been known that zinc is needed for the maintenance of healthy hair, nails and skin. A sufficient amount is essential for the development and function of human skin. But the trace element is also used in the therapy of various skin diseases. As early as the 1970s, it was found that taking zinc can help with acne [11].  Studies confirm this.

In the fight against skin diseases and hair loss

1. neurodermatitis

Many people affected by the chronic inflammatory skin disease atopic dermatitis have been shown to have a significantly lower concentration of zinc in their red blood cells than people with healthy skin. As a rule, the lower the zinc content of the cells, the more pronounced the neurodermatitis. It is therefore suspected that atopic dermatitis and zinc metabolism in the body's cells are related [12]. A research team from South Korea was able to find astonishing results: they examined children who had previously shown a zinc deficiency within a hair analysis and were able to observe a significant improvement already 8 weeks after daily zinc supplementation. Not only did the zinc level in the hair increase, but the skin appearance also improved significantly[13]. The researchers therefore see a possible connection between the progression of dermatitis and zinc metabolism in the body's cells.

2. acne

Acne can also be successfully reduced by taking zinc. In a randomized double-blind study involving 332 participants, the antibiotic minocycline was compared with the trace element zinc. One test group received 30 mg of zinc in the form of zinc gluconate and the other 100 mg of the antibiotic minocycline. The trial lasted for 3 months. Subsequently, the clinical success rate was checked, which verified a decrease in inflammatory lesions (also known as papules and pustules). The success rate was 63.4% for minocycline and 31.2% for zinc[14]. This shows the success rate of mineral intake, especially since zinc, as an integral part of metabolism, has no side effects when taken in appropriate doses. In contrast, the side effects from taking antibiotics are in some cases worse than the acne itself, and furthermore, long-term consequences cannot be assessed.

3. hair loss

A sufficient amount of zinc is also essential for the maintenance of hair. Thus, the same pattern is seen again and again in patients with hair loss: there is a nutrient deficiency [15]. Whether zinc alone restores lost hair, as some advertisements claim, is questionable. However, it is certain that sufficient zinc supply is a sensible measure for health prevention and benefits the hair.

Athletes beware: Zinc supports muscle building

Zinc is needed for our cell division as well as for protein synthesis and the maintenance of our bones. Zinc is also essential for optimal testosterone levels, which influence muscle growth. The formation of testosterone is dependent on an enzyme containing zinc, so zinc has a significant influence on the body's testosterone supply [16].

A study has shown that the participating male subjects, aged 20 to 40 years, could benefit from zinc. All participants suffered from infertility (of unknown origin). Oral intake increased both plasma testosterone and dihydrotestosterone levels, as well as sperm count. In the study, men were divided into two groups: those with low and those with normal testosterone levels. In the group with low levels, testosterone increased on average by 54%, dihydrotestosterone by 30% and sperm count by 150%. In the group with normal levels, testosterone increased on average by 8%, dihydrotestosterone by 20%, and sperm count by 171%[17].

That healthy people can also benefit from supplementation has been shown in another study with trained wrestlers aged 16-21 years. Here it was examined how the testosterone level and the thyroid hormones changed with a 4-week intake of zinc sulfate (with a constant diet). Thyroid hormones as well as testosterone levels increased significantly both at rest and during fatigue after zinc ingestion[18].

Although further studies on a larger scale are needed for conclusive proof, there are nevertheless initial indications of the importance of an adequate zinc supply for muscle building! In addition, zinc helps to protect cells from oxidative stress, which occurs more frequently during physical exertion. Zinc manages to significantly reduce the markers for oxidative stress [19]. This also explains why the mineral has been taken in the bodybuilding scene for years!

Food containing zinc

A zinc supply that is too low, even to the point of a pronounced deficiency, is not only a problem in developing countries. More and more people in industrialized countries are also affected. Among other things, this can be attributed to changes in dietary habits. We absorb most of the zinc in our diet by eating meat. Since meat not only has large amounts of zinc, but also has very good bioavailability, it serves as a very efficient source to meet our needs. However, more and more people are reducing their consumption of meat or even eliminating it altogether. Even though there are other foods that contain similar amounts of zinc as meat, the intake of zinc from meat can still not be replaced one-to-one.

The challenge of antinutrients

Bioavailability is the decisive factor here. Even though some plant foods such as pumpkin seeds contain even more zinc than is present in meat, they are not absorbed nearly as effectively. The reason for this are various inhibitors, which are also called anti-nutrients. 

These are various substances of which phytic acid is the best known. The problem: in plants such as cereals, legumes and oilseeds, it stores phosphate and other minerals such as zinc and iron. In the digestive tract, phytic acid binds to these very nutrients, preventing their absorption in the body[20]. 

While there are methods to reduce the levels of antinutrients, such as sprouting and fermenting foods, few people take the time to prepare their food in this way. Other antinutrients such as tannins, as well as certain dietary fibers such as hemicellulose and lignin, can also interfere with zinc absorption. For this reason, experts recommend additional zinc supplementation in the form of dietary supplements when following a meat-free or low-meat diet.

How much zinc does the body need?

The German Nutrition Society recommends 3.8 mg of zinc daily, which a healthy person must absorb through the intestinal mucosa to maintain its level. This sounds little at first, however, depending on the food, it differs how much can be absorbed by the body at all. This is especially relevant for vegans, as they usually have a very phytin-rich diet.

A small example: if a man's diet contains 1000 mg of phytic acid, he still needs about 18 mg of zinc from food to even reach the 3.8 mg of zinc needed to maintain zinc levels. At 2000 mg, it is already about 25 mg, and at over 3000 mg, a whole 35 mg are required [21]. In direct food comparison: calculated on 100 grams, oats contain around 900 mg, peanuts around 1336 mg and soybeans around 1250 mg of phytic acid [22], but only 3.07 to 4.18 mg of zinc [23]. Therefore, even more attention must be paid to adequate zinc intake in a meat-free diet.

How to recognize a defect

According to the national consumption study, 32% of men and 21% of women in Germany do not reach the daily recommended reference amount of zinc. In the 65-80 age group, 44% of men and 27% of women are not sufficiently supplied with the trace element [24]. Since even a minor deficiency can impair various bodily functions, a balanced zinc status should be ensured. Diet, age, and health status influence both zinc supply and intake. In most cases, it is difficult to tell if a deficiency really exists without a physician's assessment. 

To determine minor to moderate deficiencies, hair mineral analysis is considered a reliable way. In the case of an acute deficiency, the consequences can often be determined quickly. The clearest indications are, for example, brittle nails with white spots and grooves. Brittle hair and skin affected by dryness, dandruff, acne and poor wound healing is also considered a clear indication[25]. Another typical symptom is a change in the sense of smell and taste[26], which can often occur in the course of increased zinc consumption due to a cold. Headaches and poor concentration can also be among the symptoms of a nutrient deficiency. Therefore, experts recommend regular nutrient monitoring by a doctor!

Is it possible to overdose on zinc?

Just as important as the correction of deficiencies is the absorption. The problem lies in the fact that zinc competes with other trace elements, such as iron and copper, depending on their form, since all substances use the same absorption mechanism in the intestine [27]. Therefore, a very high dose of zinc over a long period of time can cause a deficiency of iron and copper.

It is very important to emphasize here that each person has an individual zinc requirement. Factors such as age, gender, state of health and sporting activity influence the supply [28]. And each body also reacts differently: especially on an empty stomach, many are plagued with nausea after taking conventional zinc preparations. Thus, a high dose, which makes perfect sense for some people with certain diseases, can disrupt copper and iron balance in others. Therefore, on the one hand, awareness of one's own body is important, and on the other hand, the accompaniment of a doctor.

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Sources

[1] https://faszinationchemie.de/wissen-und-fakten/news/zink-ein-universelles-metall/

[2] https://www.deutsche-apotheker-zeitung.de/daz-az/2007/daz-45-2007/basiswissen-ernaehrung-folge-19

[3] https://www.ukaachen.de/kliniken-institute/institut-fuer-immunologie/forschung/ag-zink-in-entzuendungserkrankungen-angeborene-immunzellen-aus-dem-gleichgewicht/

[4] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00775-011-0797-4

[5] Classen HG et al.: Zink. Das unterschätzte Element. MMP 2020, 4/43: 149-157

[6] https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/103/3/942/4629756?login=true

[7] https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/85/3/837/4633003?login=true

[8] Masood, N, et al., Serum zinc and magnesium in type-2 diabetic patients. J Coll Physicians Surg Pak, 2009; 19

[9] https://dom-pubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1463-1326.2009.01110.x

[10] https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/110/1/76/5510583?login=true

[11] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4884775/

[12] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5110625/

[13] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24473704/

[14] https://www.karger.com/Article/Abstract/51728

[15] https://www.diagnostisches-centrum.de/haarausfall/1174-haarausfall-und-mikronaehrstoffe.html

[16] https://www.rosenfluh.ch/media/ernaehrungsmedizin/2010/01/Physiologische_und_klinische_Bedeutung_von_Zink.pdf

[17] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7271365/

[18] https://europepmc.org/article/med/16648789

[19] https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/85/3/837/4633003?login=true

[20] http://www.vitalstoff-lexikon.de/Spurenelemente/Zink/

[21] https://edubily.de/zink/phytinsaure-zink-aufnahme/

[22] https://www.lebensmittelwissen.de/kurzberichte/artikel/phytinsaeure.php

[23] http://www.vitalstoff-lexikon.de/Spurenelemente/Zink/Lebensmittel.html

[24] www.mri.bund.de/fileadmin/MRI/Institute/EV/NVSII_Abschlussbericht_Teil_2.pdf, S. 141

[25] https://zinkmangel.behandeln.de/zinkmangel-symptome.html

[26] https://www.deutsche-apotheker-zeitung.de/daz-az/2007/daz-45-2007/basiswissen-ernaehrung-folge-19

[27] https://www.ugb.de/ernaehrungsplan-praevention/zink-multitalent/druckansicht.pdf

[28] https://www.campus-pharmazie.de/zuviel-zink-tut-nicht-gut/

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