Vitamins & Trace elements

Zinc Deficiency: The definitive guide

33% of the world is deficient in Zinc! Are you?

Story Highlights
  • One-third of the world's population suffer from Zinc deficiency.
  • Zinc is the second most abundant element in the human body after iron.
  • Zinc is required for the catalytic activity of approximately 300 mettaloenzymes in our body.
  • Only 20-40% of the zinc in our food is readily absorbed by the body.
  • Try the zinc superfood - Wheat Grass powder

Considering the fact that 33% of the people suffer from Zinc deficiency, it is highly possible that you may be one among them. Do you suffer from reduced immunity, depression, loss of appetite, weight loss, skin problems, hair loss or reduced sperm count?

If yes, you may wan’t to check with your doctor and see if a Zinc level test needs to be performed.

Zinc is a trace mineral that our body needs in order to stay healthy. One third of the world’s population suffer from Zinc deficiency 1 and it is highly prevalent in South East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and other developing countries. It is the second most abundant element in the human body after iron and is an essential building block of life. It is present in every living cell of the body and is an essential component that is required for the catalytic activity of approximately 300 mettaloenzymes. 2 The body contains approximately 2 – 3 gm of Zinc 3 with its highest concentrations located in muscle (60%) and bone (30%). High concentrations of Zinc is found in the prostate gland and semen.

Functions of Zinc

Zinc supports the body in

  • cell division
  • healing of cuts and wounds
  • synthesis of proteins and DNA
  • immune function
  • normal function of brain
  • normal growth and development
  • tasting and smelling
  • production of anti-inflammatory agents
  • preventing cells from oxidative damage
  • maintenance of bone health
  • cognitive function
  • fertility and reproduction
  • metabolism of fatty acids
  • metabolism of Vitamin A
  • maintenance of vision, skin, hair and nails

Common complications due to Zinc deficiency

  • Impaired immune system – Zinc is vital in maintaining the body’s immunity levels. People who are deficient in Zinc are prone to diseases like pneumonia, malaria and diarrhea. Studies have seen that the severity and duration of persistent and acute diarrhea was greatly reduced by Zinc supplementation.
  • Growth retardation – This is usually seen in developing countries where the expectant mother’s diet is missing sufficient amount of Zinc. This reduced intake of Zinc has seen to decrease the attention span of the newborn babies, delayed weight gain and also results in poorer motor skills.
  • Complications in pregnancy – Several pregnancy complications have been linked to poor levels of Zinc in the expectant mother’s diet. These include preterm birth, abnormalities in developing fetuses, low birth weight etc.
  • Macular degeneration – Age progression reduces the amount of Zinc in a person’s retina which leads to deterioration of the central vision. Zinc is considered to be the most important factor that causes Age related Macular Degeneration. (AMD). 4

Zinc health benefits

  • Skin, hair and scalp
    • Zinc (both oral and topical) is effective in ulcer and wound repair. 5
    • Oral Zinc treatment was a safe and effective treatment for Cutaneous leishmaniasis. 6
    • Topical treatment of Zinc was found to be useful in treating Psoriasis.
    • Zinc also possesses antioxidant properties and helps in repairing the damage caused by UV radiation in the skin and prevent related malignancies. 7 Zinc Oxide is commonly used in Sunscreen products.
    • Topical preparations of Zinc like Zinc pyrithione have been used in effective treatment of dandruff for a long time now. 8
    • Topical application of Zinc Sulfate has found to be an effective treatment for Warts. 9
    • Oral Zinc Sulfate is reportedly very effective in the treatment of severe acne. 10
    • Zinc has shown promising Anti-Wrinkle and Anti-aging properties. 11
    • Topical treatment of Zinc was found to be effective in the treatment of herpes. 12
    • Oral Zinc application has proved to be beneficial for patients with Alopecia areata and considerable hair growth was seen after 6 months of therapy. 13 14
  • Common Cold – Zinc administered within 24 hours of the onset of Common Cold symptoms seems to reduce the duration of the symptoms. 15 16
  • Sperm Quality – There is a significant correlation between Zinc levels and Sperm count in men. Better Zn levels showed better sperm quality. 17
  • Anti-Cancer – In a study 18 of hear and neck cancer patients, it was found that 50% of these patients were Zinc deficient. Zinc supplementation has shown beneficial effects on cancer treatment by decreasing angiogenesis (formation of new blood vessels that feed cancer) and induction of inflammatory cytokines (helps in reducing inflammation) while increasing apoptosis (cell death) of cancer cells. 19
  • Increase testosterone levels – Studies 20 have shown that supplementing zinc can increase testosterone levels in men.
  • depressionDepression, Anxiety and Mood disorders – Zinc deficiency has shown to induce depression and anxiety. Studies 21 have shown that Zinc supplementation along with the right anti-depressant drugs have shown better results compared to treatment with anti-depressant drugs alone. i.e. Efficacy of the drug increases and could help patients that are not responding to the drugs. 22
  • Pediatric Diarrhea – Studies have proved that Zinc supplementation is useful in curtailing pediatric diarrhea. WHO and UNICEF recommend daily dose of zinc supplements for couple of weeks for children with acute diarrhea. 23
  • Gastrointestinal diseases – Zinc supplementation has proven to be effective against Gastrointestinal cancer, Inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease and various other gastrointestinal disorders. 24
  • Hyperactivity disorder/ADHD – Zinc supplementation along with methylphenidate (drug for ADHD) has shown beneficial effects in the treatment of children with ADHD. 25 26
  • Autism – Studies have shown that Zinc nutritional therapy can help improve autistic patients. 27
  • Heart health – The antioxidant properties of Zinc reduces oxidative stress, inflammation and cell damage. The endothelial (thin layer of cells that line the blood vessels), needs adequate amount of Zinc for its function and deficiency of Zinc may even disrupt the endothelial barrier cell function. 28 Supplementing or having Zinc rich foods will improve one’s heart health.
  • Diabetes – Studies have found that low Zinc levels can be related to the occurrence of diabetes in patients. 29
  • Better Sleep – Studies 30 show that foods rich in Zinc and Astaxanthin (antioxidant present in Salmon & Krill that seems to help the body absorb Zinc better) lets you fall asleep faster and improved sleep efficiency.
  • Muscle growth and Repair – Zinc is crucial in cell division and cell growth which is critical during muscle growth and repair.

What is the recommended daily intake value of Zinc?

CategoryRecommended Zinc intake
0 - 6 months2 mg
7 months - 3 years3 mg
4 - 8 years5 mg
9 - 13 years8 mg
Above 14 (males)11 mg
Above 14 (females)8-9 mg
Pregnant and Lactating women11-13 mg

Note that vegetarians may require 50% more than the recommended daily values due to the high amounts of Phytates in their diet. (Phytates leads to less absorption of Zinc.)

The link between Zinc and Copper

Zinc and Copper are closely related. Too much intake of Zinc can cause a deficiency in the other and vice versa. So, any long term supplement intake of Zinc needs to be accompanied with Copper.

Symptoms of Zinc deficiency

People in industrialized countries rarely become deficient in Zinc unless they are on a severely restricted diet or have some related medical conditions like Celiac or Crohn’s disease. It is seen that infants, children and pregnant women are more prone to Zinc deficiency. Symptoms of zinc deficiency includes

  • poor wound healing
  • night blindness
  • reduced immune function
  • white spots in fingernails
  • depression
  • loss of appetite
  • weight loss
  • lack of taste or smell
  • reduced serum testosterone levels
  • skin problems
  • poor growth
  • hair loss
  • lack of menstrual periods
  • reduced sperm counts

Causes of Zinc deficiency

Inadequate dietary intake: Vegetarians are more prone to be Zinc deficient as Zinc levels are low and not readily absorbed by the body through plant foods. 31 32

Malabsorption: A very rare genetic disorder called Acrodermatitis enteropathica 33 can cause malabsorption. Malabsorption can also be caused by ingestion of absorption inhibitors like Phytic acid. 34 Medical conditions like Liver/Pancreatic dysfunction, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, gastrointestinal diseases, liver cirrhosis, renal diseases etc. can cause Zinc malabsorption. Some drugs like EDTA, penicillamine can also cause malabsorption.

Increased requirement of Zinc: Deficiency can be caused due to increased requirements during pregnancy as fetuses require high amounts of Zinc for its growth and development. Lactation can also impact the maternal zinc stores and more zinc rich foods are needed to restore Zinc levels.

Older breast fed infants: Breast milk provides adequate Zinc (2 mg/day) and is sufficient for babies up to 6 months of age. For infants and toddlers (7 months to 3 years), the daily recommended value of Zinc is 3 mg/day and the additional 1 mg is missing in breast milk and needs to come from other foods.

Alcohol: 30% – 50% of alcoholics have low zinc levels as ethanol decreases intestinal absorption of zinc and increases urinary zinc excretion.

Diagnosis of Zinc deficiency

  • Serum (plasma) Zinc levels – A plasma Zinc level test is normally performed to identify zinc deficiency. Normal levels are between 84 and 159 µg/dl.
  • Serum (plasma) Copper levels – is a good auxiliary test as deficiency of Zinc will increase the absorption levels of Copper. Numbers above 120 µg/dl points to abnormally high Copper levels.
  • Serum Copper Zinc ratio – Anything higher than 1.5 is abnormal.
  • Urinary zinc excretion levels – Normal range is 20 to 967 µg/24 hour.
  • Alkaline Phosphatase (ALP) – ALP is a zinc dependent enzyme and low levels of this enzyme can be attributed to Zinc deficiency.
  • Albumin – Albumin binds to zinc and thus the albumin levels can be used as a marker to supplement the Serum-Zinc level test.

Acrodermatitis Eenteropathica

This is a genetic disorder that results in the impaired uptake and transport of Zinc in the human body. In this condition, a person’s intestinal cells are not capable of absorbing the zinc in food. This is caused due to mutation in the gene SLC39A4 35 36. A person must inherit 2 defective genes (one from each parent) to inherit this disorder. If the individual receives one normal and one defective gene, the person will be a carrier for the disease but will not show symptoms. This condition is usually first noticed in formula fed infants as Zinc in breast milk is more easily absorbed compared to formula or cow’s milk. In breast fed babies, this condition first shows up after weaning. People diagnosed with Acrodermatitis Eenteropathica will have to take oral zinc supplementation (1 mg/kg body weight) per day for life. Once supplementation starts, symptoms starts to disappear within 24 hours to 2 weeks.

Dietary sources of Zinc

Only 20-40% of the zinc in food is readily absorbed by the body. Also, it has been seen that the Zinc from animal foods (meat, seafood and poultry) is more readily absorbed by the body compared to plant foods. This is because of the Phytates present in whole grain breads, cereals, legumes binds to the Zinc and makes it difficult for the body to absorb. In order to increase the bio-availability of Zinc in a vegetarian diet, it is recommended to soak grains, legumes in water for several hours before cooking them or consuming legumes in their sprouted form. It is also noted that Zinc absorption improves when it is taken along with protein rich foods.

Food SourceQuantityCategory
Wheatgrass1771 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Shellfish (Mollusks)78.8 mg (per 100 gm)Non Vegetarian
Oysters76.7 mg (per 6 medium oysters)Non Vegetarian
Nutritional Yeast18.75 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Wheat Germ16.67 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Veal12 mg (per 100 gm)Non Vegetarian
Squash Seeds10 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Watermelon seeds10 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Hemp Seeds9.9 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Sesame Seeds7.8 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Pumpkin Seeds7.64 (mg per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Shellfish (Crustaceans)7.3 mg (per 100 gm)Non Vegetarian
Lamb7 mg (per 100 gm)Non Vegetarian
Crab (Alaska King)6.5 mg (per 85 gm)Non Vegetarian
Beef6.31 (mg per 100 gm)Non Vegetarian
Rice Bran6 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Cashews5.77 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Sunflower Seeds5 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Pecans5 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Chia Seeds4.58 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Turmeric4.4 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Oat4 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Almonds3.57 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Lobster3.5 mg (per 85 gm)Non Vegetarian
Dark Chocolate3.31 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Peanuts3.3 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Lentil3.3 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Walnut3.1 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Wheat Flour2.94 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Amaranth2.87 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Peanut Butter2.7 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Wheat2.65 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Pork2.39 (mg per 100 gm)Non Vegetarian
Chocolate2.3 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Pistachio2.2 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Spirulina2 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Tofu1.56 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Chickpea1.53 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Poultry1.29 (mg per 100 gm)Non Vegetarian
Pea1.24 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Kombu (Seaweed)1.23 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Garlic1.16 (mg per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Tempeh1.14 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Quinoa1 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Mushroom (Shiitake)1 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Egg1 mg (per 100 gm)Ovo-Vegetarian
Mushrooms (White)1 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Soybean1 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Parsley1 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Milk1 mg (per 1 cup)Lacto-Vegetarian
Alfalfa sprout0.9 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Avocado0.64 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Blackberries0.5 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Prunes0.44 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Pomegranate0.4 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan
Raspberries0.4 mg (per 100 gm)Vegetarian/Vegan

Zinc superfood Infographic

Zinc Superfoods

Zinc for kids

Zinc is very important for a child’s brain and overall development. However, unless prescribed by a doctor, it is dangerous to provide Zinc supplementation to children. If you suspect zinc deficiency, talk to your doctor for the child’s diagnosis and meanwhile include Zinc rich food in the child’s diet.

If you eat a balanced diet you get all the vitamins and minerals you need and you don’t need any supplement and overdosing can actually be more harmful.
– Subodh Gupta, 7 habits of skinny woman

Zinc Supplements

Zinc picolinate, Zinc gluconate, Zinc sulphate and Zinc Acetate are the common forms of Zinc in Zinc supplements. Depending on the form, the elemental availability of zinc varies. i.e. 23% of Zinc Sulphate is elemental zinc. i.e. 110 mg of Zinc Sulphate contains 25 mg of elemental zinc. Research 37 suggests that Zinc picolinate is absorbed better by the human body. Buy Zinc picolinate supplements.

Note: Patients suffering from Diabetes need to be cautious while taking Zinc supplementation as large does of zinc lowers blood sugar. HIV/AIDS patients need to be cautious about Zinc use as Zinc supplementation is linked to shorter survival time for AIDS patients.

Zinc Toxicity

There has been isolated cases of zinc toxicity due to consumption of food or beverages contaminated with Zinc released from their galvanized containers. Signs of Zinc toxicity include nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea and vomiting. Major ill effect of Zinc toxicity is Copper deficiency. Highest tolerable levels of Zinc has been set at 40 mg/day.

Is Zinc a carcinogen?

Zinc is not a carcinogen and is not considered as an agent for cancer development. In fact, in the right doses, zinc is known to help in cancer treatment. However, studies show that very high levels of Zinc supplementation taken over a long period of time can double the risk of developing prostate cancer.


Zinc is a very important micro nutrient for the human body and is an important component of 300+ enzymes in the human body. Adults require between 8-11 mg per day. Even though vegans have food sources that provides Zinc, its biological availability is very less. Due to this, vegan‘s need to follow the right techniques (soaking, sprouting etc. ) to improve the bio availability of Zinc in their diet. Meat is the preferred source of Zinc as it is better absorbed by the body in this form. There are large number of studies that prove the effectiveness of Zinc in therapeutic applications including acne, dandruff, cancer treatments etc. As always, consult a doctor before starting Zinc supplements as overdosing can lead to copper in-absorption and related complications.


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