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Zinc is an essential mineral of "exceptional biologic and public health importance". Zinc deficiency affects about two billion people in the developing world and is associated with many diseases. In children it causes growth retardation, delayed sexual maturation, infection susceptibility, and diarrhea, contributing to the death of about 800,000 children worldwide per year. Enzymes with a zinc atom in the reactive center are widespread in biochemistry, such as alcohol dehydrogenase in humans. Consumption of excess zinc can cause ataxia, lethargy and copper deficiency.

Zinc gluconate (also called zincum gluconium) is the zinc salt of gluconic acid. It is an ionic compound consisting of two moles of gluconate for each mole of zinc. Zinc gluconate is a popular form for the delivery of zinc as a dietary supplement.

Gluconic acid is found naturally, and is industrially manufactured by the fermentation of glucose, typically by Aspergillus niger, but also by other fungi, e.g. Penicillium, or by bacteria, e.g. Acetobacter, Pseudomonas and Gluconobacter. In its pure form, it is a white to off-white powder. It can also be manufactured by electrolytic oxidation, although this is a more expensive process. The advantages are a lower microbiological profile, and a more complete reaction, yielding a product with a longer shelf life. 1

Zinc gluconate may interfere with the absorption of antibiotics, so combinations may be unsafe.

Recommended Zinc Intakes

Intake recommendations for zinc and other nutrients are provided in the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) developed by the Food and Nutrition Board (FNB) at the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies (formerly National Academy of Sciences). DRI is the general term for a set of reference values used for planning and assessing nutrient intakes of healthy people. These values, which vary by age and gender, include the following:

  • Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA): average daily level of intake sufficient to meet the nutrient requirements of nearly all (97%–98%) healthy individuals.
  • Adequate Intake (AI): established when evidence is insufficient to develop an RDA and is set at a level assumed to ensure nutritional adequacy.
  • Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL): maximum daily intake unlikely to cause adverse health effects.

For infants aged 0 to 6 months, the FNB established an AI for zinc that is equivalent to the mean intake of zinc in healthy, breastfed infants.

Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) for Zinc

Age Male Female Pregnancy Lactation
Birth to 6 months >2 mg* 2 mg*    
7 months to 3 years 3 mg 3 mg    
4 to 8 years 5 mg 5 mg    
9 to 13 years 8 mg 8 mg    
14 to 18 years 11 mg 9 mg 13 mg 14 mg
19+ years 11 mg 8 mg 11 mg 12 mg
 * Adequate Intake (AI) 2

Sources of Zinc

A wide variety of foods contain zinc. Oysters contain more zinc per serving than any other food, but red meat and poultry provide the majority of zinc in the American diet. Other good food sources include beans, nuts, certain types of seafood (such as crab and lobster), whole grains, fortified breakfast cereals, and dairy products.

Phytates—which are present in whole-grain breads, cereals, legumes, and other foods—bind zinc and inhibit its absorption. Thus, the bioavailability of zinc from grains and plant foods is lower than that from animal foods, although many grain- and plant-based foods are still good sources of zinc. 2

Zinc Deficiency

Zinc deficiency is characterized by growth retardation, loss of appetite, and impaired immune function. In more severe cases, zinc deficiency causes hair loss, diarrhea, delayed sexual maturation, impotence, hypogonadism in males, and eye and skin lesions. Weight loss, delayed healing of wounds, taste abnormalities, and mental lethargy can also occur. Many of these symptoms are non-specific and often associated with other health conditions; therefore, a medical examination is necessary to ascertain whether a zinc deficiency is present.

Zinc nutritional status is difficult to measure adequately using laboratory tests due to its distribution throughout the body as a component of various proteins and nucleic acids. Plasma or serum zinc levels are the most commonly used indices for evaluating zinc deficiency, but these levels do not necessarily reflect cellular zinc status due to tight homeostatic control mechanisms. Clinical effects of zinc deficiency can be present in the absence of abnormal laboratory indices. Clinicians consider risk factors (such as inadequate caloric intake, alcoholism, and digestive diseases) and symptoms of zinc deficiency (such as impaired growth in infants and children) when determining the need for zinc supplementation. 2

Groups at Risk of Zinc Inadequacy

In North America, overt zinc deficiency is uncommon. When zinc deficiency does occur, it is usually due to inadequate zinc intake or absorption, increased losses of zinc from the body, or increased requirements for zinc. People at risk of zinc deficiency or inadequacy need to include good sources of zinc in their daily diets. Supplemental zinc might also be appropriate in certain situations.

People with gastrointestinal and other diseases
Gastrointestinal surgery and digestive disorders (such as ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, and short bowel syndrome) can decrease zinc absorption and increase endogenous zinc losses primarily from the gastrointestinal tract and, to a lesser extent, from the kidney. Other diseases associated with zinc deficiency include malabsorption syndrome, chronic liver disease, chronic renal disease, sickle cell disease, diabetes, malignancy, and other chronic illnesses. Chronic diarrhea also leads to excessive loss of zinc.

The bioavailability of zinc from vegetarian diets is lower than from non-vegetarian diets because vegetarians do not eat meat, which is high in bioavailable zinc and may enhance zinc absorption. In addition, vegetarians typically eat high levels of legumes and whole grains, which contain phytates that bind zinc and inhibit its absorption.

Vegetarians sometimes require as much as 50% more of the RDA for zinc than non-vegetarians. In addition, they might benefit from using certain food preparation techniques that reduce the binding of zinc by phytates and increase its bioavailability. Techniques to increase zinc bioavailability include soaking beans, grains, and seeds in water for several hours before cooking them and allowing them to sit after soaking until sprouts form. Vegetarians can also increase their zinc intake by consuming more leavened grain products (such as bread) than unleavened products (such as crackers) because leavening partially breaks down the phytate; thus, the body absorbs more zinc from leavened grains than unleavened grains.

Pregnant and lactating women
Pregnant women, particularly those starting their pregnancy with marginal zinc status, are at increased risk of becoming zinc insufficient due, in part, to high fetal requirements for zinc. Lactation can also deplete maternal zinc stores. For these reasons, the RDA for zinc is higher for pregnant and lactating women than for other women.

Older infants who are exclusively breastfed
Breast milk provides sufficient zinc (2 mg/day) for the first 4–6 months of life but does not provide recommended amounts of zinc for infants aged 7–12 months, who need 3 mg/day. In addition to breast milk, infants aged 7–12 months should consume age-appropriate foods or formula containing zinc. Zinc supplementation has improved the growth rate in some children who demonstrate mild-to-moderate growth failure and who have a zinc deficiency.

People with sickle cell disease
Results from a large cross-sectional survey suggest that 44% of children with sickle cell disease have a low plasma zinc concentration, possibly due to increased nutrient requirements and/or poor nutritional status. Zinc deficiency also affects approximately 60%–70% of adults with sickle cell disease. Zinc supplementation has been shown to improve growth in children with sickle cell disease.

Approximately 30%–50% of alcoholics have low zinc status because ethanol consumption decreases intestinal absorption of zinc and increases urinary zinc excretion. In addition, the variety and amount of food consumed by many alcoholics is limited, leading to inadequate zinc intake.

Zinc and Health Immune function
Severe zinc deficiency depresses immune function, and even mild to moderate degrees of zinc deficiency can impair macrophage and neutrophil functions, natural killer cell activity, and complement activity. The body requires zinc to develop and activate T-lymphocytes. Individuals with low zinc levels have shown reduced lymphocyte proliferation response to mitogens and other adverse alterations in immunity that can be corrected by zinc supplementation. These alterations in immune function might explain why low zinc status has been associated with increased susceptibility to pneumonia and other infections in children in developing countries and the elderly.

Wound healing
Zinc helps maintain the integrity of skin and mucosal membranes. Patients with chronic leg ulcers have abnormal zinc metabolism and low serum zinc levels, and clinicians frequently treat skin ulcers with zinc supplements. The authors of a systematic review concluded that zinc sulfate might be effective for treating leg ulcers in some patients who have low serum zinc levels. However, research has not shown that the general use of zinc sulfate in patients with chronic leg ulcers or arterial or venous ulcers is effective.

Acute diarrhea is associated with high rates of mortality among children in developing countries. Zinc deficiency causes alterations in immune response that probably contribute to increased susceptibility to infections, such as those that cause diarrhea, especially in children.

Studies show that poor, malnourished children in India, Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia experience shorter courses of infectious diarrhea after taking zinc supplements. The children in these studies received 4–40 mg of zinc a day in the form of zinc acetate, zinc gluconate, or zinc sulfate.

In addition, results from a pooled analysis of randomized controlled trials of zinc supplementation in developing countries suggest that zinc helps reduce the duration and severity of diarrhea in zinc-deficient or otherwise malnourished children. Similar findings were reported in a meta-analysis published in 2008 and a 2007 review of zinc supplementation for preventing and treating diarrhea. The effects of zinc supplementation on diarrhea in children with adequate zinc status, such as most children in the United States, are not clear.

The World Health Organization and UNICEF now recommend short-term zinc supplementation (20 mg of zinc per day, or 10 mg for infants under 6 months, for 10–14 days) to treat acute childhood diarrhea. 2

Sources/More Info:

1. Wikipedia

2. National Institutes of Health (
3. MedlinePlus


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