How Important Is Zinc?
More important than you think.
Here's the short list:
Diabetes, Neuropathy, Mood Disorders, Digestion, Sleep, Immune Function, Cholesterol, and the sense of Taste.
Zinc is crucial for all of these and more. Zinc is required for the proper functioning of more than 100 enzymes in the body. Most people know, it supports immune function, reproductive health, but isn't even the really important stuff. Unfortunately, many people are deficient in zinc.
Most people fail to get enough zinc from their diet. This is a bad situation made worse by a very interesting relationship between zinc and another metal, one that is ubiquitous in our environment and crucial for our health, but too much of it blocks our ability to absorb zinc. (More on that below.)
Okay, back to zinc. It is an absolutely crucial, but way under appreciated mineral. Supplementing zinc (if it's deficient) can make all the difference in many conditions. One area of research that has exploded over the past decade is its effectiveness in the treatment of metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and obesity. In today's newsletter we'll examine why it is so important for these conditions, and how you can find out if you are deficient in zinc yourself.
Mineral function in the human body is extremely complicated and we'll just brush the surface in this newsletter. Simply put here are the basics: zinc works with insulin from start to finish as it regulates glucose levels in the body. It accompanies insulin like a trusty side-kick on its journey through the body. Here are a few examples
Chicken or the egg? Well...both.
So does someone with diabetes have diabetes because they are deficient in zinc, or did they become zinc deficient because they used up all their zinc battling their high blood sugars? Well, either can be the case. As blood sugars rise and the body is using more and more insulin to manage it, naturally more zinc is going to be depleted to accompany all that insulin. But, if zinc levels become too low from insufficient intake, then the insulin will not be able to function as well, the pancreas won't be able to produce as much insulin, and blood sugars will rise, making the zinc deficiency even more serious, in turn making the diabetes worse, and so on in a constant spiral.
Is Zinc Deficiency really a problem in The United States?
Surprisingly, nearly 50% of adults over 60 fail to get sufficient zinc in their diets. And because one of the most common sources of zinc is nuts and grains, the number may be a lot higher than 50%. You see, nuts and grains contain a compound called phytic acid that binds to zinc and other minerals, preventing their absorption. So, very likely, most of us already aren't eating enough. But, there's another problem. Zinc has a special relationship with another mineral in our diets, copper. Our traditional diets were often rich in both zinc and copper, and foods that contained a lot of one would most likely contain a lot of the other. Our bodies evolved to treat them as a pair. If there is enough of either in the body, our digestive system will stop absorbing both of them. If we have enough of one, our bodies assume we have enough of both. That's a real problem because lots of water pipes are made out of copper. Most people end up with plenty of copper in their systems, which means not nearly enough zinc. Studies have demonstrated that type 2 diabetics often have sufficient or even excessive levels of copper, but insufficient levels of zinc.
So, How Much Zinc Should I Take?
Not so fast. Zinc is an important mineral, but like all nutrients in the body, zinc is complicated. Just because some is good, that doesn't mean that more is better. Your body is like goldilocks when it comes to most nutrients, and that includes zinc. It doesn't want too much, or too little. It wants zinc intake and zinc stores to stay in a narrow range. If you are already getting enough zinc, then getting more can have some serious side effects for you, one of which being that you'll stop getting enough copper. It can also lower your good cholesterol, cause emotional disorders, and in the case of a dozen or so elderly patients who absorbed zinc from their denture cream in the early 2000's, cause debilitating nerve and spinal damage.
Okay, so I won't rush out and buy a zinc supplement. I promise. But, what now?
Well, you've got to figure out if you are zinc deficient. Unfortunately, a blood test is not particularly good at detecting zinc deficiency. The majority of zinc is tied up in the cells, and the amount in your blood is tightly controlled. A blood test won't accurately reflect your actual zinc levels. But, there is an easier and better way to test your zinc stores. A zinc taste test allows you to assess your zinc levels without drawing blood or playing a guessing game. Your taste buds will let you know if you need more.
It's called a zinc taste assay. You hold a specialized solution of zinc in your mouth. When you have sufficient zinc, your taste buds are able to perceive the unpleasant, strong metallic taste. It's clear that you don't need any more. When you are deficient, the solution tastes like water. Then, it's safe to supplement. Pretty cool huh?
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I look forward to seeing you!
I'm Kieran, clinician and founder at The Parani Clinic. I'm an acupuncturist, herbalist, and functional medicine practitioner for the past 8 years. I have a deep curiosity in health, biology, culture, medicine, history, and a healthy obsession with the pursuit of the perfect state of health.