Why you need zinc

In a utopia zinc would crown the list of medical priorities. This is because zinc is unquestionably the body’s most essential nutrient. Without it, our cells don’t have energy and they can’t replicate, functions that are essential for survival. If we were motor vehicles, we’d be spluttering to a halt and we’d be ready for the scrap heap. A body without zinc is like a motor vehicle without petrol.

Doctors don’t seem to comprehend how important it is to ensure that zinc deficiencies are identified so they can inform us about optimising our levels. I see so many patients who operate like broken-down motor vehicles; overcome with fatigue, they drag their ailing bodies through the day. A machine that dysfunctional would be unusable. One of the primary reasons for this breakdown is a lack of zinc and it’s widespread.

An underactive thyroid might regain some of its mojo with a zinc boost.

Our hormones need zinc to execute their daily functions. An underactive thyroid might regain some of its mojo with a zinc boost. We need zinc to form and consolidate memories and to have the kinds of emotions that allow us to feel calm, stable and relaxed. We need zinc to taste and smell. Immune systems are primed by zinc. Wounds heal because of zinc, as it drives the formation of collagen, a substance that promotes healthy skin, nails and hair. We have inbuilt antioxidant systems that defend us against the relentless onslaught of free radicals, which become unhinged without the presence of a steady supply of zinc. It’s no wonder we’re basket cases when lacking zinc.

A global problem

We’re not alone. Half the world is zinc deficient and in the developing world, where zinc status is severely compromised, the consequences are dire. Growth stops, bones fail to mineralise, skin loses its substance, becoming fragile and lucent, brain cells involute, hormones cease to function and the immune system becomes weak and incapable of mounting a satisfactory defence against predatory bacteria. In the developing world, zinc deficiency is claiming lives and ravaging communities. Babies and children don’t stand a chance without zinc.

The major reason for this pandemic in the developing world is communities’ reliance on grains as an essential food source. Poverty fuels a desperate need to access any form of food that fills the belly, and grains, a cheap but hopelessly inadequate provider of vital nutrients, which can be cultivated in huge quantities, satisfy this need. Grains bind zinc, making them inaccessible for absorption, thereby seeding rampant zinc deficiency. This practice has spawned a worldwide health disaster that could partially be remedied with appropriate health policies and creative interventions.

These are already happening, only they need to be broadcast in decibel volume so they can be utilised on a global scale. IRRI is a non-profit independent research and training organisation that’s part of the international rice science research program. Remarkably, this institute has isolated and cultivated a form of rice that has higher levels of zinc. This initiative has already been developed and released in Bangladesh. The plan now is to make this miracle discovery available to the populace in India, Indonesia and the Philippines and then, hopefully, to a much wider, overwhelmingly needy audience around the world. Information about this enterprise can be found at irri.org.

Zinc and copper need to be present in the right ratios, otherwise critical bodily functions can be compromised.

Ironically, in the West and in the patients I see, one of the prime reasons for flagging zinc levels is also nutritional. The foods that deliver the most zinc are red meat and oysters, not dietary staples. We certainly don’t eat oysters regularly and red meat has fallen out of favour due to its connection to heart disease and bowel cancer. Not for a minute am I advocating a return to red meat consumption, and wolfing down oysters on a daily basis is hardly an attractive proposition. We can get zinc from white meat, nuts and seeds, but these aren’t great providers, so we might need to be looking at supplementation.

Here, aligning with a health practitioner who understands the need to maximise zinc status and knows how to assess zinc deficiency and implement the appropriate corrective strategy would be a prudent option. Zinc and copper need to be present in the right ratios, otherwise critical bodily functions can be compromised. Too much zinc can lead to a copper deficiency, which can precipitate fatigue, adversely affect cholesterol levels, sabotage the body’s antioxidant defence system and possibly weaken the immune system.

There is even a study showing that those men who supplemented with high amounts of zinc developed prostate cancer, but the reasons for this were not uncovered. In women with breast cancer, taking extra zinc might even encourage cancer cells to grow. All this evidence is telling us that zinc supplementation should not be implemented ad hoc, that extreme caution should be exercised and that expert guidance is advisable. Research experts suggest that supplementation should not exceed 40mg daily, the average content of two zinc tablets.

We are missing the boat by not addressing zinc deficiency and, if this practice continues, we can anticipate a global disaster of titanic proportions.

Michael Elstein

Michael Elstein

Michael Elstein is a Fellow of the Australian College of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine. Anti-ageing medicine is his current passion and he is the author of Eternal Health and You Have The Power, which are available as e-books through his website.

Dr Elstein has just attained a Masters in Nutrition from RMIT university located in Melbourne. He treats those who suffer from fatigue, insomnia, weight gain, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders and menopausal dysfunction. He utilises diet, nutritional therapy, hormonal interventions and herbal remedies.

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