Zinc deficiency and its Role in Mental Health
By now you are familiar with a deficiency in B12 here, Vitamin D here or low magnesium and how it can have an impact on mood and behavior such as its role in depression, anxiety and ADHD. But you may not realize that over 2 people billion worldwide are deficient in zinc and this mineral deficiency also plays a role in your mental health.
It has been shown that a zinc deficiency leads to changes in the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex of the brain. A zinc deficiency also leads to excessive amounts of glutamate activity in the brain. This leads to brain inflammation and excessive free radicals and oxidative stress.
View the symptoms below to see if this sounds like you. With a zinc deficiency, you may not only exhibit anxiety or depression but there are other tell-tale signs such as lack of taste or a skin issue.
Zinc Deficiency Symptoms
I did not go into detail on each of the symptoms but I did address some of the mental health issues associated with a zinc deficiency in more detail.
- Weak immune system: When you first come down with a cold, take zinc acetate lozenges to reduce the duration of the illness. I like and use Enhanced Zinc lozenges by Life Extension.
- Acne/adult acne: Zinc has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Research has shown that those with acne have lower zinc levels.
- Eczema, psoriasis: Rats and mice deficient in zinc develop a skin condition that is similar to psoriasis.
- Hypothyroidism: Zinc is a cofactor mineral needed for thyroid hormone function. With decreased zinc levels, the thyroid can become underactive. It also plays a role in converting T4 to T3 and is needed to bind active thyroid hormone to DNA cells.
- Depression: While it is known that B vitamins can make an impact for those with depression, it is not as well known that a zinc deficiency can also affect one’s mental health. A study found that rats fed a zinc restricted diet had depression, poor motivation and withdrew from social behavior. Zinc is also involved in the pathway for the body’s production of neurotransmitters. Zinc is also necessary for B6 to be converted into its active form which in turn plays a role in the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin.
- Loss of appetite
- Loss of taste/impaired sense of taste: This along with the decrease in appetite can often be the first clue that brain inflammation related to a zinc deficiency is present.
- ADHD: Zinc assists with the production and regulation of melatonin. Melatonin is an important factor in the pathophysiology of ADHD due to its modulation of dopamine. There have been numerous studies looking at zinc levels and the relationship to ADHD. These studies have shown that those with ADHD have significantly lower zinc levels. Four studies have shown positive results for zinc in the treatment of ADHD.
- Aggression issues
- Brittle nails, white spots on nails
- Body odor
- Hair loss
- Slow wound healing
- Sensitive to strong smells/strong odors
- Anxiety: too much copper and too little zinc
- Adrenal fatigue: uses up a lot of zinc
- Psychiatric disorders in the elderly (65 and older) such as dementia, psychotic disorders, bipolar. One study found a high prevalence of zinc deficiency in the patient group versus the Control group.
Who is at Risk
- Vegans/vegetarians: These diets tend to be high in copper and low in zinc.
- Athletes who sweat a lot
- Pregnant women
- Those with chronic digestive disorders (i.e.: low HCL, Acid reflux, GERD, IBD, IBS)
- Chronic stress
- During trauma, surgery, burns (to aid in healing)
- Those with cataracts, macular degeneration
- Those with celiac disease
- Those who consume a lot of grains (the Phytates content blocks zinc absorption)
- Those who eat the SAD and don’t get enough of zinc rich foods.
What Causes you to Lose Zinc
- Those who sweat a lot/athlete
- Too much copper in the diet
- Oral contraceptives
- Nutrient deficient diet/vegetarian or vegan diet
Foods that Contain Zinc
Many of your vegetarian sources of zinc are only as nutrient rich as the soil that it is grown in. Our soil is depleted which means your food has less nutrients. Plants sources due to the phytic acid may also not be bioavailable as zinc sourced from non -vegetarian sources such as seafood and beef.
- Beef/red meats
- Seafood (crab, shrimp)
- Pumpkin seeds
- Cooked split peas
- Sesame butter
- Lima beans
- Brazil nuts
*Phytates in legumes and nuts may inhibit absorption. For this reason, soaking is always a good idea!
What to look for in a Supplement
Vegetarians may want to consider zinc supplementation due to the difficulty absorbing zinc from non- meat sources such as from plants, legumes, nuts and seeds. According to the Institute of Medicine’s report, vegetarians require 50% greater intake of zinc given that the major source in the diet is grains and legumes which contain high amounts of phytic acid.
It is best to choose a high- quality supplement that says zinc glycinate, zinc picolinate or amino acid chelated zinc. For general health, take 15-20 mg of zinc per day and take it with food as otherwise it will cause an upset stomach. Therapeutic doses are higher and depending on the need, range from 30-75 mg. per day. This range is typically safe for several months or longer but use therapeutic dosing under the guidance of a professional.
If you are using zinc for general health, it is best to take it within your multivitamin/mineral supplement since minerals are interconnected and balance amongst them is important. If you are taking zinc for therapeutic reasons, be sure to look at how much is in your multi (and what form it is in) and then add in a supplement to get into the therapeutic range.
Zinc must be in balance with copper due to competition for receptor sites. The ratio should be 15:1 of zinc to copper. The foods that contain more zinc in a bioavailable form and less copper are oysters, beef, lamb, crab, shrimp, sesame seeds and macadamia nuts. Copper is much easier to get from the diet than zinc and you can find some supplements that are copper free.
Many Americans are too high in copper and too low in zinc. For instance, this unbalanced ratio has been linked to schizophrenia, anxiety, learning disabilities and autism. Copper can come from copper IUD, copper pots, copper pipes, dental amalgams, pesticides and medications such as oral contraceptives.
Copper is also stored in the liver so it is also beneficial to provide liver support such as with dark bitter greens, beets and lemon water.
Bottom Line: If you are struggling with a mental health issue, hypothyroidism or a skin concern, look at your diet to see how much zinc you are getting from your foods. If you have digestive issues, take into consideration that this impacts the assimilation of your nutrients, including zinc. In the end, zinc may help you but most likely your issue is multifaceted and zinc is playing a role but is not the only component of your health issue. For instance, if you are a vegetarian, zinc may not be the only nutrient that you are deficient in.
Bauman, E. & Friedlander, J. (2014) Foundations in Nutrition. CA: Bauman College
Hoffer, A, Walker, M. (1978) Orthomolecular Nutrition. Keats Publishing. 156-7.