The Role of Zinc in Life

By: Dr Magdy Badran

Zinc is an essential element for all living organisms. It is necessary and indispensable for human, animal and plant life. Aside from iron, zinc is the most common mineral found in your body; necessary for the function of every one of your cells.

Zinc functions

There are more than 300 different enzymes that require zinc to function normally. Researchers believe that 3,000 proteins (out of approximately 100,000) have this vital mineral.

Zinc plays an essential role in health. It is essential for growth, brain development and function, protecting the skin, the proper functioning of the immune system, digestion, taste, smell, growth of the fetus and child, sperm maturation and motility, reproduction and many other natural processes. Zinc may directly regulate DNA synthesis.

Zinc and growth

Zinc is important for cellular growth, cellular differentiation and metabolism. Zinc also influences hormonal regulation of cell division. In animals fed a zinc-inadequate diet, both food intake and growth are reduced within 4-5 days. Zinc deficiency reduces growth and weight gain in infants and young children.

The antioxidant properties of zinc

Oxidative stress is a metabolic dysfunction that favors the oxidation of biomolecules, contributing to the oxidative damage of cells and tissues. This consequently contributes to the development of several chronic diseases. Zinc acts as a co-factor for important enzymes involved in the proper functioning of the antioxidant defense system. Chronic zinc deprivation generally results in increased sensitivity to oxidative stress. Zinc supplementation studies have shown decreased incidence of infections and oxidative stress.

Zinc and hormones

Zinc also plays a role in hormone release .Zinc is crucial to thyroid hormone metabolism, and reduced thyroid function is strongly related to low serum zinc levels. It also plays a major role in properly managing thyroid hormone receptors in the hypothalamus. Without this mechanism, the body may incorrectly gauge that it has sufficient levels of thyroid hormone and in turn decrease their production, leading to hypothyroidism. Zinc supplementation improves male sterility, as well as increase the level of serum sex hormones.

Zinc and immunity

Zinc plays an important role in the modulation of the immune system as well as acting as an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-apoptosis. Apoptosis is a form of programmed cell death that occurs in multicellular organisms. Zinc nutritional importance has been known for a long time, but in the last decades its importance in immune modulation has arisen. Zinc is used in the production of the immune cells. Zinc deficiency results in dysfunction of immunity and increases the susceptibility to infection.

Several studies observed the association between low zinc statuses either in serum, hair or sputum and asthma prevalence.

Zinc and skin

In adults, the body contains about 2 grams of Zinc, 20% of which is in the skin and hair. Zinc is involved in important functional activities in the hair follicles. In addition, it potently inhibits hair follicle regression and accelerates hair follicle recovery.

Zinc Deficiency

The causes of acquired zinc deficiency inadequate dietary intake, decreased zinc levels in maternal breast milk, receiving total parenteral nutrition without any supplementation of zinc, alcohol use, gastrointestinal affections, malabsorption syndromes and chronic debilitating conditions .

Increasing concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide lower the content of zinc and other nutrients in important food crops. Populations who are at highest risk for zinc deficiency receive most of their dietary zinc from crops.

Zinc deficiency is ranked as the 5th main risk factor in causing diseases worldwide. According to the World Health Organization around 31% of the world population is deficient in zinc. Zinc deficiency is such a serious global problem that 176,000 diarrhea deaths, 406,000 pneumonia deaths and 207,000 malaria deaths are caused by it; primarily in Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean and South-East Asia.

Zinc deficiency means the body can’t produce healthy, new cells. This leads to unexplained weight loss, delayed wounds healing, lack of alertness, decreased sense of smell and taste eczema, hair loss, depressed growth, immune system defects, behavioral and mood disturbances. Zinc deficiency is high in children diagnosed with Autism. The manifestations of severe zinc deficiency in humans include bullous dermatitis, alopecia, diarrhea, emotional disorder, weight loss, intercurrent infections and hypogonadism in males.

Great sources of zinc

Zinc is an essential mineral, meaning that the body is unable to produce it and as such it must be acquired from food. Your body does not store zinc, so it is important you get enough from your dietary intake every day. Moreover, regularly getting too much can be just as hazardous as getting too little.

The World Health Organization recommends a daily zinc intake of 10 mg/day for children, 12 mg/day for women and 15 mg/day for men.

Meat is an excellent source of zinc. Shellfish like oysters, crab, mussels and shrimp can all contribute to the daily zinc need. Legumes contain high amounts of zinc. However, they also contain phytates , which reduce its absorption. Processing methods like heating, sprouting, soaking or fermenting can help improve its bioavailability. Other food sources of zinc are mushrooms⠀, sesame seeds, nuts, dairy foods, poultry, eggs, whole grains and dark chocolate.

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