Zinc deficiency: symptoms, causes, treatment of zinc deficiency

Zinc deficiency symptoms or the complaints of a zinc deficiency include a poorly functioning immune system, fatigue, diarrhea, hair loss, reduced appetite and skin problems. Zinc is an important trace element. Zinc is involved in all kinds of physiological processes in the body, such as wound healing, proper functioning of the immune system, cell division, cell growth and a good sense of taste and smell. This important mineral also plays a role in metabolic processes. Men with zinc deficiency or zinc deficiency may experience problems with fertility and libido, while women with zinc deficiency may experience disrupted menstrual cycles. A zinc deficiency is almost uncommon in the Netherlands. It is also almost impossible to get too much zinc through food. With a test, the so-called ‘Zinca test’, you can quickly and fairly accurately determine or measure the zinc status of your body. Supplementation can help with a zinc deficiency.

  • Zinc deficiency or zinc deficiency: key points
  • What is zinc?
  • Function of zinc
  • Sources of zinc (food)
  • Protein-rich foods
  • Other food sources
  • Fruit and vegetables
  • Causes of a zinc deficiency
  • Lack of zinc due to diet
  • Inadequate absorption
  • Increased loss of zinc
  • Increased use of zinc
  • Chronic diseases
  • Zinc deficiency symptoms and complaints
  • Phenomena
  • Poor resistance
  • Bad skin
  • Fatigue
  • Allergies
  • Sleep disorders
  • Neurological problems
  • Hair loss
  • Cancer
  • Nails
  • Slowed growth
  • Reduced fertility
  • Smell and taste
  • Blood
  • Bones
  • Stomach and intestinal complaints
  • Mouth
  • Eyes
  • Diagnosing a zinc deficiency
  • Recognizable symptoms
  • Blood tests and Zinca test
  • Groups at risk of zinc deficiency
  • Consequences and effects of too much zinc
  • Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA) of zinc
  • Zinc shortens colds
  • Replenish zinc deficiency
  • Zinc supplementation
  • Top 25 Zinc Rich Foods


Zinc deficiency or zinc deficiency: key points

  • Zinc plays an important role in the body’s immune system and participates in a large number of metabolic processes.
  • A zinc deficiency manifests itself in, among other things, a poorly functioning immune system, fatigue, diarrhea, hair loss, reduced appetite and skin problems.
  • Zinc deficiency symptoms are non-specific and may also indicate other underlying causes.
  • The Zinca test is a simple and fairly accurate test to detect a zinc deficiency.
  • A zinc deficiency can be corrected with supplementation.


What is zinc?

Zinc is an important trace element. The term ‘trace element’ means that it concerns a substance that is only present in very small quantities in the body and is necessary for the proper function of various body processes.

Function of zinc

Zinc plays an important role in the body’s defense system and participates in a large number of metabolic processes. Zinc is needed for cell division, cell growth, wound healing, and the breakdown of carbohydrates. Zinc is also very important for taste development and night vision. Zinc is also involved in the production of insulin.

Zinc is found in brown rice, among other things. / Source: DONOT6_STUDIO/Shutterstock

Sources of zinc (food)

Protein-rich foods

Zinc is found in only small amounts in many different foods. Zinc is closely associated with protein-rich foods. It can be assumed that most foods high in zinc are also high in protein. Good sources of zinc include beef, lamb, pork, crab, turkey, chicken, lobster, mussels and salmon.

Other food sources

In addition to meat and shellfish, zinc is also found in dairy products such as milk, yogurt and cheese. It is also found in peanuts, peanut butter, beans and whole grains, brown rice (brown rice), whole wheat bread, potatoes, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds.

Fruit and vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are not good sources because the zinc in vegetable proteins is not as available for use by the body as the zinc from animal proteins. About 100 grams of raw spinach contains about 0.5 mg of zinc.

Sunflower seeds / Source: Istock.com/susabell

Causes of a zinc deficiency

There are several possible causes of a zinc deficiency.

Lack of zinc due to diet

Zinc deficiency can be caused by a diet rich in phytate-containing whole grains, foods grown in zinc-deficient soil, or processed foods that contain little or no zinc. Phytates are the phytic acids that are found in the fibers of whole grain products and come from the outer layers of the grain. Phytic acid has the property of binding to minerals such as calcium, iron and zinc. Insoluble components are then formed that are not absorbed in the intestine. Conservative estimates suggest that roughly 25% of the world’s population is at risk of zinc deficiency. A zinc deficiency is rare in the Netherlands.

Inadequate absorption

Acrodermatitis enteropathica is a recessive inherited zinc malabsorption syndrome. It presents with growth retardation, severe diarrhea, hair loss, rash (usually around the genitals and mouth), and opportunistic candidiasis (yeast infection) and bacterial infections. Furthermore, numerous intestinal diseases causing destruction or defect of the intestinal mucosa and generalized malabsorption are associated with zinc deficiency. Malabsorption is the condition in which the absorption of nutrients from food is inadequate.

Increased loss of zinc

Vigorous exercise, excessive alcohol intake and diarrhea all increase the body’s zinc loss. Changes in the absorption and permeability of the intestinal tract, often caused by viral or bacterial pathogens, can also promote the loss of zinc through feces.

Increased use of zinc

Exercise, child growth and pregnancy all increase zinc consumption.

Chronic diseases

Some conditions lead to a zinc deficiency. Wilson’s disease, sickle cell anemia, chronic kidney disease, chronic liver disease have all been linked to zinc deficiency.

Zinc deficiency symptoms and complaints

According to the Nutrition Center, a zinc deficiency is a rare phenomenon. According to the Nutrition Center, there are no known cases in the Netherlands of people with symptoms of zinc deficiency. There are naturopaths who dispute this.


A zinc deficiency manifests itself in the following complaints:

  • abnormalities of nails, skin, mucous membranes and skeleton;
  • diarrhea;
  • retarded sexual development and growth (delayed growth development);
  • damage to the immune system: reduced defense against infections, causing frequent infections;
  • night blindness;
  • loss of taste and smell;
  • a salty taste in the mouth;
  • men with a zinc deficiency may experience problems with fertility and libido;
  • women with a zinc deficiency may suffer from a disturbed menstrual cycle;
  • hair loss, hair loss;
  • poor or decreased appetite;
  • skin complaints and wounds that heal slowly.

The symptoms disappear within a short time after taking supplements.

Poor resistance

Do you get one cold after another or do you regularly suffer from all kinds of infections? The immune system cannot function properly without enough zinc. A zinc deficiency is disastrous for your immune system. In fact, no mineral has such a strong influence on the immune system as zinc.

Bad skin

About 6% of the total body zinc is in your skin. A zinc deficiency results in some skin conditions such as acne, eczema and poor wound healing.

Fatigue due to a zinc deficiency / Source: Istock.com/BartekSzewczyk


A zinc deficiency can lead to fatigue. A zinc deficiency is one of the culprits of physical and mental exhaustion. A normal human body contains two to three grams of zinc. Research from scientists at the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University and the OSU College of Public Health and Human Sciences found that it is especially important for older adults to get enough zinc because their ability to absorb this mineral affects the aging process. are decreasing.[1] This can lead to complaints such as fatigue and reduced mental resilience.


Constant stress can lead to adrenal insufficiency, which can cause a deficiency of zinc, which plays an important role in blocking the release of histamine in the blood. Excess histamine in your system can cause typical allergy symptoms (think runny nose, rash, swelling, sneezing, etc.). And it can also increase your overall sensitivity to allergens.

Insomnia / Source: PrinceOfLove/Shutterstock.com

Sleep disorders

Zinc plays an important role in both the production and regulation of melatonin. One study showed that taking a supplement containing melatonin, magnesium and zinc improved the sleep quality of people suffering from primary insomnia.

Neurological problems

Various neurological problems and disorders can arise when there is too little zinc in the body. Some examples of this are ADHD, depression, dizziness, poor memory and concentration, delayed growth and development, headaches, etc.

Hair loss

As a result of a zinc deficiency, you can suffer from thin hair and hair loss.


Zinc deficiency can promote a variety of human cancers, including esophageal cancer and cancers related to the digestive tract (colon and pancreatic cancer), and head and neck cancer. Zinc supplementation reduces the risk of certain types of cancer.
Prostate cancer and breast cancer
Zinc is especially important for prostate and breast cancer. People with the BRCA1 gene have the highest known risk for developing breast cancer. In 2012, a cohort of individuals with the identified gene was examined. The researchers found a lower risk of cancer development in people with the highest concentrations of zinc. The same study also found that the individuals with the lowest zinc levels in their bodies had a significantly increased risk of developing breast cancer.
Bladder cancer
There is also a relationship between zinc deficiency and an increased risk of bladder cancer.[2] Not only has research shown that patients with bladder cancer have too little zinc, but the cancer tissue itself has significantly low zinc concentrations. Zinc supplementation in bladder cancer patients stimulates apoptosis (programmed cell death), which prevents cancer formation.
Skin cancer
Zinc supplementation may also reduce the risk of skin cancer, but the direct association is uncertain. Zinc appears to reduce inflammation, suppress abnormal tissue growth, and reduce the incidence of larger skin lesions and more harmful tumors.
Zinc deficiency and the p53 gene
The p53 gene is the primary gene that protects men against prostate cancer and women against breast cancer. This gene is said to be the guardian of the human genome due to its protective benefits. The protein p53, product of the p53 gene of the same name, plays an important role in protection against cancer, especially prostate cancer and breast cancer. A mutation in the p53 gene will therefore significantly increase the risk of cancer development. Zinc is essential for the p53 gene to reduce the risk of mutations of this vital protector.

Beau’s lines / Source: Elipongo, Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)


A zinc deficiency can affect your nails. Dry and brittle nails, as well as deep grooves or dents that run transversely from one side to the other of the nail (also called Beau’s lines), can occur with zinc deficiency.

Slowed growth

The human body needs zinc for the growth of healthy bones. Even mild zinc deficiency affects the growth of children and teenagers around the world, even in developed countries.

Reduced fertility

A zinc deficiency can lead to reduced fertility, which is an increasing problem worldwide. Although zinc deficiency is unlikely to make you infertile, it plays an essential role in keeping the reproductive system running smoothly. In men, zinc is essential for normal testicular development and sperm motility. In women, low zinc levels are associated with premature labor, prolonged labor, low birth weight and other problems.

Smell and taste

In addition to immune function and cell growth, zinc is also important for good taste and smell. A zinc deficiency can therefore lead to an altered sense of smell and taste. These complaints mainly occur in people over 60 who are already at greater risk of zinc deficiency and may suffer from other factors that influence taste, such as the use of multiple medications.


People with a zinc deficiency are more likely to suffer from blood disorders such as anemia or anemia (shortage of red blood cells) and leukopenia (reduced number of white blood cells).


A zinc deficiency is more likely to lead to bone abnormalities such as osteoporosis. Zinc deficiencies are regularly found in the blood and bone tissue of elderly people with osteoporosis.

Stomach and intestinal complaints

A deficiency of zinc in the body can lead to various gastrointestinal complaints, such as diarrhea, loss of appetite and a ‘leaky gut’.


Burning mouth can be caused by, among other things, a deficiency of vitamin B12, iron, vitamin C, vitamin B6, folic acid and zinc. With burning mouth you mainly suffer from a persistent painful or burning sensation in the oral cavity and on the tongue and a tingling tongue.


Eye complaints are more common with a zinc deficiency, such as keratomalacia or corneal softening, macular degeneration (the breakdown, wear or degeneration of the retina, the macula lutea, or yellow spot), and night blindness.

Diagnosing a zinc deficiency

Recognizable symptoms

In daily practice, recognizable symptoms of a zinc deficiency are:

  • the presence of multiple white spots and lines on the fingernails;
  • reduction of sensory functions such as taste and smell;
  • hair loss;
  • reduced resistance;
  • (mental) lethargy; and
  • slow wound healing and canker sores.

These symptoms and complaints are non-specific and can therefore also indicate various other diseases.

Blood test / Source: Istock.com/anna1311

Blood tests and Zinca test

The amount of circulating zinc in the body can be determined by means of a blood test. This measurement is not always representative of the cellular zinc status and only detects more severe zinc deficiencies at an individual level. The result with such a test can still be reasonably within the standard, even though there is still a (functional) zinc deficiency. The blood test result does not provide an indication of the amount of zinc in the body’s depots, which may be depleted. Zincatest can be used in this context. This is not only intended as a nutritional supplement, but can also be used as a quick and accurate taste test to determine the zinc status in the body. You should take the test at least one hour after eating or drinking. Take a spoonful of 5 ml of Zincatest, stir it into 60 ml of water and immediately swish 5 ml of the diluted mixture around in your mouth. Then swallow or spit out. The taste sensation will be one of the following:

Negative or low

Tastes like water

Moderately negative or low

A dry, hairy, mineral-like or possibly sweet taste develops after a few seconds

Moderately positive

clear taste that becomes increasingly stronger


Immediately a strong, unpleasant taste is tasted

For the first two taste sensations, continue with the recommended daily use of Zincatest or another zinc supplement until the third or fourth taste sensation is experienced. Three to six months and supplementation may be necessary.

Groups at risk of zinc deficiency

A zinc deficiency can occur because your body does not absorb enough zinc. Too little zinc absorption in the digestive system can be due to an unhealthy diet or excessive alcohol consumption. Alcohol inhibits zinc absorption. Furthermore, a disorder of the digestive system can cause your body to not absorb enough zinc. Examples of this are chronic intestinal diseases such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. Vegetarians and vegans are more likely to suffer from a zinc deficiency, as zinc is more difficult to absorb from plant-based foods than from meat. People with diabetes, the elderly and pregnant women are also at greater risk of developing a zinc deficiency.

Consequences and effects of too much zinc

It is virtually impossible to absorb too much zinc through food. Long-term daily intake of a high dose of zinc as a supplement can lead to a copper deficiency.

Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA) of zinc

The best way to get the daily requirement of essential vitamins and minerals is to eat a varied diet.
The Health Council recommends the following intake for zinc:

  • Men and women 1-18 years: no RDA
  • Men 19 years and older: 10 mg/day
  • Women 19 years and older: 9 mg/day
  • Pregnant women, 1-3 months pregnant: 12
  • Pregnant women, 4-9 months pregnant: 15
  • Breastfeeding babies, 0-3 months: 20
  • Breastfeeding women, >3 months: 16


Zinc shortens colds

According to research, taking zinc supplements can shorten the length of a cold by almost half. A dose of more than 75 mg zinc acetate reduces the length of the common cold by 42 percent. A dose lower than 75 mg has no effect.[3]

Cashew nuts contain a lot of zinc / Source: Istock.com/marekuliasz

Replenish zinc deficiency

Zinc supplementation

A zinc deficiency or zinc deficiency can be reduced or prevented by zinc supplementation.

Top 25 Zinc Rich Foods

It is also important to regularly consume foods rich in zinc. These are the top 25 foods naturally rich in zinc, along with the estimated amounts of zinc per 100 grams of the food:

  • Oysters: approximately 78.6 mg of zinc
  • Beef liver: about 4.3 mg zinc
  • Pumpkin seeds: about 7.6 mg of zinc
  • Sesame seeds: about 7.8 mg zinc
  • Hemp seed: approximately 7.0 mg zinc
  • Chickpeas: about 2.9 mg zinc

Three different lentils / Source: Rainer Zenz, Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)

  • Cashews: about 5.6 mg of zinc
  • Lobster: about 6.5 mg zinc
  • Crab: about 6.5 mg zinc
  • Pork: about 2.5 mg zinc
  • Turkey: about 2.3 mg zinc
  • Lentils: about 3.3 mg zinc
  • Quinoa: about 2.8 mg zinc
  • Beef steak: about 6.0 mg zinc
  • Lamb: about 5.1 mg zinc
  • Black beans: about 2.8 mg of zinc
  • Pine nuts: about 5.5 mg zinc
  • Poultry (chicken): about 2.4 mg zinc
  • Yogurt: about 0.9 mg zinc
  • Milk: about 0.4 mg zinc
  • Chia seeds: about 3.5 mg zinc
  • Eggs: about 1.3 mg zinc
  • Sunflower seeds: about 5.0 mg zinc
  • Brown rice: about 2.0 mg zinc
  • Almond: about 2.5 mg zinc


  1. O.S.U. Zinc deficiency mechanism linked to aging, multiple diseases. http://oregonstate.edu/ua/ncs/archives/2012/oct/zinc-deficiency-mechanism-linked-aging-multiple-diseases (accessed 1/20/2018)
  2. Sura Dhafir Dawood, Zainab Fadthel Ashoor. A Study of Serum Zinc, Iron, Selenium, and Copper levels in patients with bladder cancer. Iraqi Journal of Cancer and Medical Genetics. Volume: 3 – Number 1 – 2010
  3. Hemilä H, et al. The effectiveness of high dose zinc acetate lozenges on various common cold symptoms: a meta-analysis. BMC Fam Pract 2015;16:24.


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