Zinc is needed for healthy skin, a robust immune system, sharp vision, stable blood sugar control, balanced and strong hormonal health, and far more. It’s even needed for protection against the heavy metals that pollute our environment.
Here’s how to make sure you’re getting enough — but not too much! — from managing your diet, to non-dietary causes of deficiency, to measuring and managing your zinc status with bloodwork.
My methylation resources, mentioned in the episode, can be found here: https://chrismasterjohnphd.com/methylation
My other zinc resources, mentioned in the episode, can be found here: https://chrismasterjohnphd.com/zincsearch
This episode is brought to you by Ancestral Supplements. Our Native American ancestors believed that eating the organs from a healthy animal would support the health of the corresponding organ of the individual. Ancestral Supplements has a nose-to-tail product line of grass-fed liver, organs, bone marrow and more… in the convenience of a capsule. For more information or to buy any of their products, go to ancestralsupplements.com.
This episode is brought to you by Testing Nutritional Status: The Ultimate Cheat Sheet. Everything you could ever need to know to optimize your nutrition, all in one place. Easier to find and use than ever before. Get your copy at https://chrismasterjohnphd.com/cheatsheet Use the code LITE5 to get $5 off.
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Read the Transcript
Zinc. Here is how to make sure you’re getting enough.
Hi, I’m Dr. Chris Masterjohn of chrismasterjohnphd.com, and this is Chris Masterjohn Lite, where the name of the game is “Details? Shmeetails. Just tell me what works!”
And today we’re going to talk about how to make sure you’re getting enough zinc and how to monitor your zinc status.
Zinc is incredibly important to all kinds of things in the body. When you become zinc deficient, usually the first thing that happens is you start getting patches of dry skin. And some people, when they get worse, they might turn into acne. In other people, they might turn into blisters or pustules or other skin problems.
You can also experience other things, and the patches of dry skin don’t have to come first. An increased risk of infection, especially with sore throat and diarrhea, poor glucose tolerance, impaired wound healing, hormone problems, hair loss from an autoimmune condition known as alopecia, all these things can occur.
You can have lower appetite and loss of lean mass. And in children, zinc deficiency can, if it’s bad enough, delay puberty. You get resistance to vitamins A and D, thyroid hormones, sex hormones, cortisol, and pharmaceutical glucocorticoids. So you can have all kinds of other things going wrong because those things aren’t working properly in your body.
Zinc is important to virtually every aspect of vitamin A metabolism, and so anything that looks like vitamin A deficiency but it doesn’t necessarily correspond to a diet that’s deficient in vitamin A, could be a zinc deficiency. As I’ll talk about in future episodes, detoxifying most heavy metals is also extremely dependent on having enough zinc.
So why might you run deficient in zinc? Well, the best sources of zinc in the diet are oysters, red meat, and cheese. The principal inhibitor of zinc absorption is phytate, which is found in whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes. So a diet that’s low in animal products and high in phytate is the principal dietary risk factor for zinc deficiency. Even if you eat animal products, if you’re avoiding red meat, cheese, and oysters, you still might not be getting enough zinc.
In addition, sometimes you can have a cause of zinc deficiency that isn’t your diet. For example, chronic diarrhea or persistent vomiting, especially when the vomit is green, which means that it’s carrying bile, a number of malabsorption disorders, and impaired methylation. So see the link in the description for all the methylation resources that I’ve made on that topic. And rare genetic defects and zinc transporters can all cause zinc deficiency. Other cases, rarely, could be a collection of genetic disorders known as porphyrias and one disorder that was called pyroluria, but hasn’t been backed up by continuing research over time. Those all can be sources of zinc deficiency, as well.
Outside of industrial exposure or taking high-dose zinc supplements, I don’t think zinc toxicity from foods is worth being concerned about. To test your nutritional status of zinc, the most important test is plasma zinc. It’s very important that this test be in plasma and not be in serum or whole blood.
If you look at tests from LabCorp and Quest, they usually say plasma or serum. So when you get these tests, try to ask your doctor, or if you are a doctor, try to put a note for the phlebotomist to make sure that it’s coming from plasma, and as a patient, when you go there with the order, it’s good to remind the phlebotomist directly that your doctor would like it to be a plasma zinc test and that it should be from plasma and not serum.
The ranges used by the laboratories are too wide. If most of these ranges usually have their lower cutoff in the 50s, but the lower cutoff should be the mid-70s. If you see—if I see anything 70 or below, I’m concerned about borderline zinc deficiency. If I see something below 55, I’m thinking that there’s a severe zinc deficiency going on. My suspicion is that the sweet spot for plasma zinc is to be in 100 to 120. Unfortunately, you can’t look—you can’t use plasma zinc to look for zinc toxicity on the higher levels. If you’re just getting zinc from foods, again, I don’t think you need to worry about it.
If you’re supplementing with doses of zinc, especially doses that are over 45 milligrams a day, I think it becomes a concern to at least look out for, and the principle negative effect that you would expect from excess zinc is a decrease in copper status. The two things that you can look for as a result of too much zinc are a decrease in serum copper or ceruloplasmin, the two most important
markers of copper status, or a decrease in superoxide dismutase. For superoxide dismutase, you can get that on the Genova Oxidative Stress 2.0 blood panel. And for serum copper, which I think is the most important one, and ceruloplasmin, you can get those from LabCorp and Quest. For serum copper, I would try to make sure that you’re in the middle of the range because I’ve seen borderline copper deficiency symptoms creep up in the lower, about 20 or 30 percent of the normal range.
If the zinc deficiency is mild and the cause is the dietary pattern, I think the best thing to do is fix the dietary pattern and watch it correct over time. If you’re dealing with a severe zinc deficiency, then I think you should correct the diet if it needs correcting, but you should also supplement with zinc. I’ll talk more about how to supplement with zinc properly in the next episode.
If the problem is malabsorption or any of the other disorders that I mentioned had non-dietary causes, then you need to work with a medical professional to resolve the underlying cause. Nevertheless, supplementing with zinc in a case of zinc deficiency, even when the cause is something else, supplementing with zinc is generally I would say is warranted alongside fixing the underlying cause to make sure that the zinc gets back to where it should be as fast as possible.
I’ve produced a lot of other resources for managing zinc status, including some that have more details on how to manage your diet, and I’ll post links to those in the description.