Although your body contains and needs only a small amount of zinc, that amount is responsible for many vital biochemical functions. Unfortunately, many of us are zinc deficient because our foods are refined and also because our soils no longer contain zinc. An increased occurrence of degenerative disease is one result of this widespread zinc deficiency.

SYMPTOMS OF ZINC DEFICIENCY

If your food has little taste or smell, or if cooking smells seem distorted and turn you off, you are very likely in need of zinc supplements. Zinc deficiencies also show up in the skin: stretch marks are an indication that elastin, the fibers that make your skin springy and strong, is not incorporating enough zinc and copper to keep your skin smooth. A serious type of acne, acanthosis, also results from zinc deficiency. So does psoriasis, an intransigent dermatitis that just won’t heal, even with medication. In newborn infants, hereditary acrodermatitis enteropathiea, in which zinc deficiency leads to infections at each body orifice, must be quickly treated with zinc supplements to prevent death.

Here is a simple test for zinc deficiency: take a look at your fingernails. Are there little white spots on them, or are they opaque instead of translucent? If so, you’d be well advised to stock up on pumpkin seeds, and perhaps take a zinc supplement for good measure. What about your hair? If it’s been getting more brittle or losing its color, think about adding zinc to your diet before you run to the drugstore to try a new hair conditioner. Your teeth and gums need zinc, too: if your gums bleed, if the enamel on your teeth is wearing away, a zinc deficiency may be the problem.

The symptoms you can’t see may be the most serious, however, The fatty sheaths around each nerve and your cell membranes may need repairs they won’t get if you neglect to eat a zinc-rich diet. Your cells may not be able to reproduce all the proteins they need for maintenance and repair of tissues. Your arteries may attract plaque deposits because of lack of zinc to help repair damaged spots in the arterial walls. Fatty deposits in the liver may lead to disabling cirrhosis, and scar tissue may build up in the kidneys until they, too, can no longer function fully. You can’t afford to neglect zinc.

Zinc is at work throughout our bodies. At the cellular level, zinc must be present before RNA and DNA can be synthesized. With calcium, iron, magnesium, and manganese, zinc enables RNA to work properly in the production of proteins for cellular regeneration and maintenance. The cellular molecules depend on zinc for structural stability.

Zinc also plays an important role in the body’s production of growth and sex hormones, and in its utilization of the hormone insulin. As a coenzyme, zinc catalyzes many important activities: it sparks the energy sources AMP and GMP, which activate all enzymatic activity; it helps carboxypeptidase break down the proteins you eat into amino acids; and it must be present for carbonic anhydrase to speed the exchange between carbon dioxide and oxygen within your cells. In addition, zinc is an important element in your body’s homeostatic functions, keeping your blood at a proper acidity, producing the histamine needed, chelating excess toxic metals from your body, and helping your kidneys maintain a healthy balance of minerals.

Zinc works in your protein production system, your blood cells, your circulatory system, your liver and kidneys, your muscles, bones, joints, and eyes, your immune system, your metabolic system, and your nerves. Each of these areas of your body will suffer if your zinc supply is inadequate.

Everybody needs zinc—men, women, and children. It plays an active role in the development of sex glands and organs, and for men continues to play a role in the production of semen and sperm. For pregnant women it is especially important to eat zinc-rich foods, as a zinc-deficient mother can produce a child hampered by problems connected to that deficiency. Zinc deficiency in children is responsible for slow growth, learning disabilities, and failure of the sex organs to mature properly.

Adequate zinc can also lower your cholesterol levels; keep your red blood cells from rupturing; help you heal from accident, injury, surgery, or burn; keep your immune system strong against viruses and cancer; and effectively treat emotional and mental disturbances ranging from depression to schizophrenia. Zinc’s chelating effects on iron and copper come into play here, particularly in those cases of schizophrenia that are now thought to be caused by heavy metal deposits in the brain.

Zinc can also help you if you suffer from a blood sugar disorder like diabetes or hypoglycemia, or from rheumatism and arthritis. In fact, zinc is such an important factor in balancing the activity of the other minerals in your body that an adequate intake of zinc may be an excellent insurance policy against all sorts of nutritional imbalance.

Adults need 20 to 25 milligrams of zinc daily, with more required by pregnant women, teenagers, and the elderly. Any surplus zinc you take will be excreted in your urine, and since you do not absorb all the zinc present in your food, it’s a good idea to get more zinc than the authorities recommend.

You can find zinc in organ meats, whole grains, mushrooms, and seeds like sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds. Your body will tell you if you aren’t getting enough: you may develop stretch marks, skin problems, brittle hair and fingernails, or unhealthy teeth and gums. There are more serious symptoms of deficiency which are not quite so visible: unrepaired membranes and tissues, circulatory diseases, and scar tissue or fatty deposits in the liver or kidneys.

For zinc to work properly, B6 must be present as well. Vitamin A and phosphorus at a meal with zinc-rich foods will also help your body use the zinc efficiently. On the other hand, calcium-rich foods and the phytates found in whole grain fiber inhibit your absorption of zinc.