Can zinc help you through these restive times?

11/29/2016 12:48 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2016

The World Health Organization estimates that almost a fifth of the global population is at risk from problems associated with zinc deficiency, and globally, as many as one million deaths are directly or indirectly related to zinc deficiency.

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Zinc is a metal, and it’s classified as a post-transition one. And that is where we’re headed as a country - from a restive election phase, to a restive post-election and transition phase, and onward to an unplumbed post-transition phase. Can understanding how zinc influences your well-being help you through these times?

A majority of the zinc in the human body is found in muscle (60%), with smaller amounts in bone (20%), 5% in blood and liver, and 3% in skin and the gastrointestinal tract. Unlike calcium and calcium deficiency, you really don’t need very much zinc in your diet to be in the risk-free zone when it comes to zinc deficiency: the recommended daily intake of calcium from the age of 4 is 1,000 mg; the recommended daily intake of zinc is only between 5-10 mg from the age of 4 to adulthood. And yet, deficiency of this micronutrient is not uncommon in many parts of the world.

Zinc influences many pathways in your body

The issue with micronutrients is that they are necessary for multiple biochemical pathways; and to further confound matters, some pathways are redundant. Redundancy is important, because it contributes to a level of protection from unfavorable mutations - it’s similar to getting to a point on a map via more than one route - if one route is shutdown for roadwork, you can still get to your destination, albeit via a different route. Unlike infections that can usually be traced to a single culprit, e.g., in the case of strep throat, micronutrient deficiencies are harder to detect and diagnose. And there is a further complication - symptoms from micronutrient deficiencies can sometimes be overlapping. In fact, zinc deficiency was first recognized in patients who had severe anemia that was characteristic of iron deficiency - but iron levels were normal, and instead there was severe zinc deficiency. Zinc is required in more than 200 enzymatic reactions in your body, and is attached to many more proteins - by some estimates more than 2000. In the 1960s when zinc deficiency was first recognized, although the mechanisms were not fully understood it was clear it could lead to symptoms as diverse as slow overall growth, anemia, hair loss, diarrhea, dry and rough skin, impaired cognition, compromised immunity, and even eventual death.

Zinc, like other trace elements that your body needs, is found in a variety of foods.

And as with other trace elements, it’s important to make sure your diet while balanced in zinc-rich foods, doesn’t impair the absorption of zinc. You don’t want the zinc you ingest to be excreted right away; you want it to be absorbed and put to good use. In other words it’s like trying to get your candidate (zinc dependent biochemical pathway) elected: you support them by sending them donations (zinc-rich foods); they persevere on your behalf; and then suddenly, something goes wrong and all those donations don’t make a whit of difference because of bumps along the road (other foods that impair zinc absorption) and your candidate is left on the sidelines (biochemical pathway shuts down because zinc is summarily excreted, instead of being absorbed and put to good use). Foods rich in phytic acid (also called inositol six phosphate, or inositol hexaphosphate, or IP6) are the usual culprits that impair the absorption of zinc, and other elements such as iron, calcium, and magnesium.

Why does phytic acid impair zinc absorption?

A molecule of phytic acid is not unlike a Hoberman sphere. It has the capacity to “capture” zinc and similar elements that your body needs. Once captured, it becomes difficult for the body to absorb these micronutrients, and off they go right through your intestine to be finally excreted.

<em>Phytic acid (Hoberman sphere) captures zinc, making it unavailable for important biochemical pathways in your body.</em>
Phytic acid (Hoberman sphere) captures zinc, making it unavailable for important biochemical pathways in your body.

But this doesn’t mean that you should stop eating foods that contain phytic acid - found mainly in seeds, nuts, grains and other plant products. Like everything else, it’s a question of balance. Because you do need some of that phytic acid - while all the mechanisms haven’t been fully understood, studies in humans and some animal models have shown that phytic acid is clearly important in many biological processes including enhancing immunity and regulating the functioning of several genes.

All micronutrients are equal but some are more equal than others

And that perhaps is the essence of it all - zinc could indeed help you through these restive times, but an excess of zinc, either directly as part of your diet or as a supplement, can have its own set of problems and these include an increased risk of heart disease, headaches, cramps and other unpleasant phenomena. Previous articles on vitamin D and vitamin B12 also described some deficiency symptoms that are not unlike those observed from zinc deficiency. Consequently, one thing to remember when you don’t feel right and head to your doctor is this: keeping track of what you eat and sharing that information with your doctor will help your cause significantly. Because all micronutrients are equal, but some are more equal than others.

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