Zinc is needed for the proper growth and maintenance of the human body. It is found in several systems and biological reactions, and it is needed for immune function, wound healing, blood clotting, thyroid function, and much more. Meats, seafood, dairy products, nuts, legumes, and whole grains offer relatively high levels of zinc.
Paul Lutaakome, a nutritionist at Jinja Referral Hospital, says zinc is one of the second-most-abundant trace mineral in your body after iron. It is present in every cell and is necessary for the activity of enzymes that aid in metabolism, digestion, nerve function and many other bodily processes.
The mineral is also essential in the synthesis of DNA, protein production and skin health.
It is also needed for taste and smell senses because the enzymes crucial for proper taste and smell is dependent on zinc.
Boosts immune system
Zinc is necessary for immune cell function and cell signaling so it helps keep your immune system strong. A deficiency can lead to a weakened immune response. Increased intake of foods that contain zinc significantly reduce the risk of infections and promote immune response in older adults.
Lutaakome says, “It also accelerates wound healing. This is the reason it is used in hospitals for treatment of burns, cuts and other skin injuries. Thi is because the mineral is helpful in the synthesis of collagen, immune function and inflammatory response which are necessary for proper healing.”
Risk of age-related diseases
Zinc can significantly reduce the risk of age-related diseases such as pneumonia, infection and age-related macular degeneration which causes blurred or blocked sight that worsens with age. It is present in high concentrations in the eye, and it plays a key role in maintaining vision. A deficiency can alter vision and cause changes in the retina.
“Zinc relieves oxidative stress and improve immune response by boosting the activity of T-cells and natural killer cells, which help protect your body from infection. A frequent intake leads to a reduced risk of pneumonia and boosts mental performance,” Lutaakome says.
According to Dr Denis Katanku Musoga, a nutritionist at the Uganda Heart Institute, most taste receptors are in the nasal cavity.
If you realise you do not taste or smell things as vividly as you used to, it may be because you have low zinc levels.
“Zinc helps metabolize protein, carbohydrates, and fat. When you don’t have enough zinc, you can experience reduced energy, and sluggishness.” You might also have a harder time losing weight,” he says.
Zinc aids several enzymes with different processes one of which is digestion. It acts as a co-factor in many gastrointestinal activities. The body therefore cannot digest food and absorb nutrients properly without it.
It is important to note that people with acne are said to have lower levels of zinc and an increased intake of the mineral gives a clearer skin.
Although severe zinc deficiency is rare, it can occur mostly in breastfeeding infants whose mothers do not have enough zinc and in people with alcohol addictions according to Dr Katanku.
Symptoms include slowed growth, low insulin levels, loss of appetite, irritability, hair loss, rough and dry skin, slow wound healing, poor sense of taste and smell, impaired growth and development, delayed sexual maturity, diarrhea, nausea and mood swings.
Since zinc deficiency impairs your immune system, it increases the chances of infection in both children and adults.
Who is at risk?
Those at risk of zinc deficiency include people with gastrointestinal diseases such as Crohn’s disease, those who abuse alcohol, vegetarians and vegans, pregnant and breastfeeding women, older infants who are exclusively breastfed, people with sickle cell anemia as well as those with chronic kidney disease.
Symptoms of mild zinc deficiency include diarrhea, decreased immunity, thinning hair, decreased appetite, mood disturbances, dry skin, and fertility issues and compromised wound healing.
Paul Lutaakome, a nutritionist at Jinja Referral Hospital, says many animal and plant foods are naturally rich in zinc, making it easy for most people to consume adequate amounts.
Foods highest in zinc include: beef, poultry, fish, legumes such as chickpeas, lentils, black beans, kidney beans; nuts and seeds: Pumpkin seeds, cashews, hemp seeds; dairy products like milk, yogurt and cheese; whole grains like oats, vegetables like mushrooms, kale, peas, asparagus and beet greens
Animal sources of zinc contain high amounts of zinc in a form that your body easily absorbs compared to plant sources.