Zinc is an amazing nutrient because it plays such a critical role in keeping us healthy. It is technically classified as a “micronutrient” since we need so very little of it. Many older women, for example, only need about 8 milligrams a day. Our bodies cannot produce zinc, so we need to get it from our food.
This nutrient, which is found throughout our bodies, has many important functions. Of special relevance to boomer women is evidence that getting enough zinc may help prevent osteoporosis. It seems to do this by promoting bone regeneration.
It may even slow down age-related macular degeneration (which can cause irreversible blindness and affects some 11 million people in the U.S.). It also may help prevent lung and esophageal cancer.
As if that were not enough, zinc can also help boomers better manage high blood pressure as well as prevent or speed up recovery from urinary tract infections.
It has been reported that over the course of a year in a skilled nursing facility, people with lower levels of zinc had twice as many cases of pneumonia and some 50 percent more prescriptions for antibiotics than those with normal zinc levels. Those people with normal zinc levels had a lower mortality rate from all causes than those who were deficient in this mineral.
In the same way that having adequate zinc levels has health benefits, not having enough creates health risks. These include scaly red skin, loss of appetite, anorexia, diarrhea, not healing quickly and problems with taste and smell. Zinc deficiency can also increase our risk for getting any number of viral, bacterial, and fungal infections, as well as parasites.
And in keeping with the “too much of a good thing is not good either,” having too much zinc in our bodies carries various health risks. These include, for example, headaches, nausea, and diarrhea. Over time, an excess of zinc can also lead to a lower immune response, low copper levels and our bodies not using iron as they should.
Despite the importance of zinc for good health, especially as we age, zinc deficiency is often either overlooked or not noticed. In fact, 35 to 45 percent of women over the age of 60 may have inadequate zinc intake.
Chronic conditions such as diabetes and kidney disease can cause zinc deficiency. And we also may not be able to efficiently absorb zinc from the foods we do eat due to age and/or medications. Another factor is that our bodies absorb zinc better from animal foods than they do plant foods.
Given that meat may be difficult for many seniors to eat, not having enough of it in our diet may also impact our zinc levels. Last, but not least, you should know that caffeine-containing beverages, such as tea and coffee, can decrease our bodies’ ability to absorb zinc.
Combine these with lower zinc levels in a variety of foods due to soil depletion and environmental factors, and you have the perfect storm for not having enough zinc for optimum health.
While making dietary changes may help address this deficiency, the solution for those who are not getting enough zinc from our diets often is to take supplements. While the appropriate amount of zinc supplementation will depend on an individual’s needs, health and physical make-up, it is usually suggested that upwards of 30 mg per day may be the ideal amount.
While this is readily achievable, it comes close to the upper limit of 40 mg per day of zinc recommended by health professionals. I like to call this range – between 8 mg and 40 mg – the “Zinc Goldilocks Zone,” since staying in it is just what your body needs. Go above or below it and you run health risks.
The challenge to staying in this zone is that there is “hidden zinc” in many products or materials that we encounter every day. If you combine that with what we get through supplementation it becomes easy to overshoot the 40 mg daily upper limit.
For example, denture adhesives sometimes contain zinc as an ingredient. Many people use far more of the product than they really need to help keep their dentures in place. The result is they ingest more zinc than they should, and this, especially if they are taking zinc supplements, can result in what is known as zinc toxicity.
According to the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there are reported cases in the medical literature linking such ailments as nerve damage, numbness, or tingling to the use of these zinc-containing adhesives.
Some oral over-the-counter medications also contain zinc, such as cold lozenges, nasal sprays, and gels for treating the common cold. It can also be found in some mouthwashes, toothpastes, and sunscreens. Other products that can expose us to zinc are pesticides; compounds used to manufacture paints and dyes; jewelry; cosmetics; and even anti-dandruff shampoo and calamine lotion.
Start out by talking with your doctor about getting a nutrient test to see if you have adequate levels of zinc in your body. While not as accurate as a nutrient test, you can also do a little experiment at home to see if you may be zinc deficient.
To do this, get some liquid zinc from a health store and swish a tablespoon or so around your mouth. If you get a metallic or unpleasant taste in your mouth, you probably have good zinc levels. If it tastes like water, or is even sweet, then you may be deficient.
If you have some level of zinc deficiency, perhaps try to include more zinc-containing foods in your diet. These include oysters, red meat, beans, broccoli, oatmeal, poultry, spinach, nuts such as almonds and walnuts, and tofu.
If you need to take supplements, take only those that your doctor or another competent healthcare provider recommends. Confirm that the manufacturers have the quality, purity, and amount of zinc in their supplements tested and certified by an outside lab. Be wary of products that include “proprietary blend” since you really will have no idea what this blend contains.
Another thing to do is to look at products you use that may have “hidden zinc” and take steps to ensure they do not put you over the “Zinc Goldilocks Zone.” If you use denture adhesive cream, for example, talk with your dentist and let her know that you are having problems with how your dentures fit.
Perhaps something can be done to improve their fit without having to resort to using more denture adhesive cream. You also can look for a brand that is zinc-free. But if you decide to use a cream with zinc, be sure to follow the instructions carefully and use only the indicated amounts.
Also keep in mind that there may be interactions between your medications and zinc. For example, thiazide diuretics can increase the amount of zinc your body loses in urine. On the other hand, another type of diuretic, amiloride, can block your body’s ability to remove zinc. So, the former can cause zinc deficiency and the latter zinc toxicity.
Zinc can also impact how some medications work. Your best course is to make sure to be honest with your doctor about all the medications – both prescription and over the counter – that you take. This will allow her to determine the ideal amount of zinc for you.
Have you ever been told you may be zinc deficient? If so, what do you do about it? Do you regularly eat foods that are good sources of zinc? Do you currently take zinc supplements? Have you ever had your zinc levels tested? Please join the conversation.