By Dr. Adam Killpartrick
Every living thing on this planet depends on minerals for proper bodily function and structure. Each essential mineral offers its own benefits, but consider the importance of providing one of the most important minerals to a child during their development period.
Zinc provides growing children with the nutrition and immune system balance that they need to be strong and healthy throughout childhood—and well into adulthood. The mineral plays a variety of roles within the body, and a deficiency is certainly something to watch out for. But what does zinc do, exactly?
Minerals ensure the proper composition of body fluids, blood and bone formation, the maintenance of healthy nerve function, and the regulation of muscle tone, including those of the cardiovascular system.1 Zinc is especially important, as it plays an essential role in maintaining a normal and balanced immune system.2 The supplementation of zinc is also important for occasional diarrheal episodes in children.
However, if a zinc deficiency is present, health conditions may arise. These could include a loss in taste or smell, thin and peeling fingernails (often with white spots), or imbalanced immune reactions. In more serious cases, zinc deficiency may cause skin and hair problems, diarrhea, hormone imbalances, and even delayed growth..
Additionally, both the innate immunity (the body’s first line of defense against pathogens) and natural killer cells are highly dependent on the levels of zinc in the body. These levels also modulate the function of the most important types of white blood cells, like monocytes, macrophages, and neutrophils.3
At the same time, zinc is necessary for the development and activation of T-lymphocytes, a major component of the immune system. Research has shown that when zinc supplements are given to individuals with low levels of zinc, the numbers of T-cell lymphocytes in the blood increase and the capability of lymphocytes as bodily defenders.4,5 But how does that work?
It’s common for children to get sick from time to time, but if a child with nutritional deficiencies is exposed to different environments, there is the possibility that health issues may occur. This happens when viruses, bacteria, or other microbes enter the body and multiply.6 So, what is the best way to support your child’s immune health?
Zinc promotes mucosal resistance by enhancing the activity of the immune cells and the production of antibodies against invading pathogens.7,8 Opposingly, a zinc deficiency increases the susceptibility to intestinal issues and is a may cause occasional diarrhea in children.
An important aspect that parents should consider when it comes to optimal health is keeping track of their child’s nutritional intake. Zinc is prevalent in food sources like egg yolks, fish, meats, mushrooms, legumes, poultry, whole grains, and more.9,10,11 Keeping these foods on the menu can help your child stay healthy.
Pathogens require zinc for survival, propagation, and the formation of health challenges. This stimulates a competitive process between a child’s body and the invading pathogens that need zinc for survival. Still, there are mechanisms by which the body can create a zinc-limited environment for the pathogen.12
One option is to provide children with the proper amount of zinc. According to the Institute of Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board, the current recommended dietary allowances for zinc are as follows:
Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) for Zinc:13
*Recommended Daily Allowance
It is essential to keep in mind that if you supplement your children with high doses of zinc for prolonged periods, this may lead to a copper deficiency. Therefore, it’s crucial to continue providing your children with all the proper essential minerals at the right amounts and be sure never to exceed them.
Zinc deficiencies may lead to an impaired immune system and oxidative stress, both contributing factors to poor health.14,15 However, increasing zinc intake through diet and supplementation may be a feasible strategy for reducing the risk of healthy inflammatory response.
At the same time, zinc can promote a healthy inflammatory response by influencing the production of numerous inflammatory cytokines. Zinc concentrations drop rapidly during responses such as stress, and trauma. In these instances, zinc goes through different cellular processes, where it is utilized for protein synthesis, neutralization of free radicals that may cause oxidative stress, and made ready to prevent microbial invasion.16 This redistribution of zinc during inflammatory events is mediated by cytokines, a broad category of small proteins that are important in cell signaling.
A deficiency of zinc may also contribute to the development of diminished insulin response. The mineral itself may be a crucial element in insulin metabolism. Zinc helps strengthen the immune system and may also protect beta cells from destruction. Studies have shown those with poor insulin response are often zinc deficient, and supplementation may help lower blood sugar levels.17
There is a strong relationship between insulin, and zinc.The inability to regulate blood glucose properly affects zinc balance in many ways. Hyperglycemia and increased urinary output contribute to a decrease in total zinc present in the body. Since the mineral plays a role in the synthesis, storage, and secretion of insulin, as well as its different molecular compositions, the lack of zinc may affect the body’s ability to secrete insulin.
It’s important to note that several complications associated with poor glucose regulation are linked to increased intracellular oxidants and free radicals associated with a decrease in zinc and zinc-dependent antioxidant enzymes. There is a multifaceted interrelationship between zinc and insulin resistance. The role zinc plays in blood glucose management, its complications, and in its prevention is currently undergoing in-depth studies.
Red blood cells contain hemoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen throughout the body. The body needs iron to make hemoglobin, and when there is not enough iron, less hemoglobin, and fewer red blood cells are made, which may lead to anemia.
Still, current research has shown that anemia associated with zinc deficiency could not simply be from iron deficiency; it must be from a deficiency of zinc itself.18 The results point out the notion of zinc deficiency anemia in healthy school children, which was not described before. It was concluded that zinc deficiencies in children might contribute to cognitive deficiencies.
While zinc is important for many biological processes—both at a molecular and a physiological level—new evidence shows that it may also be involved in the regulation of sleep.
Recent research suggests that zinc levels vary with the amount of sleep an individual gets, while orally administered zinc increases the amount and the quality of sleep in humans.19 Additionally, satisfactory levels of zinc in the blood shorten the time it takes to fall asleep, increases the overall amount of sleep, and encourages physical repair and memory consolidation during deep sleep.20
Zinc supplementation as an alternative therapy has been shown to help children who have a zinc deficiency and may help manage autoimmune problems in young children. The possibility of a zinc deficiency should be taken into consideration when other health and nutrition deficiencies are considered. It is essential to provide children with the proper amount of zinc to ensure they meet their nutrient needs to bolster their immune systems and promote excellent health outcomes.
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2 Sandstead H.H. Understanding zinc: Recent observations and interpretations. J Lab Clin Med 1994; 124:322-7.
3 Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin A, Vitamin K, Arsenic, Boron, Chromium, Copper, Iodine, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, Silicon, Vanadium, and Zinc. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2001.
4 Solomons N.W. Mild human zinc deficiency produces an imbalance between cell-mediated and humoral immunity. Nutr Rev 1998; 56:27-8.
5 Roy S.K., Tomkins A.M., Akramuzzaman S.M., Behrens R.H., Haider R., Mahalanabis D., et al. Randomised controlled trial of zinc supplementation in malnourished Bangladeshi children with acute diarrhoea. Arch Dis Child. 1997; 77:196–200.
6 Roy S.K., Tomkins A.M., Mahalanabis D., Akramuzzaman S.M., Haider R., Behrens R.H., et al. Impact of zinc supplementation on persistent diarrhoea in malnourished Bangladeshi children. Acta Paediatr. 1998; 87:1235–9.
7 Faruque A.S., Mahalanabis D., Haque S.S., Fuchs G.J., Habte D. Double-blind, randomized, controlled trial of zinc or vitamin A supplementation in young children with acute diarrhoea. Acta Paediatr. 1999; 88:154–60.
8 Penny M.E., Peerson J.M., Marin R.M., Duran A., Lanata C.F., Lönnerdal B., et al. Randomized, community-based trial of the effect of zinc supplementation, with and without other micronutrients, on the duration of persistent childhood diarrhea in Lima, Peru. J Pediatr. 1999; 135:208–17.
9 Strand T.A., Chandyo R.K., Bahl R., Sharma P.R., Adhikari R.K., Bhandari N., et al. Effectiveness and efficacy of zinc for the treatment of acute diarrhea in young children. Pediatrics. 2002; 109:898–903.
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12 Todd W.R., Elvehjem C.A., Hart E.B. Zinc in the nutrition of the rat. Am. J. Physiol. 1980; 107:146–156. doi: 10.1111/j.1753-4887. 1980.tb05879. x.
13 “Sandstead H.H. Understanding zinc: recent observations and interpretations. J Lab Clin Med 1994; 124:322-7.
14 Prasad A.S. Impact of the discovery of human zinc deficiency on health. J. Am. Coll. Nutr. 2009; 28:257–265. doi: 10.1080/07315724.2009.10719780.
15 World Health Organization (WHO). The World Health Report. 83. World Health Organization; Geneva, Switzerland: 2002.
16 Rink L. Zinc in Human Health. IOS Press; Amsterdam, The Netherlands: 2011. p. 596.
17Kloubert V., Rink L. Zinc as a micronutrient and its preventive role of oxidative damage in cells. Food Funct. 2015; 6:3195–3204. doi: 10.1039/C5FO00630A.
18 Besecker B.Y., Exline M.C., Hollyfield J., Phillips G., DiSilvestro R.A., Wewers M.D., Knoell D.L. A comparison of zinc metabolism.... Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 2011; 93:1356–1364. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.110.008417.
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20 Chang K.L., Hung T.C., Hsieh B.S., Chen Y.H., Chen T.F., Cheng H.L. Zinc at pharmacologic concentrations affects cytokine expression and induces apoptosis of human peripheral blood mononuclear cells. Nutrition. 2006; 22:465–474. doi: 10.1016/j.nut.2005.11.009. [PubMed] [CrossRef] [Google Scholar]
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