Zinc an essential nutrient: why take it and how?

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In the most recent Wise Traditions journal, published quarterly by the Weston A Price foundation, there was an interesting article by Ananda S Prasad, MD, PhD, who has spent the last 50 years studying zinc.  It is largely due to him that zinc has the recognition it now has as an essential mineral to support healthy life. What he discovered and how he got there I shall summarise shortly.  In the same journal there is also an article about the important minerals that help the uptake and use of the fat soluble vitamins: A,D,E and K.  And those minerals are zinc and magnesium.  A diet short of those means a body short of its fat soluble vitamins, no matter what the source of these are.  The best source of zinc and magnesium, what little there is left in our food, is animal proteins.  Therefore, to be reasonably healthy we really do have to eat red meat and animal fat.

And so, before getting stuck in, on Tuesday evenings on Radio 4, there has been a programme, ‘So you’ve never seen Star Wars’ in which the comedian, Marcus Brigstock, gets some hapless celebrity to do something obvious they have never done before.  Last week we had a woman who said her husband called her cooking Northern Peasant style – meat stews and treacle pudding.  So she agreed to cook a couple of ‘healthy dishes’.  One did sound nice, a mix of various vegetables with ginger and spices.  Lovely with a hunk of animal.  The other was a mix of brown rice, lentils and tofu.  Utterly ghastly.  And nutritionally abominable.  As we are about to see.

Prasad began his career with zinc studying dwarfism in Iran and Egypt.  Not only were the men studied dwarfs, but they also had not gone through puberty and men like them died at about the age of 25 from a huge variety of infections.  Their diet consisted of unleavened bread, some vegetables and a bit of dairy.  Those in Iran also ate 1lb of clay a day!  Prasad suspected that iron and other minerals were being pulled out of them by the clay and the cereals.  Due to zinc being a growth factor in plants and animals, he took the leap of faith, plus extreme bloody-mindedness and gave his dwarfs a zinc supplement. 1  Within 3 weeks, the men started to grow beards etc, within 6 months they had passed through puberty and in the space of a year they grew 5 – 6″.

Despite these remarkable findings, it took ten years before zinc was accepted as an essential element to human life. Work was continued on extreme zinc deficiencies.  The next major hurdle was to debunk the myth that there couldn’t possibly be a zinc deficiency in America.  Prasad found two groups of people in America to suffer zinc deficiency: the elderly and pregnant women.  The elderly suffered from low zinc levels because of poor diet -the standard breakfast of doughnuts and coffee, no lunch then dinner in a restaurant plus zinc absorption in the gut being less than optimal.  Pregnant women, he worked out, need 25 mg of zinc a day, an amount impossible to get from the diet alone.

As part of his work, he experimented with setting up a zinc deficiency in volunteers.  He found the following developed:

  1. Abnormal taste, which meant they could not taste sugar, salt and bitter properly.
  2. Their eyes had a problem adapting to the dark.
  3. The men developed low sperm count and lowered testosterone levels.
  4. Ammonia levels went down.
  5. They had immunological changes: decreased production of two types of white blood cells.  What was scary here was that blood levels of zinc remained the same for 24 weeks, whilst the white blood cell levels were dropping, showing how sensitive immune function is to zinc levels.

Elsewhere, he discovered that over three hundred enzymes are zinc dependant to work – enzymes are rather like catalysts, helping things to happen.  And there are over two thousand zinc dependent flows of information in the cells from the DNA to the RNA.  Within a cell, zinc works like a molecular signal, once inside a cell it gets very busy.2  Charles Poliquin calls zinc, ‘Mother’s little helper’ – and I think this sums up zinc’s role.  It helps things happen and without it, they don’t happen and we get ill.  And the illnesses can range from macular degeneration, catching colds, managing Wilson’s disease, helping treat sickle cell disease.  It is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.  In the elderly, many of the chronic diseases – atherosclerosis, cancer and some dementias have both oxidative stress and chronic inflammation as part of the cause.  Zinc is a cornerstone for good health.

And so we come to the next part of the tale of zinc – uptake.  As I have said before, the best sources of zinc come from animal products, because the body recognises zinc when it comes attached to a protein. 3 But for the best effect, zinc also interacts with the fat soluble vitamins A and D.  For example, zinc supports the production of vitamin D receptors, and is an essential structural component in the primary protein that transports vitamin A through the blood.  And vice versa, vitamin A supports the intestinal absorption of zinc, and zinc supports the formation of vesicles that transport the fat-soluble vitamins across the intestinal wall.

All these discoveries have huge ramifications.  The supplement I sell most of is zinc – Poliquin’s Uber zinc.  And people take it because it works.  They catch less colds, their hair or nails get stronger, they have more energy, their muscles get stronger.  We can see that to have good zinc levels, we have to have the right diet, which includes a healthy amount of animal protein and fat, good guts that can actually uptake nutrients – and, if we have grown a baby without taking extra zinc, where did the zinc come from?  And what has happened to replace zinc levels?  In the case of most women, bugger all.  Zinc is a major micronutrient and building up or restoring good levels involves high quality supplementation, along with an excellent diet that shuns pretend fats whilst embracing real fats like butter and lard and always has a good dollop of something dead to fill the tum.


  1. At that time, the medical profession did not believe humans needed zinc at all, so Prasad had to get special permission to try his zinc supplementation, since the authorities were convinced that taking any zinc was toxic. []
  2. Zinc in a cell – well, the words get very long.  It takes part in phosphorylation, which is adding a phosphate to a protein, thereby turning an enzyme on or off within the cell, and it also does other things too apparently.  But I really am no biochemist!! []
  3. The best dietary sources of zinc are oysters – bit scary, what with potential food poisoning – beef, phew, liver and cheese.  Then weaker sources are chicken and eggs, with the weakest being beans, milk, grains and vegetables []

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