Growing Old With Zinc

zinc-supplementsIf you read—and were enlightened by—the newsletter about aging and omega-3 fatty acids, you’ll likely be interested in this one about zinc and its relationship to aging and disease. For a long time, zinc has been associated with a strong immune system, but its connection to aging is a relatively new exploration. Whether zinc deficiency promotes aging or results from it matters little to those who endure its aftermath in their “golden” years.

What Is This Stuff?

Zinc is a mineral essential to all life. In humans, it plays a functional role in immunity, in growth and development, in neurological mechanisms, and in reproduction, as well as in several avenues of cellular metabolism. It performs a structural role in some proteins as a stabilizer and in cell membranes as a guard against oxidative insults and functional impairment (O’Dell, 2000). Additionally, zinc is a component of “zinc fingers,” which are structural domains that are wrapped around a zinc ion and regulate gene expression by acting as transcription factors by cleaving to DNA. Zinc has been found to be integral to programmed cell death, called apoptosis (Truong-Tran, 2000).

Do I Have Enough?

Possibly not. The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests that zinc deficiency is widespread and affects the health and well-being of populations worldwide. The International Zinc Nutrition Consultative group (IZiNCG) has determined that zinc intake is inadequate based on the presence and bioavailability of this micro-nutrient in each country’s food supply. Deficiency in children, especially, raises the risk for diarrheal diseases, pneumonia and malaria, the latter a defined danger for populations so exposed (WHO, 2008). Conservative estimates posit that one-fourth of the world’s population is deficient in zinc (Maret, 2006).

Although zinc deficiency is typically diet-related, it can spring from malabsorption, chronic liver and kidney disease, sickle-cell disease, diabetes, malignancy, and as a result of bariatric surgery, heavy metal exposure and possibly the ingestion of FD&C Yellow #5, known as tartrazine (GPN, 2012). The problem of zinc deficiency has been known for decades, but has received scant attention because it was believed that it could never occur in humans (Prasad, 2003). Yet its burden is outstanding and simply resolved with supplementation. The bioavailability of zinc from vegetarian diets is lower than from non-vegetarian diets because meat is not part of the vegan regimen. The legumes and plants common to vegetarian diets contain phytates that bind zinc and inhibit its absorption (Hunt, 2003) (Sandstrom, 1997) (Wise, 1995). Considering that poor agricultural, storage, shipping and kitchen practices can take a toll on any food’s nutritional profile, it can readily be seen that deficit is not the impossibility it once was thought to be. Eleven milligrams a day for an adult male and nine for a female is enough to meet nutritional requirements. Doses for children and pregnant women may be retrieved from the Office of Dietary Supplements at the National Institute of Health website (IOM, 2001).

What About Aging?

As we age, our DNA replication may become increasingly undependable because of shortened telomeres, possibly setting the stage for chronic, debilitating diseases, including cancer. There is a substantial body of evidence suggesting that a significant percentage of cancer deaths could be avoided by paying attention to proper nutrition.  Only in this century has zinc been tagged as a vital element in host defense against the initiation and progression of this disease, based partly on zinc’s character as supporting more than three hundred mammalian proteins (Ho, 2004). Because cancer is a disease mostly of the middle and older years, it is fitting to maintain a healthy nutritional intake, including supplementation if needed, noting that the elder population is vulnerable to zinc deficiency.

The pertinence of zinc to the entire immune system is well-documented. The presence of chronic inflammation, whether from physical illness, oxidative stress or the mental challenges of daily asperities, may induce sub-optimal zinc levels for most of us. From this was born the recommendation that zinc be supplemented to at-risk populations, notably the aged (Mocchegiani, 2006). It has been proposed that genetic screening for response to zinc intake be considered in order to maintain a healthy immune system, to ensure the activity of anti-oxidant proteins, and to avoid the frailty and degeneration that often accompany old age (Mocchegiani, 2007).

Among the environmental bombardments suffered by the immune system is cadmium exposure, largely from fossil fuels combustion, but also from some fertilizers, metal refining, and tobacco use. Smokers have four times the cadmium levels as non-smokers, and this may be causative of early atherosclerosis and hypertension, both being risk factors for CVD, but also attenuated by high zinc concentrations (Messner, 2009). The long biological half-life of cadmium only compounds the concerns by presenting a cumulative effect, resulting in sterilizing, teratogenic and carcinogenic ramifications (Bin, 1994). The physical attack from cadmium and cohort environmental insults may lead to a state termed immunosenescence, the gradual deterioration of the immune system brought on by natural age advancement. As soon as you agree that, “Hey, this is just the way it is,” you have already decided to lose the race by a considerable margin. A large part of the aging drama can be explained by an imbalance between pro- and anti-inflammatory complexes, most often resulting in low-grade chronic inflammation. This condition is a driving force behind the frailty and the more common conditions associated with aging (Franceschi, 2007).  The Third Zinc Age Meeting in Madrid offered that zinc supplementation presents a strong case in the management of healthy aging (Mocchegiani, 2006), since  zinc deficiency is constantly observed in the chronic inflammation of old age (Vasto, 2007) (Fabris, 1995).

The absolute requirement for zinc is not known to be higher in the elderly, buttheir intake tends to be low. There are social factors that can interfere withsound dietary habits, loneliness being paramount. Insufficient intake of zinc(from food or supplements) may lead to loss of taste sensation, which leads tounwillingness to eat, which continues the vicious cycle. Drugs that promote zincexcretion (including some diuretics), poor absorption and chronic diseases contributeto the deficit. Although it might not turn back the clock, zinc may be able toslow its forward progression.


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*These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.
These products are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease.

Mineral Balance: Copper-Zinc

copper-zinc-scaleThe last mineral topic we covered dealt with sodium and potassium. Important stuff, this mineral balance. Recall that the amounts of minerals needed by the body are not an indication of their importance, and that we probably can’t get all that we need from our foods because of untrustworthy practices from seed to table. Remember, too, that kids, especially, need to eat the plants to get the minerals. The recommended number of servings of fruits and vegetables is now nine to thirteen, up from five to nine. Either way, how many people do you know who eat that much?

Copper and zinc are antagonists, and the balance between them is an example of biological dualism. This does that, and that does this, and they often fight with each other. Kind of a simple explanation, but maybe you get it. Yes, it’s possible for there to be zinc toxicity and copper toxicity. In the past, it’s been copper toxicity and zinc deficiency. Today it might be just the reverse, considering that people take supplements without the faithful reading of labels. Both minerals play important roles in the body.

Copper is necessary for blood vessel formation, a strong heart and for stabilizing collagen. You know what collagen is…the glue that holds us together. We need copper for brain development and for communication between nerve cells in the brain. Copper is essential to a number of enzymes involved in energy production by the mitochondria.  It helps to make superoxide dismutase to get rid of reactive oxygen species (free radicals). Because it’s found in a number of foods, copper deficiency is not common. Meats, shellfish, nuts, and seeds are premier sources, followed by mushrooms, lentils, shredded wheat and chocolate. Daily intake by adults normally is a little more than a milligram, which is only a bit higher than the RDA of 0.9 mg. The tolerable upper limit for adults is 10 mg, while most supplements contain 2 mg. Infants fed a cow’s milk diet are the ones most likely deficient because milk has little copper, but people with malabsorption disorders are close behind. Anemia and low white blood cell count are signs of deficit. Take care to note that very high doses of vitamin C might interfere with copper-related enzyme efficiency (Finley, 1983). But that’s not written in stone. Zinc overdose, however, might be a legitimate cause of copper deprivation.

Now, here’s the rub with zinc. Concerns arise when you take several supplements that each contain zinc. The tolerable upper limit, the dose above which there may be adverse reactions, is 40 milligrams for an adult. Let’s see, Hmm, prostate formula contains 15 mg; cold/flu formula contains 15 mg; daily multi-vitamin contains 15 mg; nasal spray contains 5 mg; other zinc complexes aimed at myriad conditions contain more…  Can you see where we’re going?  Copper deficiency now becomes a possibility. The need for zinc hovers around 11 mg for a guy, about 8 mg for a non-pregnant female.

Zinc is needed for steroid hormone synthesis, being a well-known catalyst for testosterone manufacture as well as luteinizing hormone, the one that stimulates ovulation. Of all the body parts, the prostate contains the highest concentrations. More than a hundred different enzymes rely on zinc for their ability to catalyze chemical reactions in the body. It plays a structural role in the superoxide dismutase mentioned in the earlier paragraph and in the integrity of the cell membrane. In fact, the loss of zinc from biological membranes increases their susceptibility to oxidative damage (O’Dell, 2000). Then, we have these nifty little things called zinc fingers, which are transcription factors that bind to DNA and influence specific genes, which are stabilized by the presence of zinc. Taking too much zinc over a period of a few weeks will upset copper bioavailability, possibly resulting in hematology issues down the line. Meanwhile, the bioavailability of folate/folic acid/folinic acid is enhanced by zinc.

Zinc deficiency usually follows genetic disorders and is identified as such. Immune deficiencies, impaired healing, diminished sense of taste (and perhaps smell), night blindness, opacity of the cornea, behavioral disturbances, and delayed maturation are common signs of low zinc values. Deficiency in children is dramatic in that neuropsychological development is impeded and susceptibility to life-threatening infections is increased (Hambidge, 2000).

Do those zinc lozenges advertisements have any immune system merit? We know that zinc deficiency causes immune dysfunction, but there is mixed commentary on the efficacy of zinc mega-doses for colds and other viral infections in people with ample zinc stores (Baum, 2000) (Salqueiro, 2000) (Fraker, 2000). The immune system relies on more than just zinc for its competence. Essential amino and fatty acids, selenium and iron, folic acid and vitamins B6 and B12, and vitamins E, A and C have a say in the immune system’s function. Consider, too, that a deficiency in one of these is likely to follow a deficiency in one or more of the others. Intakes of nutrients in excess of the recommendations do not necessarily translate to a boost in all immune activity unless a deficiency has been identified. Even then, despite the disparity in research conclusions, mega-doses of one mineral can knock another one out of the ring. On the other hand, using zinc lozenges as soon as cold symptoms appear seems to reduce severity and duration, depending on the formulation (Singh, 2011).

Balancing copper and zinc, though vitally important, may not be as easy as expected. Exposure to other metals, especially to lead that may originate from ancient water pipes, contaminated ground water, the shooting sports, some toys and paints,and fishing sinkers, can push zinc out. Iron, particularly from a supplement, may inhibit intestinal absorption of both zinc and copper through competition for transport molecules located in the gut. Wilson’s disease, the inability to metabolize copper out of the body, requires a dietary change that precludes mushrooms, nuts, chocolate, shellfish and dried fruits, and includes zinc therapy (Chasapis, 2012). The testing for zinc and copper values is not completely established because reference ranges are based on statistical averages, not on optimum functional levels. As with other nutrients, availability from foods is too often questionable, but supplementation should to be considered under the guidance of a knowledgeablenutrition professional, such as a credentialed nutritionist or dietitian. A caveat: Don’t even think about drinking water from a galvanized container. There are reports of a family that had collected its drinking water from a brand new refuse container and suffered from zinc overdose. Some denture adhesives contain zinc. Be careful. Read labels.


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*These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.
These products are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease.

Zinc Away Your Inflammation

coin-pailWhen you put your hand into your pants pocket and shake it around, you can hear the jingling of loose change. No change, no jingle. You have identified a deficit. It’s not that easy with some nutrient deficits. Zinc is one of them. Although zinc levels are low in some disorders, the most reliable method for diagnosing zinc deficiency is a positive response to zinc supplementation.  Most of the zinc in the body is held in skeletal muscle and bone, so we’re not likely to notice a shortage right away because there are no signs. Growth retardation, low insulin levels, anorexia, mental fog, rough skin, and decreased thyroid function are symptoms, but these may also be related to other causes.  Worldwide, zinc deficiency is not uncommon, though it is rare in the United States. Nonetheless, it’s a good idea to make sure your buckets are filled.

Functionally, zinc is part of more than a hundred different enzymes that catalyze important chemical reactions. Structurally, it helps to build proteins and cell membranes. In fact, there is a component call a zinc-finger that stabilizes protein complexes and helps to regulate gene expression by binding to DNA. Loss of this mineral from the cell membrane opens it to insult from oxidative damage.

What was once considered hyperbolic in promoting zinc as treatment for illnesses such as colds and related respiratory concerns is now being examined as practicable. One of the body’s protective reactions to attack by irritation, infection or injury is inflammation, characterized by redness, swelling, discomfort and, occasionally, loss of function.  Inflammation will activate platelets and attract monocytes/macrophages to swallow up harmful foreign particles. If it becomes chronic, inflammation can grow increasingly destructive of healthy tissue while it tries to heal that tissue already under attack. Out-of-control inflammation can become a threat to life.

As an intermediary in the inflammatory process, zinc helps to control the ardor with which the body fights infections and other physiological troublemakers. Current research has learned that zinc modulates inflammation by connecting with, and impeding, the function of specific protein instigators. This work has focused on the context of sepsis, which is a systemic response to infection that can be devastating enough to cause death. This septic condition has a name—Systemic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (SIRS). What often follows is depressed organ function—Multiple Organ Dysfunction Syndrome (MODS)—and consequent death.  Nuclear factor-kappa Beta, known as NF-kB, is a protein that acts as a transcription factor, and is especially active in responses to stressors like free radicals, radiation, bacterial and viral antigens, and cytokines. The latter initiate an immune response and include chemicals such as interferons and interleukins. In NF-kB is not kept in check, it can wreak more havoc than Attila the Hun.

In the presence of adequate zinc levels, NF-kB activity is downregulated and pro-inflammatory response is controlled (Liu, 2013). This doesn’t necessarily mean that zinc is a cure-all, since its paucity will telegraph other mineral insufficiencies, as well. Laboratory animals suffering induced zinc deficiency while being exposed to sepsis have responded with systemic inflammation and subsequent damage to vital organs, resulting in predicted mortality. In these instances NF-kB was overexpressed, appearing especially active in the respiratory system. Zinc supplementation administered immediately prior to the initiation of sepsis was able to stave off morbidity and mortality (Bao, 2010).

When a pathogen attacks the body, monocytes are the first line of defense. One job is to awaken the sleeping giant and to get the immunity ball rolling. This is when NF-kB enters the nucleus and unlocks the door so zinc can cross the cell membrane. When the zinc merges with a protein ally, it calms down the NF-kB to prevent runaway inflammation. The balance of activity in this drama is delicate, meaning that more (zinc) is not necessarily better. Even a modest deficiency, though, will invite immune dysfunction and increase the chance for infection from whatever is floating around.  The medical, social and academic venues that host crowds of people, such as hospitals, churches and schools can test your susceptibility, which increases with age by virtue of failure to tend to personal needs for lack of motivation and, perhaps, wherewithal.

Though zinc toxicity can be caused by drinking from galvanized containers, it’s more likely to come from overzealous supplementation or from ingesting multiple sources that contain zinc. That includes food as well as supplements. Abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting are the initial signs of overdose. Chronic excess will interrupt copper metabolism and disrupt a raft of physiological functions that include making red blood cells and myelin, and regulating some gene functions. Adults need only eleven milligrams a day; forty is pushing the envelope. Half-dozen oysters provide more than seventy-five milligrams.  Even denture adhesives contain enough zinc to cause symptoms of toxicity if combined with dietary and supplement sources. Taking zinc with a quinolone or tetracycline antibiotic will reduce the absorption of both the zinc and the drug. This also will happen with some medications used for rheumatoid arthritis.  Nasal sprays containing zinc can cause irreversible loss of smell, which can be dangerous if you can’t detect a gas leak. Being stored throughout the body, zinc is a permanent resident; so once again, it’s a matter of balance.


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*These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.
These products are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease.

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Zinc Away Your Inflammation

Growing Old With Zinc