Zinc deficiency

Symptoms of zinc deficiency include eczema on the face and hands, hair loss, mental apathy, defects in the reproductive organs, delayed sexual maturation, menstrual irregularities, decreased growth rate and impaired mental development. Deficiency may also lead to postnatal depression, loss of the senses of taste and smell, anemia, poor appetite, impaired conduction and nerve damage, white spots on the nails, mental disorders, susceptibility to infections, delayed wound-healing and impotence in men.

Zinc deficiency was first identified in the Middle East in adolescent male dwarfs with poor development of sexual organs. This was caused by high consumption of unleavened bread, which contains zinc-binding phytates.

Acrodermatitis enteropathica, a rare disease in infancy, is caused by a genetic inability to absorb zinc. Skin rashes appear when a baby is young; and when breastfeeding is stopped, gastrointestinal problems, decreased growth and mental abnormalities are seen. The disorder is treated with zinc supplements.

Zinc deficiencyAlcoholic liver disease, trauma such as burns or surgery, stress, weight loss, chronic infections, viral hepatitis, diabetes and some kidney diseases can increase zinc requirements and increase the risk of deficiency. Athletes often have an increased need for zinc. Diseases of the gastrointestinal system such as inflammatory bowel disease and celiac disease, also reduce zinc absorption and may lead to deficiency symptoms. Zinc levels are low in people suffering from sickle cell disease and fat malabsorption disorders.

Results of the Second National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, published in 1995, suggest that zinc intakes are declining. This is likely to be due to lower meat and higher cereal consumption, food processing methods which reduce zinc content of food and lower soil concentrations of zinc. Those likely to have low intakes include infants; adolescents; women, particularly those who are pregnant; older adults; and those with lower levels of education and higher poverty levels. Pre-school children and vegetarians may also be at risk.


Zinc deficiency in early pregnancy increases the risk of congenital birth defects, low birth weight, spontaneous abortion, premature delivery, mental retardation and behavior problems in babies; and may also increase the risk of pregnancy induced high blood pressure. Mothers with low zinc intakes may have babies who are more susceptible to infection.

Elderly people

Zinc intakes in older people tend to be much lower than the RDA. This is likely to be due to reduced intake, reduced absorption, the use of medications which affect zinc, and the presence of disease states which alter zinc usage. Zinc deficiency is likely to contribute to clinical conditions commonly seen in elderly people, including poor appetite, slow wound-healing, loss of taste and reduced immune system function.


Alcoholism increases the risk of zinc deficiency, particularly in those with liver disease. Zinc deficiency in alcoholism is likely to be linked to altered vitamin A metabolism, suppressed immune function, eye problems and sex organ abnormalities. Zinc deficiency may also play a role in fetal alcohol syndrome, birth defects associated with alcohol use by pregnant women.


Alterations in zinc metabolism are seen in people with both Type I and Type II diabetes. Response to insulin may be decreased and excretion in the urine is increased, thus exacerbating the risk of deficiency, with all the associated risks such as poor immune function and increased risk of birth defects.

Zinc deficiency has shown to increase the risk for diabetes in diabetes- prone experimental animals, and low concentrations of zinc have also been shown in the blood of people recently diagnosed with Type I diabetes. The results of a 1995 Swedish study suggest that a low concentration of zinc in drinking water can increase the risk of childhood onset of the disease.

Cardiovascular disease

Population studies suggest that low blood zinc levels are associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. The results of a recent study done over a period often years in Finland, which involved 230 men dying from cardiovascular diseases and 298 controls matched for age, place of residence and smoking, found an increased risk of disease in those with low zinc levels. This may be due to an imbalance in the copper-to-zinc ratio.

There is evidence that zinc can protect the inner lining of blood vessels from damage, thus helping to prevent atherosclerosis. This may be due to its membrane-stabilizing, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.


AIDS patients often suffer from zinc deficiency, which adversely affects the immune system. Studies have shown an increased risk of opportunistic infections in AIDS patients with low zinc levels. In a study done in 1996, researchers at the San Francisco General Hospital found that AIDS patients with zinc deficiency had a higher risk of bacterial infections than patients with normal zinc levels.

Eating disorders

Low levels of zinc have been found in sufferers of the eating disorder, anorexia nervosa. And this complex disorder may be exacerbated by zinc deficiency. Initial dieting may lead to deficiency which then reduces the senses of taste and smell, thus exacerbating poor appetite.

Eye problems

Zinc deficiency can lead to loss of eye function as several zinc-dependent enzymes play important roles in eye function. Levels of these enzymes decline with age. Zinc deficiency may contribute to macular degeneration of the central part of the retina. Results from the Beaver Dam Eye Study, published in 1996, suggest a link between low zinc intakes and risk of macular degeneration.

Premenstrual syndrome

The symptoms of premenstrual syndrome may be exacerbated by zinc deficiency. In a study published in 1994, researchers at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas assessed copper and zinc levels in ten PMS sufferers and compared these to those in non sufferers. Results showed lower zinc levels in the luteal phase (latter half) of the menstrual cycle in PMS sufferers.

Male sexual function

Zinc levels are usually lower in infertile men, leading to decreased testosterone levels and low sperm counts. Zinc deficiency in adolescence can delay puberty £nd zinc seems to play an important role in controlling serum testosterone levels in normal men. In a 1996 study, researchers investigated the relationship between cellular zinc concentrations and serum testosterone in 40 normal men, aged from 20 to 80. Dietary zinc restriction in normal young men was associated with a significant decrease in serum testosterone concentrations after 20 weeks of zinc restriction, and zinc supplementation of marginally zinc-deficient normal elderly men for six months resulted in an increase in blood levels of testosterone.

Immune system

Immune function is affected by zinc deficiency, which results in a decrease in the numbers of several types of T cells, natural killer cells and other components of the immune response. This leads to increased susceptibility to infection and wound-healing time.


Diets low in zinc may slow adolescent bone growth and increase the risk of osteoporosis later in life. In a study published in 1996, researchers at the University of California studied two groups often monkeys. Both groups were given nutritionally balanced diets but one group received 50 mcg of zinc per gram of food while the other group only received 2 mcg of zinc per gram of food. Eight of the monkeys were then studied throughout their lives to ages equivalent to that of ages 10 to 16 in human girls. The researchers found that the monkeys on low zinc diets had slower skeletal growth, maturation and less bone mass than the other monkeys, with substantial differences noticed in the lumbar spine. The differences were only apparent during rapid growth phases in the monkeys, especially during pregnancy. Zinc excretion appears to be increased in osteoporosis sufferers, probably as a result of increased bone breakdown.

Other disorders

A 1997 Israeli study found low zinc absorption in patients with low disease activity and high disease activity when compared to people without the disease.

Zinc levels may also be lower in people with asthma. A study done in 1996 in the Slovak Republic found lower zinc levels and high copper-to-zinc ratio in asthmatics.12 Periodontal disease may also be related to zinc deficiency.

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