Zinc Deficiency: Symptoms, Diagnosis, and More

Our body relies on various minerals to function properly. Zinc is one of them. This mineral participates in many functions in the body.

The health and wellbeing of every person depend on proper zinc intake. Just like other minerals, we need to consume enough zinc on a daily basis. 

What happens if we don’t? 

Zinc deficiency ensues! 

In this post, we shed light on zinc deficiency, an underestimated problem with a severe impact on our health and quality of life. Read on to learn more. 

What is zinc deficiency?

Zinc is an essential mineral or a vital trace element. The body can’t function without it. The body needs zinc in trace amounts, but this mineral is incredibly essential for our health and wellbeing. Cells throughout the body contain zinc. 

You need this mineral for the proper immune function. Zinc also takes part in cell division, cell growth, breakdown of carbohydrates, and wound healing. Interestingly, you need zinc for senses of taste and smell.

Zinc is necessary during pregnancy, infancy, and childhood. With help from this mineral, the baby develops and grows properly. 

What many people don’t know is that zinc enhances the action of insulin.

The body requires zinc for numerous aspects of cellular metabolism. The catalytic activity of about 100 enzymes depends on zinc. This mineral is important for protein synthesis, DNA synthesis, sperm production, testosterone levels, and many other things. 

Even though the body can store some nutrients, that’s not the case with zinc. Daily intake of this mineral is necessary to maintain a steady-state because there is no specialized zinc storage system in your body. 

Sometimes the body doesn’t have enough zinc to function properly. In other words, a person has a zinc deficiency. Just like you can have a copper deficiency, magnesium deficiency, or iron deficiency, you can also be deficient in this mineral.

This nutritional deficiency affects about one-third of the world’s population. The estimates are ranging from 4% to 73% across subregions. Severe zinc deficiency is rare. Mild-to-moderate zinc deficiency is common in the world. 

The prevalence of zinc deficiency is more common in the developing world, rather than in developed countries. This doesn’t mean the US and other countries are immune to zinc deficiency. Even in the US, about 12% of the population is at risk of zinc deficiency, and about 40% of the elderly. 

Zinc deficiency symptoms

When the body is deficient in certain nutrients, it develops various symptoms. These symptoms inform us that something is wrong. Unfortunately, we tend to ignore some signs and symptoms because we think they’re not a “big deal.” They are! 

Through symptoms, your body tells you it’s time to make some changes to protect your health. 

How to know whether you have this micronutrient deficiency?

Symptoms of zinc deficiency are associated with the roles this mineral performs in the body. When you’re deficient in zinc, the body is unable to produce new, healthy cells.

That’s why you may experience a wide range of symptoms. It can also lead to oxidative stress. 

Some of the most common deficiency symptoms include:

  • Loss of appetite 

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Impaired function of the immune system

  • Lack of alertness

  • Slow wound healing 

  • Slower growth than expected

  • Decreased sense of smell and taste

  • Open sores on the skin

  • Diarrhea 

  • Irritability 

  • Lethargy 

  • Depression 

Moderate zinc deficiency may also induce male hypogonadism in adults, rough skin, and abnormal neurosensory changes. In other words, zinc deficiency may lower testosterone levels in men. 

White spots on nails can also indicate a zinc deficiency. However, keep in mind that white spotting on fingernails can be a result of other mineral deficiencies. For instance, calcium deficiency is also associated with this symptom.

In more severe cases, zinc deficiency causes delayed sexual maturity, hair loss, impotence, and eye and skin lesions. Many symptoms of zinc deficiency are nonspecific. That’s why you need to see the doctor. The healthcare provider will carry out certain tests to diagnose the cause of these symptoms. We will discuss the diagnosis below. 

Risk factors

Everyone can develop zinc deficiency. Some people are at a higher risk than others. Being aware of the risk factor allows you to prevent this problem and symptoms or complications that come with it. 

The most significant risk factors of zinc deficiency include the following.

People with gastrointestinal and other conditions

People who have undergone gastrointestinal surgery and those with digestive disorders are at a higher risk of zinc deficiency. 

Digestive conditions such as short bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis reduce zinc absorption.

At the same time, they increase zinc losses from the gastrointestinal tract. These conditions also amplify zinc losses from the kidneys, to some extent.

Other conditions that may increase the risk of zinc deficiency include:

  • Malabsorption syndrome

  • Chronic liver disease 

  • Chronic renal disease 

  • Sickle cell disease 

  • Malignancy (presence of cancerous cells with the ability to metastasize or spread to other sites and invade surrounding tissues) 

  • Diabetes 

  • Chronic diarrhea 

Pregnant and lactating women

Pregnant women have a high risk of zinc deficiency. The risk is even higher if you’re starting pregnancy with a marginal zinc level. The reason behind low plasma zinc levels in pregnancy is the high fetal requirement for this mineral.

Besides pregnancy, breastfeeding can also decrease zinc content in women. This explains why the recommended daily intake for pregnant and breastfeeding women is higher as well.


One of the best sources of zinc is meat. Not only is meat high in bioavailable zinc, but it also enhances the absorption of this mineral. Vegetarians can still obtain zinc from the diet, but it has lower bioavailability. That’s why vegetarians are at a higher risk of acquired zinc deficiency. 

Moreover, vegetarians consume high levels of whole grains and legumes. These food groups contain phytates that bind zinc and inhibit its absorption in the body. 

Compared to non-vegetarians, vegetarians may require 50% more of the recommended daily intake of zinc.

Having a sickle cell disease

Sickle cell disease is a term that refers to inherited blood disorders. In people with this disease, the red blood cells become hard and sticky. Instead of a round shape, these cells are C-shaped. The red blood cells in sickle cell disease resemble a farm tool sickle, hence the name.

Zinc deficiency risk is higher in people and children with sickle cell disease. Evidence shows that 44% of children with sickle cell disease have a low plasma zinc concentration. About 60% to 70% of adults with sickle cell disease are zinc deficient.

The reason is simple. Sickle cell disease increases nutrient requirements. Adults and children with this condition have poor nutritional status.

Older infants who are breastfed only 

Breast milk is a sufficient source of zinc for four to six months of a baby’s life. However, infants aged seven to 12 months need more zinc. They can’t rely only on breast milk. If you exclusively breastfeed your older infant, the risk of zinc deficiency increases.

The baby can’t get a sufficient amount of zinc that way. Besides breast milk, your older infant needs age-appropriate foods that deliver zinc. The formula containing zinc is also a suitable option.


Alcoholism is a major problem in the world. Figures show that 14.4 million adults in the US have alcohol use disorder. That means that 5.8% of people aged 18 and older are considered to be alcoholics.

Alcoholism increases the risk of Zn deficiency. About 30% to 50% of alcoholics have low zinc status. Why? Alcohol consumption decreases intestinal absorption of zinc while increasing urinary exertion of this mineral. People with alcohol use disorder tend to consume an unhealthy diet. Their intake of zinc is limited too. 

What causes zinc deficiency?

Every health problem stems from somewhere. What induces zinc deficiency, then? The general causes of zinc deficiency include:

  • Inadequate intake 

  • Increased zinc requirements

  • Malabsorption 

  • Impaired utilization 

  • Increased losses 

In most cases, insufficient zinc consumption is the culprit behind deficiency. This may result from a low dietary intake of zinc because people eat low-zinc content. The bioavailability of zinc is also the factor. 

To sum up, the causes of zinc deficiency are not the same for everyone. Some people may be zinc deficient because they don’t eat enough zinc-rich foods. Others lack zinc because they have a health condition that impairs their absorption. 


Diagnosis is the first step to better health, in general. However, diagnosing zinc deficiency can be tricky. Zinc is present in the body in trace amounts. A simple blood test can find it challenging to detect a deficiency. 

Zinc levels are tightly regulated through the activity of zinc transporters. This can help your doctor pinpoint a problem.

When you see the doctor make sure to report all symptoms you experience. Even if you think they’re not important! Based on the symptoms, the doctor may suspect zinc deficiency is the culprit. To confirm this, they will need to test your blood plasma.

Besides blood tests, urine tests and hair analysis can also help diagnose zinc deficiency. The doctor may analyze alkaline phosphatase too. 

In some cases, zinc deficiency is a symptom or consequence of another health problem. As seen above, some conditions suppress zinc absorption and lower the levels of this mineral. Your doctor is aware of all these facts. That’s why they may order additional tests to rule out other health conditions. 


The doctor says you have a zinc deficiency. Now what? Zinc deficiency may induce various uncomfortable symptoms, but the problem is manageable. You can treat zinc deficiency successfully. 

Before we discuss treatment options, it’s useful to address the daily intake of elemental zinc. Just how much zinc do you need every day?

Recommended daily allowances of zinc are:

So, how to treat zinc deficiency? It’s quite simple! If you have some health condition associated with zinc deficiency, your doctor will modify treatment to improve serum zinc levels. Being proactive about managing your health condition is important. This way, you can prevent deficiency. 

Let’s see what else you can do.


Everything starts with diet. It comes as no surprise that the treatment of zinc deficiency does too. Once a doctor diagnoses a low zinc level as the problem, they will recommend some dietary modifications. Long-term treatment for zinc deficiency starts with diet changes. 

You need to consume more zinc-rich foods. The best sources of dietary zinc include red meat, poultry, wheat germ, seeds, oysters, and wild rice.

You can also find dietary zinc in:

  • Seafood 

  • Beans

  • Fortified breakfast cereal

  • Yogurt

  • Nuts

  • Cheese 

Even though plant-based sources of zinc sulfate exist, meats offer higher levels of zinc and better bioavailability. This means that more zinc is absorbed into the body. 

This doesn’t mean vegetarians are out of options. Feel free to experiment with different foods and ingredients. Combine different sources of zinc and make delicious meals. Opt for healthy cooking methods to get the most out of the ingredients you bought. 

Many farmers use zinc fertilizer to enhance the levels of this mineral in their foods. Learn more about this subject and where to find those crops and produce. 


As much as we try, sometimes we can’t get enough zinc through diet. Vegetarians and vegans are, particularly at risk. Their diet doesn’t deliver a sufficient amount of zinc that the body can absorb and use. 

Also, you can be zinc deficient even if you’re not vegan or vegetarian. Some people have health problems that cause zinc deficiency. 

Quality of food you also eat matters. For example, you can buy zinc-rich food but still fail to obtain enough of this mineral due to low quality. 

Zinc supplementation is a reasonable solution. Dietary supplements supply the body with an adequate amount of zinc gluconate every day. Nutritional supplements are an adjunct to a healthy diet. They are not meant to replace it! For example, zinc lozenge helps you obtain enough of this mineral when you’re on-the-go. 

Many multivitamin supplements contain zinc. You can also buy individual zinc supplements, i.e., it only delivers zinc sulfate and nothing else. Supplementation has become a convenient way to maintain nutritional balance, and options regarding products are numerous.

When discussing zinc supplementation, it’s important to mention you can find oral zinc in some cold medicines. It seems easy just to take that medicine every day. That’s not a good decision. Avoid taking cold medication when you don’t have a common cold.

If you are taking medications for your health conditions, you need to consult the doctor before using zinc acetate supplements. Sometimes supplements can interact with other medications, and you don’t want that. 

You should stick to dosage instructions. Going overboard can cause zinc toxicity. 

When to see a doctor?

Zinc deficiency is underestimated. Although not a medical emergency, this problem isn’t something you should ignore. Zinc participates in many functions in the body. Low levels of this mineral impair those functions. That’s why you may develop a wide range of symptoms and problems. 

If you notice symptoms from this post, you should see a doctor. This is especially the case if you are in the high-risk group. 

Generally speaking, zinc deficiency is not an emergency, but it can be dangerous if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. If you breastfeed your baby or are pregnant and suspect you’re zinc deficient, make sure to call your doctor as soon as possible. Zinc is crucial for the development of your baby. You need to address this problem immediately to allow your bundle of joy to grow properly. 

Also, you should see a doctor if you’re zinc deficient and have diarrhea that won’t go away. Diarrhea that lasts several days is a major red flag. It’s not something to overlook easily. What happens if you have diarrhea for several days and don’t call your doctor? The risk of infection increases. If you already have an infection, it can worsen.

See your doctor as soon as possible if you feel dizzy or nauseous. A sudden headache that won’t go away is also a sign to call your doctor. Do the same if you experience unconsciousness too.

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Zinc deficiency is a common problem across the globe. Symptoms of low serum zinc levels are numerous. Treatment revolves around improving your diet or zinc supplementation. Adopt healthy lifestyle habits to maintain nutritional balances, support zinc homeostasis, and prevent complications that come with deficiencies. 


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