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Worried that you might have symptoms of low zinc? You’ve come to the right place.

Zinc is an essential mineral — meaning your body needs to get it from outside sources. Your body uses zinc to keep your immune system in fighting form and help heal wounds.

Zinc also plays an important role in metabolism, your senses of taste and smell, and eye health.

As for how much you should be getting? It’s recommended that men take in 11 milligrams of zinc daily and women get 8 milligrams. Your needs are a little higher if you’re pregnant (12 milligrams) or breastfeeding (13 milligrams).

Zinc is found in some foods naturally and added to some packaged ones, and you can also get it as a supplement. Most Americans get their fill. But failing to have enough could set the stage for health concerns, and certain people are at higher risk than others.

Here’s how to spot the symptoms of zinc deficiency and tell whether you might be at risk.

The body can give off a number of different signals when it’s running very low on zinc. The first ones you might notice are:

  • having less of an appetite than usual
  • lowered immune function (you seem to get sick more often)

Other symptoms can show up as a zinc deficiency starts to become more severe. These could include:

  • weight loss
  • hair loss
  • diarrhea
  • wounds that take slower than usual to heal
  • impotence in men
  • brain fog
  • not being able to taste food as well, or not being able to taste at all

That’s a long list of potential signs to watch for. Just keep in mind that lots of these problems can also be signs of other health issues, so you shouldn’t try to self-diagnose.

It’s better to see your doctor to get tested for a zinc deficiency and rule out any other possible conditions.

In all, around 12 percent of U.S. adults are at risk for zinc deficiency. But why does it happen in the first place?

Obviously, zinc deficiencies occur when your body doesn’t have the amount of zinc that it needs. One way that can happen is if you just don’t get enough zinc in your diet.

But there could be other factors at play too. Some people aren’t able to absorb zinc as well, which could lead to a shortage. Certain health conditions can also cause the body to lose zinc. Either of which could add up to a deficiency.

These kinds of issues are more likely to apply to some people than others. You might be more likely to become zinc deficient if:

  • You have a GI disorder like inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, or Crohn’s disease. Digestive problems can lessen zinc absorption as well as cause zinc to be lost through the GI tract. Chronic diarrhea that sometimes comes with these problems can also cause excess zinc loss.
  • You have diabetes, sickle cell disease, or chronic liver or renal disease. All of these conditions make it harder for the body to absorb zinc.
  • You’re vegetarian. Plant based diets don’t offer as much zinc as ones with meat. And some vegetarian staples, like beans and whole grains, contain compounds that actually inhibit zinc absorption.
  • You’re pregnant or breastfeeding. Your zinc needs are higher during these periods, so it can be a little harder to get enough.
  • You drink excessively. The ethanol in alcohol significantly decreases the body’s ability to absorb zinc from food.

Eating foods rich in zinc is the best way to keep a deficiency at bay. Beef, shellfish, and eggs are top zinc sources with high bioavailability, so if you’re concerned about getting enough of the mineral, make a point to eat those regularly.

Nuts and beans are good plant based options, too, though their zinc isn’t as well absorbed.

Here’s a quick look some of the best zinc-rich foods:

  • oysters (74 milligrams per 3-ounce serving)
  • beef chuck roast (7 milligrams per 3-ounce serving)
  • crab (6.5 milligrams per 3-ounce serving)
  • lobster (3.4 milligrams per 3-ounce serving)
  • pork chop (2.9 milligrams per 3-ounce serving)
  • chicken (2.4 milligrams per 3-ounce serving of dark meat)
  • pumpkin seeds (2.2 milligrams per 1-ounce serving)
  • cashews (1.7 milligrams per 1-ounce serving)
  • chickpeas (1.3 milligrams per 1/2 cup cooked)
  • low fat milk (1 milligram per 1 cup)
  • peas (.5 milligram per 1/2 cup)

Boosting your zinc absorption

Since the zinc in plant foods has lower bioavailability, vegetarians and vegans may need up to 50 percent more than the standard recommended zinc amounts.

That’s a tall order, but you can get more zinc-bang for your buck by soaking dried grains and beans for several hours before cooking them, which makes their zinc more absorbable.

Another option? Aim to have more leavened grain sources, like breads made with yeast. The leavening process breaks down compounds in grains that inhibit zinc absorption, helping your body get more of the mineral.

Should you take a zinc supplement?

Oral zinc supplements can be helpful if you’ve got a zinc deficiency or have a health condition that puts you at risk. But it’s best to take them under your doc’s supervision. Very high levels of zinc — over 40 milligrams per day — can cause toxicity and lead to nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, and cramps.

If you’re dealing with symptoms that you think could be related to a zinc deficiency, start by seeing your doctor. They can look at your zinc levels with a blood or urine test, or even analyze a strand of your hair to check the zinc content.

Any signs of a potential zinc deficiency are worth bringing up with your doctor. Your symptoms might just mean that you need to get more zinc in your diet, in which case, your doc can help you decide the best way to go about that.

But your symptoms could also be a sign of an underlying health condition, or an issue that has nothing to do with zinc at all. A full exam can pinpoint the root of the problem and see whether anything else is going on.

tl;dr

Most people get enough zinc from food, so deficiencies aren’t super common in the USA. But low zinc can affect certain groups of people with higher needs or those with certain health conditions.

If you think you have signs of a zinc deficiency, your doctor can test your levels and help you figure out the best way to bring them up.