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Why You Need Zinc

You hear a lot about different minerals in your diet. Are they really so important? Maybe you are wondering why you need zinc.

Zinc is an essential nutrient, meaning you need it to stay alive. 

Let’s start digging into the details and find out why.

Why do we care about zinc?

Every organ and tissue in your body contains zinc. Over 300 enzymes require this mineral in order to work. It plays a part in hundreds of biochemical reactions. Here are some of the ways your body uses this mineral.

Acid-Base Balance

Zinc helps to keep your body at a normal pH. It assists an enzyme called carbonic anhydrase, which allows you to get rid of carbon dioxide in your blood (1).

Metabolizing Alcohol

Alcohol dehydrogenase is the main enzyme that metabolizes alcohol. There are four zinc atoms in the structure of this enzyme (2).  

Producing Stomach Acid

You produce stomach acid in the parietal cells of your stomach, through a process which brings hydrogen and chloride ions together to make hydrochloric acid. One important enzyme in this process is carbonic anhydrase. 

Carbonic anhydrase is the same enzyme you read about earlier in acid-base balance. It needs zinc in order to function efficiently (3).  

Digesting Protein

Carboxypeptidases are released from your pancreas. They digest proteins in your small intestine. Zinc is essential for these enzymes to function. So you need this mineral to digest proteins efficiently (4).  

Converting Vitamin A to Active Form

Zinc is necessary to convert retinol to retinal in your body. Retinal is the active form of vitamin A. It is particularly important for healthy eyes (5).

Synthesizing Red Blood Cells

Zinc is an essential player in the production of red blood cells. Hemoglobin is the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen around your body. You need this mineral to make the heme part of hemoglobin. 

A multi-country analysis showed that zinc is associated with anemia regardless of whether or not there is also an iron deficiency (6).  

Producing Powerful Antioxidants

Superoxide dismutase is an antioxidant inside your cells, as well as in your plasma, lymph, synovial fluid and lungs. This compound destroys dangerous superoxide radicals which naturally form during metabolism.

Zinc is part of the structure of each superoxide dismutase molecule (5).

Digesting B Vitamins

Pteroyl glutamate hydrolase is the enzyme that digests vitamin B9, or folate. It works in your digestive tract to break folate down into a form that can be absorbed. Pteroyl glutamate hydrolase depends on zinc to function properly (5).  

Repairing Wounds

Zinc is part of the structure of a group of enzymes called matrix metalloproteinases. These enzymes are on the front lines of wound healing. They break down and degrade the damaged tissue and allow new tissue to grow (7).  

Proper Gene Expression

Transcription is the first step in the process where genes express themselves, or send out messages to make new proteins. Zinc is the stabilizing part of the transcription factors that promote or inhibit gene expression (5).  

Zinc is also involved in cell signaling and can trigger release of hormones and other substances (5).

And there is even more. Zinc influences carbohydrate metabolism and insulin production, supports your immune system, and helps to prevent eye disease like macular degeneration (5).

How much zinc do you need?

As with most nutrients, the amount of you need depends on your age and sex. However most female adults who are not pregnant or breastfeeding should get about 8 mg of zinc to prevent a deficiency. Males require a slightly larger amount – 11 mg.

What are the symptoms of zinc deficiency?

The symptoms of deficiency are different for a child and an adult. Children who are not getting enough of this mineral can have slower growth, abnormal bone development, slow healing of wounds, diarrhea and rashes. Their sexual maturation can be delayed (8).  

Adults who are already physically mature will have a different set of symptoms. They might also experience diarrhea, rashes and slower wound healing. They can also have lethargy, depression, hair loss, vision problems and a weakened immune system (8). 

Who is at risk for zinc deficiency?

Vegetarians and vegans are at risk for deficiency. This is because the easiest way for your body to digest and absorb this mineral is from meat. But don’t worry!  Find out how to get enough zinc from plant-based foods.

Plant-based foods that provide zinc often have other substances like phytates that interfere with absorption. If your diet is low in zinc and you eat a lot of phytate-rich foods, you are at risk for deficiency. 

People who drink a lot of alcohol are at risk for deficiency. If you are a vegan and also drink a lot of alcohol, you are increasing your chances of a deficiency. 

Any condition that prevents you from absorbing nutrients, such as celiac disease, Crohn’s, prolonged diarrhea, or even bariatric surgery, can keep you from getting enough zinc. 

You need stomach acid to digest and absorb zinc. So anyone on acid-lowering medications like a PPI is at risk for zinc deficiency. Older adults also produce less stomach acid, which increases their risk.

There are some other health conditions like sickle cell anemia and chronic kidney disease that increase your risk (5).

Final Thoughts

Every organ system in your body uses zinc to function properly. This mineral is involved in keeping your pH normal, metabolizing alcohol and making red blood cells.

Zinc helps to make stomach acid and digest protein. It helps you digest folate, and convert vitamin A to an active form in your body.

Zinc is a part of superoxide dismutase, a powerful antioxidant in your cells. It is crucial for wound repair, and regulates the expression of your genes.

Some signs of deficiency are slow development in children, poor wound healing, diarrhea, rashes, lethargy, hair loss, vision problems and depression. 

People who drink a lot of alcohol are at a risk for deficiency. Anyone with a condition that keeps them from absorbing minerals might also be low. Vegans and vegetarians are more likely to be low, because it is harder to get from a plant-based diet.

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