A well balanced diet is a crucial component to a healthy lifestyle (and a healthy head of hair for that matter).
We literally are what we eat. The food we choose to consume on a daily basis helps to build our cells and repair our bodies.
As with many things, variety is the key to a healthy diet.
Although there are plenty of supplement companies that would have you believe otherwise, there is no substitute to eating a wide range of whole, plant foods – packed with a myriad of important vitamins and minerals.
Zinc is one such mineral that receives a fair deal of attention, particularly where hair loss is concerned, and rightly so. Studies have shown that the body requires a delicate balance of zinc, and consuming too much or too little can both lead to hair loss and other issues.
In this article we’ll take a look at the role of zinc in the body, how much you need, why you need it, and where to find it.
What is Zinc?
Zinc is known as a trace element, meaning that it is needed in very small amounts for the essential growth and maintenance of the human body. Other trace minerals include iron, iodine, magnesium, copper… The list goes on.
Zinc is involved in a number of different biochemical processes such as cell production and the maintenance of normal hormone levels.
It also plays a role in the absorption of other important vitamins and minerals, including those mentioned above.
Last but not least, zinc is involved in the synthesis of proteins, which are needed for the growth and repair of cells in the body (including those in your hair).
All in all, without zinc many of the vital processes that occur automatically in the body would not be able to function properly.
Symptoms of a Zinc Deficiency
Zinc is a mineral that we do not produce in the body, so we need to source it from the food that we consume. If one is not consuming enough foods rich in zinc, or if there are mal-absorption issues, a zinc deficiency may occur.
Some of the main signs of a zinc deficiency include:
- Hair loss. One of the most common signs of a deficiency. A lack of zinc weakens the body’s cells, leading to thinning of the hair.
- Weakened immune system. A deficiency in zinc can weaken the immune response, increasing one’s susceptibility to infections and disease.
- When the immune system is compromised, you are more likely to succumb to an infection or stomach bug, so the likelihood of suffering from diarrhea increases.
- Muscle wastage. Zinc is involved in the repair of muscles cells. A deficiency can lead to wastage and weight loss. It may also suppress the appetite, potentially leading to anorexia.
If left untreated, other symptoms of a zinc deficiency include skin lesions, psoriasis, acne and reduced fertility, so it is important to maintain adequate levels.
How Much Zinc Should We Take?
It is very important to make sure that you are getting just the right amount of zinc. Just like in the childhood story ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’, you need to make sure you’re not consuming too much or too little.
The NHS recommends the following:
- 5.5-9.5mg a day for men
- 4.0-7.0mg a day for women
It’s important to note that deficiencies of Vitamin A and D are also a prominent cause of zinc deficiency. It therefore may be worth ensuring that you are consuming optimal levels of these vitamins before adjusting your zinc consumption.
If you are unsure, most chemists or GP’s will be able to provide you with a simple test to determine your levels of each vitamin and mineral.
Why is the Zinc Balance so Important for Hair Loss?
Hairs are predominantly made up of the two proteins, collagen and keratin. A zinc deficiency leads to changes in these proteins, which can to weaken their structural integrity. Over time, this eventually causes thinning and baldness.
A deficiency also reduces the production of sebum, a natural oil secreted by the scalp that helps to maintain the strength of hair follicles.
Whilst a deficiency can cause hair loss, on the other hand, too much zinc in the body can also have adverse effects.
Excess amounts can raise sebum production to above normal levels. This sebum then combines with dead skin cells, hair products and environmental pollutants, forming a layer of plaque on the scalp. This layer of plaque suffocates the hair follicles, choking off their supply of nutrients and amino acids, and subsequently leading to hair thinning.
Too much zinc can also raise levels of testosterone. Whilst this may seem desirable (especially in males), testosterone sometimes interacts with the enzyme 5 alpha-reductase, which then leads to the production of dihydrotestosterone (DHT).
When DHT is formed, it reduces the size of hair follicles in people with a genetic predisposition to hair loss, and over time, the smaller follicles produce shorter and thinner hair.
Elevated zinc levels can also reduce the absorption of other important vitamins and minerals such as iron, magnesium and selenium, which are needed for a fully functioning body, and healthy head of hair.
When zinc levels are optimal, production of DHT is limited. Zinc helps to keep the hormone levels regulated, which is one of the reasons why it is so effective in preventing and treating hair loss. You just have to be careful to maintain the delicate balance.
Zinc also plays an important role in DNA and RNA production, allowing for the division of follicle cells. This improves the structural integrity of the hair, particularly during the anagen stage of the hair growth cycle.
Dietary Sources of Zinc
Whilst zinc supplements are widely available, the mineral can easily be sourced from a variety of simple, whole foods. Here are some of the best:
- Wheat germ has the highest known zinc concentration. It is also rich in fiber, great for digestive health and maintaining a healthy body composition
- Pumpkin seeds are also rich in zinc. In addition, they are packed with plant based protein, iron, and magnesium – all of which contribute towards healthy hair growth
- Soy products such as tofu, edamame beans, and tempeh are all rich in zinc, as well as being heart healthy and packed with protein.
- Meats are also a source of zinc and protein. They may however raise testosterone levels, which could have adverse effects on hair health.
- Shrimp contain ample amounts of zinc, and a whole host of other important micronutrients.
- Egg yolks are also a good source, although they are also high in cholesterol and saturated fats, which may not be that great for your all round health.
- Whole grains are rich in zinc, as well as B-vitamins and fiber.
- Lentils are packed full of protein, needed for the structural integrity of hairs. They also contain a healthy amount of zinc.
- Cashew nuts are zinc rich, and full of healthy fats.
- Sesame seeds are another great source of zinc and important fatty acids.
- Quinoa, the ancient grain, is another food that provides the powerful combination of zinc, protein, and fiber.
- Spinach contains sufficient amounts of zinc. It is also rich in iron, which helps to improve blood flow to the hair follicles.
- Cocoa powder contains zinc, as well as important fats. Add it to your smoothie for a hair healthy boost.
- Mushrooms are a great zinc source, and they are also rich in Vitamin D, a micronutrient that improves the availability of zinc.
What is your favorite healthy source of zinc?