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Zinc: Health Benefits and Food Sources

Zinc is a metal. It is called an “essential trace element” because very small amounts of zinc are necessary for human health.

Zinc is used for treatment and prevention of zinc deficiency and its consequences, including stunted growth and acute diarrhea in children, and slow wound healing.

It is also used for boosting the immune system, treating the common cold and recurrent ear infections, and preventing lower respiratory infections. It is also used for malaria and other diseases caused by parasites.

Some people use zinc for an eye disease called macular degeneration, for night blindness, and for cataracts. It is also used for asthma; diabetes; high blood pressure; acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS); and skin conditions such as psoriasis, eczema, and acne.

Other uses include treating attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), blunted sense of taste (hypogeusia), ringing in the ears (tinnitus), severe head injuries, Crohn’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Down syndrome, Hansen’s disease, ulcerative colitis, peptic ulcers and promoting weight gain in people with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa.

Some people use zinc for benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), male infertility, erectile dysfunction (ED), weak bones (osteoporosis), rheumatoid arthritis, and muscle cramps associated with liver disease. It is also used for sickle cell disease and inherited disorders such as acrodermatitis enteropathica, thalassemia, and Wilson’s disease.

Some athletes use zinc for improving athletic performance and strength.

Zinc is also applied to the skin for treating acne, aging skin, herpes simplex infections, and to speed wound healing.

Note that many zinc products also contain another metal called cadmium. This is because zinc and cadmium are chemically similar and often occur together in nature. Exposure to high levels of cadmium over a long time can lead to kidney failure. The concentration of cadmium in zinc-containing supplements can vary as much as 37-fold. Look for zinc-gluconate products. Zinc gluconate consistently contains the lowest cadmium levels.

How does it work?
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.

Zinc deficiency is not uncommon worldwide, but is rare in the US. Symptoms include slowed growth, low insulin levels, loss of appetite, irritability, generalized hair loss, rough and dry skin, slow wound healing, poor sense of taste and smell, diarrhea, and nausea. Moderate zinc deficiency is associated with disorders of the intestine which interfere with food absorption (malabsorption syndromes), alcoholism, chronic kidney failure, and chronic debilitating diseases.

Zinc plays a key role in maintaining vision, and it is present in high concentrations in the eye. Zinc deficiency can alter vision, and severe deficiency can cause changes in the retina (the back of the eye where an image is focused).

Zinc might also have effects against viruses. It appears to lessen symptoms of the rhinovirus (common cold), but researchers can’t yet explain exactly how this works. In addition, there is some evidence that zinc has some antiviral activity against the herpes virus.

Low zinc levels can be associated with male infertility, sickle cell disease, HIV, major depression, and type 2 diabetes, and can be fought by taking a zinc supplement.

Foods sources of zinc
The best sources of zinc are beans, animal meats, nuts, fish and other seafood, whole grain cereals and dairy products. Zinc is also added to some breakfast cereals and other fortified foods.

The typical western diet allows for adequate zinc intake, at an average range of between 10-15 milligrams per day.

Several dietary factors can decrease zinc absorption. Phytates (found in whole-grain breads, cereals and legumes), copper, calcium and folic acid may all reduce zinc absorption. Zinc absorption is increased when consumed with red wine, glucose, lactose or soy protein.

Vegetarians may require up to 50% more than the recommended intake of zinc because of low bioavailability of zinc from plant-based foods.

Raw oysters (Pacific), 3 oz: 14.1 mg
Beef, lean chuck roast, braised, 3 oz: 7.0 mg
Baked beans, canned, ½ cup: 6.9 mg
Crab, King Alaskan, cooked, 3 oz: 6.5 mg
Ground beef, lean, 3 oz: 5.3 mg
Lobster, cooked, 3 oz: 3.4 mg
Pork loin, lean, cooked, 3 oz: 2.9 mg
Wild rice, cooked, ½ cup: 2.2 mg
Peas, green, cooked, 1 cup: 1.2 mg
Yogurt, plain, 8 oz: 1.3 mg
Pecans, 1 oz: 1.3 mg
Peanuts, dry roasted, 1 oz: 0.9 mg.

There is a zinc preparation that can be sprayed in the nostrils for treating the common cold.

Zinc sulfate is used in products for eye irritation.

Zinc citrate is used in toothpaste and mouthwash to prevent dental plaque formation and gingivitis.

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