• The Modern-Day Zinc Deficiency Epidemic

    Posted March 18, 2013: by Bill Sardi

    It is startling to find in the 21st century that an estimated 2 billion people on the planet are zinc deficient.

    The likelihood you are zinc deficient is high, particularly if you are of advanced age, a diabetic, drink alcohol, are a vegetarian, take zinc-depleting drugs, or your digestive tract is infected with H pylori (which nearly half the US population has) thus diminishing stomach acid levels required to absorb zinc. In the developing world not only is there a zinc shortage in food but intestinal parasites inhibit its absorption as well.

    Americans roughly obtain 10 milligrams of zinc a day from food, but maybe, at best, 2-3 milligrams of that is absorbed.

    The human body contains 2-3 grams (2000-3000 milligrams) of zinc.  Much of it is found in the adrenals, brain and eyes. Since the majority of zinc is stored inside cells and is not free in the blood, blood tests for zinc deficiency are notoriously inaccurate (most physicians are unaware of this).

    The fact foods (cereals, flour) are fortified with zinc but only a few studies report positive impacts of zinc fortification on blood serum levels of zinc, suggests the primary problem is absorption.  This is likely due to zinc binders in some foods and impaired absorption due to declining levels of stomach acid with advancing age.

    The sad part of this widespread zinc deficiency is it appears modern medicine doesn’t care about deficiencies of essential nutrients.  Most physicians are mistakenly taught the diet provides sufficient nutrition.  Modern medicine is in the business of addressing every malady as if it is a drug rather than a nutrient deficiency.  So the plague of zinc malnutrition runs unabated in the population.  Why fix it?  All the diseases emanating from zinc deficiency fill doctors’ offices daily.  Zinc deficiency is good for business.

    Patients with a frank zinc deficiency are likely to be treated with drugs for a host of mental, heart, immune, and other health issues when a simple zinc pill could remedy them all.

    Zinc is such an essential nutrient required for maintenance of optimal health, DNA repair, enzyme activity, immune response and many other biological processes.

    Zinc and inflammaging

    And the zinc deficiency epidemic just got worse.  For the first time a biological mechanism which describes a decline in immunity combined with increased inflammation that is associated with zinc deficiency in advancing age.

    In an animal experiment, a zinc-deficient inflammatory response was observed even though laboratory animals were given sufficient amounts of zinc in their chow.   When animals were given 10 times their dietary requirement for zinc, markers of inflammation declined to those of young animals.  Again, researchers identify poor zinc absorption as the primary problem.

    Aging is characterized by increased inflammation in the brain, midsection, arteries, eyes, etc.   Zinc has been shown to control inflammation.  Therefore, zinc is considered a strong anti-aging molecule.

    In laboratory animals, a zinc deficiency leads to accumulation of cellular debris called lipofuscin in the retina.  Lipofuscin is the first marker of aging inside cells.

    Immunity

    Zinc controls many of the reactions of the human immune system to invading bacteria, viruses and cancer cells.  Zinc is required for white blood cells to track down and kill invading bacteria and viruses (called chemotaxis).  Without sufficient zinc the thymus gland (which produces a white blood cells called a T-cell) shrinks (called atrophy).  While the most prominent effect of zinc deficiency is a functional decline in late-responding T-cells (thymus cell), zinc is also needed for fast-responding white blood cells called neutrophils.   Without adequate zinc the immune response runs out of control and massive inflammation results.

    In fact, the progression of aging and decline in immunity parallels impairment of zinc nutrition.  Even mild forms of zinc deficiency can impair immunity.

    For example, a zinc deficiency has been linked with persistent viral warts, pneumonia and respiratory infection in young children and the elderly, and zinc supplementation is documented to improve chronic hepatitis C infection and recurring herpes lip infections (zinc oxide topically).

    It used to be said that anyone who could cure the common cold would have a miracle on their hands.  In 1984 George Eby first showed zinc lozenges cure the common cold.  There is now strong evidence that 75 mg zinc acetate lozenges in fact shorten the duration of the common cold.  Lower doses are ineffective.

    Symptoms of zinc deficiency

    Common symptoms of zinc deficiency are: atrial fibrillation, diarrhea, blindness (alcohol-related), lack of appetite, loss of smell or taste, mental depression, weak immunity, hair loss, impotence, poor wound healing, acne, warts, mental lethargy, dyslexia and growth retardation among children.

    Severe zinc deficiency emanates in growth retardation in children, skin lesions, impaired wound healing, anemia, anorexia, impaired vision and even mental retardation.

    Metabolic syndrome

    Zinc is an overlooked remedy for America’s diabesity epidemic.

    Excessive zinc supplementation is associated with metabolic syndrome.

    Zinc supplementation has beneficial effects on sugar control among diabetics.  Hemoglobin A1c levels improve among zinc deficient diabetic patients given zinc supplements. (Hba1c is a long-term measure of blood sugar control.)

    There is a close relationship between low zinc levels, inflammation, abnormal cholesterol and blood insulin levels leading to the development of obesity.  So zinc is also a weight control pill.

    Zinc actually seems to act like insulin.  Despite decades of opportunity (70 years ago zinc was shown to be involved in pancreatic function and diabetes), only recently have researchers said “links between zinc and diabetes are only now unfolding.”  A combination of zinc plus selenium appears to improve the anti-diabetic effects of zinc.

    Zinc and the brain

    Zinc deficiency is associated with Alzheimer’s deficiency.  A small 6-months zinc supplementation study pointed to significant benefit among Alzheimer’s patients.  Larger studies may prove zinc can alter the course of this frightening brain disease.

    A question arises: are there other inherited conditions that emanate from this genetic abnormality?  A large percentage of children with autism exhibit zinc deficiency, however trial use of zinc for therapy among autistic children has not been reported for unexplained reasons.

    It has been well documented that children with dyslexia exhibit low levels of zinc in their sweat.  Researchers theorize zinc deficiency during pregnancy can result in learning impairment, something that has been observed in laboratory animals.  Possibly zinc supplementation may be helpful for this condition.

    Dr. William Walsh, author of NUTRIENT POWER, says many children with behavior problems have pyrrole disorder, a genetic abnormality that depletes vitamin B6 and zinc, producing a wide range of symptoms that include anxiety, depression, poor digestion, motion sickness, reading and learning problems, poor memory, allergies, mood swings, that can be remedied with dietary supplementation.

    One study linked higher dietary zinc intake with improved mood.  It is possible zinc acts as an anti-depressant.

    A subclinical zinc deficiency deleteriously affects brain function.  Six different trials show that subclinical deficiency of zinc impairs brain function in children and adults.  (Subclinical means without apparent signs and symptoms that are detectable by physical examination or laboratory test.)

    However, one organ where zinc toxicity may occur is the brain where high levels of unbound (free) zinc can cause brain cell death.  Excessive zinc can be a problem too, but only for those who overdose with zinc supplements.

    Zinc and the heart

    Atrial fibrillation is such a stubborn and perplexing problem.  It is instructive to learn that post-operative patients who have undergone heart bypass surgery frequently experience atrial fibrillation which is related to a slow return of zinc levels in these patients.  It is possible many cases of atrial fibrillation can be resolved with simple zinc supplementation.

    Patients with congestive heart failure typically exhibit a profoundly low zinc level.

    The other many applications of zinc

    Diets rich in zinc have been found to mildly reduce the risk for retinal drusen, abnormal material that accumulates at the back of the eyes among aging adults.  Zinc supplementation is not considered to be effective for dry macular degeneration.  However, due to poor absorption, the true impact of zinc nutrition on the aging retina may not be realized.

    Maintaining adequate zinc levels in skin cells is essential to prevent DNA damage.

    Zinc deficiency is associated with a low sperm count.

    Zinc deficiency increases the prevalence of dental caries.

    Zinc deficiency in the skin is associated with psoriasis and acne.  Patients with these skin conditions are likely to have normal blood serum levels of zinc.

    Zinc supplementation is associated with a 14% reduction in preterm birth.

    Zinc is only recently appreciated as an essential nutrient to prevent age-related bone loss (osteoporosis).

    A skin rash condition (acrodermatitis enteropathica) which emanates from an inherited disorder of zinc absorption is resolved by zinc supplementation.

    Zinc carnosine is a remedy for H. pylori infection and gastritis.

    Crohn’s disease results in poor zinc absorption.

    Researchers successfully used 110 milligrams of zinc sulfate (providing 75 mg of elemental zinc) to quell recurrence of symptoms of Crohn’s disease (10 of 12 patients experienced resolution of their “leaky gut” problem).

    Are blood tests needed before supplementing the diet with zinc pills?

    The majority of zinc is stored inside cells and is not free in the blood. Blood tests of zinc are generally not accurate.

    A low zinc blood level is indicative of deficiency but an adequate zinc blood level is not necessarily a reliable measure of sufficiency.

    Since blood plasma zinc levels do not correlate with zinc intake, such a test cannot be used to ascertain the effectiveness of zinc supplements.

    Physicians may want to draw a blood sample and measure blood serum zinc levels before prescribing zinc supplements, but blood tests for zinc shortage are notoriously misleading.  Only a trial run of zinc supplementation will conclusively determine whether zinc may be of benefit.  Zinc is indispensable for proper immune response.

    A white half-moon discoloration on the proximal nail bed is indicative of a zinc deficiency.

    Diminished ability to taste foods may be a way to detect low zinc status.

    Patricia Hausman in her book THE RIGHT DOSE explains that “the best proof of zinc deficiency is the presence of some of its typical symptoms (mental depression, fatigue, hair loss, diarrhea, reduced resistance to infection or delayed wound healing, reduced sense of taste or smell) followed by their improvement or disappearance after supplementation.”

    Zinc supplements: dosage

    The recommended daily allowance for zinc is just 11 milligrams per day for adult males and 8 mg for females, but there is no RDA for seniors who typically have difficulty absorbing zinc (possibly due to prevalent H pylori infection that shuts off stomach acid secretion).

    Vegetarians, individuals with H. pylori infection (about half of the US population) which shuts off stomach acid secretion, individuals taking zinc-depleting drugs (ACE inhibitors, histamine blockers; diuretics; beta blockers; cortisone; estrogen; steroid anti-inflammatories), alcohol), antibiotics, commonly experience a shortage of zinc.

    Health-minded individuals are likely to search for zinc-rich foods, but frankly, aside from oysters (74.0 mg zinc per 3 oz. serving), foods do not provide much zinc (meats providing the most).

    Compared to other metallic minerals, zinc is relatively harmless, though it should be balanced with 1 mg of copper for every 10 mg of zinc.  Daily consumption of more than 40 mg of supplemental copper is not advised.

    It’s best to take 10-25 mg of supplemental zinc on a daily basis, with food to enhance absorption, if zinc deficient.  If taking more zinc than this, a copper supplement at 1/10th the dose of zinc should also be consumed.

    Zinc: how to improve absorption

    With zinc absorption being such a problem, possibly co-supplementation with fat-soluble vitamins A & D should be considered given that these two vitamins improve zinc absorption.   Vitamin D is known to improve calcium and magnesium status and recently it has been shown to improve zinc levels.

    The use of betaine hydrochloride supplement to provide acid to the digestive tract will improve zinc absorption.

    Zinc methionine (Optizinc) is a more bioavailable form of zinc.

    Vitamin B6 appears to be needed for proper utilization of zinc.

    Types of zinc

    There are many types of zinc supplements available.

    • Zinc acetate- generally more absorbable than gluconate; used in zinc lozenges for the common cold
    • Zinc picolinate
    • Zinc orotate
    • Zinc sulfate
    • Zinc oxide- usually used in topical ointments
    • Zinc gluconate
    • Zinc methionine (Optizinc)- better absorbed, more bioavailable.

    Determining the amount of real (elemental) zinc you are buying

    Zinc is chelated or attached to carriers such as gluconate or sulfate.  The amount of true elemental zinc versus total zinc in a dietary supplement is quite different.  For example, the following chart shows the amount of elemental zinc in 100 mg of zinc gluconate is 14 mg (14%).  Zinc acetate is about 30% elemental zinc.  About one-third of the zinc humans consume is absorbed.

    Common Oral Zinc Preparations and the percentage of elemental zinc

    Zinc preparation Elemental zinc (mg)
    Zinc acetate, 30% zinc, 50 mg 15
    Zinc gluconate, 14.3% zinc, 100 mg 14
    Zinc sulfate, 23% zinc, 110 mg 25
    Zinc oxide, 80% zinc, 100 mg (topical) 80

    Let’s see, zinc has “cured” the common cold, may be proven to head off Alzheimer’s disease, eradicates H. pylori, prevents mental problems including dyslexia, is a molecular mimic of insulin, etc.  What more could you ask from a dietary supplement?  Why aren’t we all supplementing our diet with zinc acetate, carnosine, orotate, methionine, the best absorbed forms of zinc?

    While researchers are just now gaining a better understanding of how widespread zinc deficiency is in the world’s population, including developed countries, there is no major bulletin issued by the Centers For Disease Control, nor press conference by the American Medical Association, to launch a campaign to eradicate zinc deficiency as there was to eradicate lead from paints, gasoline and other products.  The “drug model” of disease eradication remains prominent.

    ©2013 Bill Sardi, Knowledge of Health, Inc.

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