Understanding Zinc Deficiency and Sub-Optimal Zinc Levels
Zinc is considered an essential mineral for the body.
This means that you cannot live without zinc, it is ESSENTIAL or REQUIRED for life!
This means that if you do not have a sufficient amount of zinc in your body, you will feel it in the form of certain symptoms.
The good news is that you can use your symptoms to help you better understand zinc status in your body.
But before we talk about these symptoms we need to take a second to discuss the difference between serious and gross zinc deficiency and sub-optimal zinc levels.
When we take a global look at the zinc status of humans across the world, we find that roughly 30% of all humans are zinc deficient to some degree (1).
The problem is that most of this is gross zinc deficiency and comes from third-world countries and not from the developed countries where you are probably reading this from.
But just because people in developed countries don’t have a serious or life-threatening version of zinc deficiency does not mean that they are in the clear.
In fact, I find that a significant number of people in developed countries suffer from something called sub-optimal zinc levels.
Sub-optimal refers to the fact that they have a minor (but not huge) deficiency and one which is resulting in certain and specific symptoms.
So regardless of where you live, this information will be relevant to you!
Signs of Zinc Deficiency
Because zinc is so essential and because many different cells have a use for it, the symptoms of low zinc levels are quite diverse.
Zinc deficiency can impact your immune cells, your intestinal tract, your nerve cells, your thyroid, your skeletal system, your brain, and so much more.
As we discuss the symptoms of low zinc level make sure you are taking a mental tally of which symptoms you are suffering from.
If you find that you have 5+ or more of the symptoms listed below, then there is a good chance you may need to increase your uptake of zinc either through your diet or through supplementation (we will talk more about this later).
With that in mind, let’s talk about early warning signs of zinc deficiency and sub-optimal zinc levels…
#1. Impaired Immune Function
Impaired immune function simply means that your immune system isn’t working as well as it should.
Answer these questions:
Do you feel like you are getting sick more frequently than you used to?
Do you catch every single cold that you come into contact with?
Do you tend to get sick and stay sick longer than people around you who have the same illness?
Do you have a personal history of autoimmune disease?
If you answered yes to any of the above questions then there is a good chance that your immune system is impaired and zinc may be the culprit (2).
While it may not be possible to avoid every single illness that you come into contact with, your immune system should be strong enough to fight off or prevent SOME of them.
#2. Hair Loss
Are you experiencing changes in your hair either because it is falling out more or because your hair texture or quality has changed?
If so, zinc may be the cause!
Zinc is very important for the production and growth of hair from your hair follicles.
If you do not have enough zinc then your body will not be able to synthesize hair at the rate that it needs (3) to keep up with hair growth cycles.
If you can’t keep up then you will slowly notice that you are losing more hair than you are growing which will lead to hair fall and hair thinning.
#3. Skin Problems (acne or rashes)
This issue correlates with the hair loss issues as noted above.
Your skin is one massive organ and your hair is part of that organ.
So it follows that if you are experiencing hair issues related to zinc deficiency then you will probably also experience skin conditions because they are part of the same system.
Zinc deficiency can absolutely cause skin problems which usually manifest as acne or as rashes.
Acne associated with zinc tends to be cystic in nature which can help you differentiate it from other causes of acne.
The rashes tend to be associated with increased sensitivity in your skin to detergents, lotions, skin care products, and so on.
If you find that you previously didn’t have any issue with your skin but suddenly now you are more sensitive to these chemicals then it may be a sign you need more zinc.
Do you feel like you are a little bit more run down than usual?
Do you feel like you don’t have the same amount of energy that you used to?
Do you feel like things that didn’t use to exhaust you are now leaving you feeling exhausted?
Do you feel like even after a great night’s sleep you aren’t ready to tackle the day with high energy?
This sort of fatigue can come along with zinc deficiency.
So I wouldn’t try to diagnose zinc deficiency based on this symptom alone.
But if you have other symptoms such as hair loss, or an impaired immune system and you ALSO have fatigue then it becomes more likely that your fatigue may be caused by the zinc problem.
#5. Mild to moderate Thyroid Problems
Zinc is incredibly important for thyroid function in the body.
And low zinc levels have been shown to be a reversible cause of thyroid problems!
If you have a history of thyroid problems then you probably already realized that many of the symptoms of zinc deficiency closely match those seen in low thyroid conditions.
Taking zinc may be able to help improve your thyroid function.
#6. Decreased Appetite
This isn’t a very common symptom but you should be aware that zinc deficiency may cause a loss in your appetite.
This tends to be seen in more advanced cases of zinc deficiency, but it’s still worthwhile to be aware of.
#7. Low T3 Levels
Zinc plays an important role in something called thyroid conversion.
Thyroid conversion is the process where your body activates thyroid hormone by altering the T4 thyroid hormone into the T3 thyroid hormone.
Because zinc helps this process function, low levels of zinc may impair your ability to produce enough T3 thyroid hormone.
And this can be seen by checking your free T3 levels when you get your thyroid lab studies.
There are obviously plenty of other causes of low T3 but zinc deficiency is an important one!
#8. Food Allergies
Early zinc deficiency may increase your risk of developing food allergies or food sensitivities.
As zinc levels fall, your immune system may start to “flag” certain foods as unnatural which may trigger sensitivity and an immune response.
You can actually check for food allergies by looking at something called a delayed IgG food sensitivity test.
If you’ve ever had one of these then you may have found it strange that you are “allergic” or “sensitive” to all kinds of foods including rice, sweet potatoes, broccoli, and so on.
It’s unlikely that your body is actually allergic to these foods and much more likely that something like zinc deficiency is causing a problem in the processing of these foods by your immune system.
If you are otherwise healthy but suddenly find that you are not tolerating various types of healthy foods then be sure to look at your zinc levels.
#9. Intestinal Issues (such as Diarrhea)
The lower your zinc levels fall the looser your stools will become.
This can range from full-blown diarrhea to a change in your bowel movements slightly.
A deficiency in zinc can also increase your risk of developing gut inflammation and other intestinal issues such as leaky gut which may further impair gut function.
Should you Get Extra Zinc from Supplements or from Food (or both)?
What should you do if you feel that you have several of the symptoms listed above that you want to correct?
Should you take a zinc supplement, should you focus on adding foods rich in zinc to your diet, or should you run out and get a zinc blood test?
Let’s break these down one at a time:
Should you use a zinc supplement?
My recommendation is yes and the reason is simple.
Zinc is perfectly safe to take, causes very few issues if used as a low dose, and really only has the potential to help.
As long as you keep your dose of zinc low (in the 10mg per day range) you should not experience any negative side effects from using a zinc supplement.
And when you consider that MANY people are zinc deficient, the chances are high that it will help in some way.
Should you add zinc-rich foods to your diet?
It’s ALWAYS a good idea to add more nutrient-dense foods to your diet each and every day.
So, if possible, you should definitely add whole food sources of zinc in the form of food to your diet.
You should be aware, though, that altering your diet may not be enough to replace low zinc stores and it may not be the best strategy long-term.
If your diet led you to a zinc deficiency in the first place, then you MUST continue consuming foods high in zinc in order to keep your levels high.
If you change your diet or revert back to your old ways, it’s likely that your symptoms will return.
And lastly, should you get a zinc blood test from your doctor?
The answer is no.
The zinc lab test is very inaccurate and is NOT the best way to measure zinc levels (4) in your body or cells.
And because zinc supplements are often cheaper than getting a lab test, it just doesn’t make sense to get it done.
It’s cheaper, safer, and more effective to just add a zinc supplement and increase your consumption of zinc-rich foods.
The Bottom Line
I personally find that MANY people are zinc deficient and these patients tend to benefit from the use of added zinc to their diet/routine.
This is especially true of patients who already suffer from thyroid problems, those who are under significant daily stress, those who are not eating a whole food diet, and those who have intestinal issues such as leaky gut.
Again, if you find that you have more than 5+ of the symptoms listed above then it would be a great idea to consider adding extra zinc to your current regimen.
Now I want to hear from you:
Do you have any of the symptoms listed above? If so, how many?
Do you feel that your symptoms are related to your zinc status or to some other cause?
Do you ALSO have thyroid problems?
Have you noticed an improvement in your symptoms after taking zinc?
Leave your questions or comments below!