Celiac Disease and Nutrient Deficiencies: How are Your Zinc Levels?

Do you consume a diet high in zinc or supplement with zinc? If you have celiac disease you must know if you are deficient… and you probably are.

Why it is essential for celiacs to quickly overcome zinc deficiency

Zinc deficiency depletes our immune system and prevents tissue regeneration, which is uniquely problematic for celiacs. “Widespread chronic intestinal disorders may result in part from an unregulated immune response caused by altered inflammatory pathways, leading to impaired intestinal barriers, propagated inflammation, and subsequent impaired immune function. Studies have demonstrated that [zinc] has a strong role in these immune processes…” In fact, even just a mild zinc deficiency decreases the function of various kinds of immune cells and impairs overall immunity! Additionally, zinc appears to be essential in preserving and healing intestinal mucosa and halting celiac disease progression. It is also essential for healthy skin and skin cell regeneration, essential with dermatitis herpetiformis.

Beyond that, zinc is an essential nutrient. It is responsible for the activity of approximately 100 enzymes and is especially critical for functioning of the brain, liver, pancreas, kidneys, and bone and muscle development. Zinc supports a healthy immune system, is needed for wound healing, and is involved in energy metabolism, hemoglobin production, carbon dioxide transport, prostaglandin function, synthesis of collagen, protein synthesis and vitamin A metabolism. Zinc is important for male fertility and supports normal growth and development during pregnancy, childhood and adolescence.

Celiacs tend to have uniquely low zinc levels

Zinc and magnesium are the two most common nutrients deficiencies for everyone in the US. Most of us consume less than 10 mg of zinc a day and we need between 12-15 mg. Even with proper consumption, celiacs tend to be deficient in zinc. Zinc is absorbed throughout the small intestine, but celiac disease directly affects the proximal small intestine and damages the intestinal epithelial cell membrane preventing proper absorption. Even when zinc absorption is normal, in untreated celiac disease there is an increased turnover and loss of endogenous zinc.

Zinc deficiency symptoms—should you be worried about your zinc levels?

The zinc mnemonic I used in clinical herbalism school was: “If you can’t think and you stink, you might need zinc!” But that’s a little rudimentary! According to Michael Murray, ND, you may be deficient in zinc if you have one of more of these symptoms: low energy, nervousness, depression, impaired taste and smell, skin rashes and disorders (including acne, eczema, and psoriasis), problems adjusting to bright light/sun, white spots in fingernails, thinning hair/ baldness (may also be hypothyroidism), slow wound healing, frequent infection, male infertility, and anemia. Severe deficiency results in immune disorders including shrinkage of the thymus gland, deficient thymic hormones, low white blood cell count and worsening of diarrhea, if present. Yikes! Remember I wrote that most Americans are deficient in zinc—yeah, you can probably see this pattern of symptoms in many folks around you, not just celiacs!

If you think you might be deficient in zinc (actually all celiacs should check) ask your nutritionist to test you. In my clinic, I use a simple in-house taste test for zinc deficiency. I wish other mineral deficiencies were so quick and easy to discover!

How to get your zinc on…

The highest source of zinc is in fresh oysters (148.7mg per 3.5oz) and the next highest zinc abundant food is pumpkin seeds (7.5mg per 3.5 oz). Zinc in smaller quantities is in most beans and nuts.

If you are very low in zinc, have leaky gut, are newly diagnosed with celiac disease or don’t eat oysters or pumpkin seeds, you will probably need to supplement. Also, if you are a vegetarian, you will likely need to supplement as the vegetarian diet tends to be extremely high in copper-containing foods and copper depletes zinc. I don’t often suggest supplementing with a nutrient, but zinc is one of those nutrients that can be challenging to get through diet, but is so critical for celiacs to restore gut integrity and support healthy immune functioning.

You will find a variety of zinc forms on the market. Zinc Arginate supports immune function and helps to protect against free radical damage and Zinc Glycinate has the greatest absorption capability (whereas, Zinc Picolinate is difficult to absorb). Therefore it helps to get a blend of zinc. Liquid zinc is also more easy to absorb than pills; however, it’s hard to find liquid zinc that doesn’t contain a lot of unnatural sweeteners and flavorings to offset the not very pleasant taste of zinc.

And remember, if you are newly diagnosed celiac disease you will probably need to supplement with a higher amount of zinc until your levels get up and you are better absorbing nutrients again. Work with your nutritionist to determine how much you might need.

One of my favorite ways to get my zinc on is through my delicious and nutritious Pumpkin Seed Pesto recipe. Besides being high in zinc, pumpkin seeds are an excellent source of magnesium, vitamin E and essential fatty acids. Raw pumpkin seeds (I toast them in this recipe) also support a healthy prostate (finally something I don’t have to worry about for myself!).

This is an update to the original article: “Gluten Intolerant? How are Your Zinc Levels?”