Zinc is an important trace mineral, which is useful for the body in many ways. It is essential for cell division and aids normal growth and development during pregnancy, childhood and adolescence.
It also helps in DNA synthesis, the process of genetic expression, immune system functioning, protein synthesis and metabolizing carbohydrates to convert them into energy.
The body contains about 2 to 3 grams of zinc, mostly in the skeletal muscles and bones. It is also found in the kidneys, pancreas, retinas, liver, blood cells, teeth, hair, skin, prostate and testes.
Though zinc is essential for good health and body functioning, its deficiency is prevalent in young children, pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers and the elderly.
According to the World Health Organization, 31 percent of people worldwide have a zinc deficiency at any given time.
The primary cause of zinc deficiency is insufficient nutrition. It can also be due to alcoholism, bariatric surgery, diabetes and other disorders.
Here are the top 10 signs of zinc deficiency.
1. Compromised Immunity
Zinc is essential for the immune system to function properly, and its deficiency can cause reduced or weakened antibodies and low immunity. Zinc is important for T-cell growth and improving the protective functions of cell membranes.
A 2002 study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition clearly indicated that this trace element has a broad impact on key immunity mediators, such as enzymes, thymic peptides and cytokines.
People who have zinc deficiency are more prone to infection, the common cold and flu. Small babies and elderly people, who usually have low immunity, must pay extra attention to eating zinc-rich foods.
2. Persistent Diarrhea
Zinc deficiency also contributes to an increased incidence and severity of diarrhea. It causes low immunity and alters the body’s immune response that probably contributes to increased susceptibility to infections that cause diarrhea, especially in children.
It can even cause other gastrointestinal diseases, such as ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease and short bowel syndrome.
A 2000 study by the American Society for Nutritional Sciences reinforced the link between zinc deficiency, malnutrition and diarrheal disease.
In a 2012 study published in Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, researchers concluded that in areas where the prevalence of zinc deficiency is high, oral zinc supplements might be beneficial in children ages 6 months or older who suffer from diarrhea.
3. Loss of Appetite
A deficiency of zinc causes loss of appetite. The mechanism by which this occurs is unclear. However, it is believed that zinc affects neurotransmitters in various parts of the brain, including gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA) and the amygdala, which affect a person’s appetite.
A low zinc level in the body also interferes with your sense of smell and taste, which often leads to loss of appetite and weight loss.
A 2006 study published in the Eating and Weight Disorders journal found that oral administration of 14 mg of elemental zinc daily for 2 months helped in treating patients with anorexia nervosa (loss of appetite).
4. Poor Growth in Children
Zinc is critical for a child’s normal growth and development. This mineral is essential for cellular growth, cellular differentiation and metabolism. In fact, its deficiency can limit childhood growth and lower resistance to infections.
Lack of this mineral can even prevent children from reaching a healthy height and weight. It also causes delayed sexual maturation.
A 2014 study published in The Cochrane Collaboration journal suggests that zinc supplementation can be useful for preventing mortality, morbidity and growth failure in children ages 6 months to 12 years.
Breastfeeding is important for infants, as zinc is found in small amounts in breast milk.
5. Thinning Hair
Zinc deficiency weakens the cells on the scalp, leading to hair problems including alopecia, loss of pigment, dryness, brittleness, and hair shaft and structural abnormalities that cause fragility and breakage. Hairs in the eyebrows as well as eyelashes may also be affected.
In addition, a low zinc level is associated with hypothyroidism, which can cause thinning hair and alopecia. A 2013 study published in the International Journal of Trichology suggests that zinc deficiency is associated with hypothyroidism, an overlooked cause of severe alopecia.
Eating more zinc-based foods or taking zinc supplements can help treat hair-related problems. Always consult your doctor before taking supplements.
6. Skin Problems
Deficiency of this important trace mineral can also have a bad effect on your skin. It can contribute to acne, eczema, psoriasis, characteristic skin rashes called acrodermatitis enteropathica (especially around the mouth, eyes and anus), or dry scaly skin. The skin may even turn pale.
Zinc aids collagen synthesis, which is essential for healthy skin as well as healing of skin wounds. In addition, zinc helps in the proper structure of proteins and cell membranes and protects the skin from harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation. It also lessens the formation of damaging free radicals.
Most health experts recommend applying zinc-based creams and lotions on the skin for treating acne, aging skin and herpes simplex infections as well as promoting wound healing.