Zinc is a mineral (also called a trace element) that you need to stay healthy.
Genetic disorders cause some people to have zinc deficiency, while others have low zinc levels because of certain medical conditions and other risk factors.
Zinc deficiency symptoms include slow growth in infants and children, hair loss, tongue inflammation, skin sores, and more.
Treatment for zinc deficiency includes dietary changes, zinc supplementation, or a combination of both to restore adequate zinc levels.
You might view zinc as your go-to immune support nutrient, but it provides a host of health benefits throughout your body to help it function properly and develop normally. As an essential nutrient, zinc plays a vital role in many bodily processes, including digestion, metabolism, immunity and nerve functions, as well as to make protein and DNA, the genetic material of all cells.
Knowing zinc’s importance in your health and well-being, what happens when you don’t get enough of this vital nutrient? How do low zinc levels affect your health? And what are zinc deficiency symptoms?
Read on to learn more about what causes zinc deficiency, what signs of zinc deficiency to look out for, and what to do if you think you may have low zinc levels or don't have sufficient intake of this important trace mineral in your diet.
What Causes Zinc Deficiency?
As an essential nutrient, zinc is a mineral that your body needs to stay healthy. Because your body only needs small amounts of zinc to function properly, zinc is called a trace mineral. The amount of daily zinc you need depends on your age and life stage (such as if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding). But generally, experts recommend that adult men need 11 mg of zinc a day and adult women need 8 mg a day.
Knowing that you only need a little bit, you’re probably wondering how someone could develop zinc deficiency in the first place.
Some people are actually born with an inherited zinc deficiency, such as the genetic disorder known as acrodermatitis enteropathica. For people with this condition, their body is impaired with its ability to use and transport zinc effectively.
For most Americans, severe zinc deficiency is rare, but mild zinc deficiency does occur among certain groups of people. Because your body can't produce zinc on its own, you need to get this vital nutrient through food or supplements. Fortunately, zinc is found in a variety of foods, including shellfish (particularly oysters), red meat, poultry, nuts, seeds, legumes, dairy products (like yogurt and cheese), and some fortified foods.[1,3] While most Americans get enough zinc from dietary sources (just over 15% of Americans do not consume enough of this essential trace mineral from diet alone) the following people face a higher risk of an inadequate intake of zinc.[1,2]
Premature and low-birth-weight infants
Breastfed babies over six months old
Children and adolescents
Pregnant and lactating breast-feeding women
People who are malnourished
People with severe or persistent diarrhea
People who have had gastrointestinal surgery, such as weight loss surgery
People with digestive disorders (i.e., Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis)
People who take certain medications that interact with zinc (i.e., decrease zinc absorption, increase zinc excretion, or impair zinc utilization)
Older adults (65 years and older)
What Are The Signs of Zinc Deficiency?
Currently, a specific biomarker to detect zinc deficiency in humans doesn’t exist. It is difficult to measure a person’s zinc status accurately because of the mineral’s distribution throughout the body. To diagnose a zinc deficiency, health professionals take into account a patient’s risk factors, the zinc deficiency symptoms the patient is experiencing, and the results of blood and/or urine test to determine zinc levels.
Common zinc deficiency symptoms include: [1,5]
Slow growth in babies and children
Delayed puberty in teens
Erectile dysfunction (in men)
Hypogonadism (in men)
Eye and skin sores
Loss of appetite
Difficulties with wound healing
Decreased sense of taste
Lower alertness levels
How Do You Improve Zinc Deficiency?
Depending on the severity of zinc deficiency, treatment can include changing your diet, taking zinc supplements, or a combination of both.
The adage “food is medicine” certainly can make a difference for people who don’t consume enough zinc-rich foods. Always start with eating a balanced, healthy diet to meet your nutrition needs. For meat-eaters, you can simply add more of the zinc-rich foods listed above to your diet. For vegetarians, this can pose more of a challenge. While fruits and vegetables contain zinc, they’re not good sources because the zinc isn’t as available for the body’s use compared to zinc from animal sources. In this case, consider adding more plant-based alternative sources of zinc, such as nuts, seeds, legumes.
People with low levels of zinc appear to benefit the most from zinc supplements. In these cases, a clinician may recommend taking zinc supplements at levels higher than the recommended dietary allowance.
The Bottom Line
As an essential mineral, zinc plays a vital role in many bodily processes, including immunity and nerve functions. Unfortunately, some people suffer from low zinc levels, which could range from mild to severe. What causes zinc deficiency? Genetic disorders cause some people to have low zinc levels, while others develop a zinc deficiency because of certain risk factors. Zinc deficiency symptoms include growth retardation in infants and children, hair loss, redness and swelling of the tongue, impotence, and more. If you have a zinc deficiency, there are steps we can take to get this important mineral back to its normal levels that include changing your diet, taking zinc supplements, or a combination of both to restore adequate zinc levels.
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Senior Manager, Medical and Scientific Communications
Melissa is a Registered Dietitian and provides leadership to Pharmavite’s Medical and Scientific Education team. She has over 20 years of experience educating consumers, healthcare professionals, retailers and employees about nutrition, dietary supplements, and overall wellness. Prior to joining the Medical and Scientific Communications team, Melissa launched and managed Pharmavite’s Consumer Affairs department and worked as a clinical dietitian throughout Southern California. Melissa received her Bachelor of Science degree in Nutritional Sciences from the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona, and completed her dietetic internship at Veteran’s Hospital in East Orange New Jersey.
Lisa Beach is a seasoned journalist whose work has been published in The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, Eating Well, Parents, AARP’s Disrupt Aging, Optimum Wellness, and dozens more. She also writes for a variety of health/wellness-focused brands. Check out her writer’s website at www.LisaBeachWrites.com.