The POWER of ZINC
For a time it was thought that one of the most obvious signs that you weren't getting enough zinc was the appearance of little white spots on some or any of your fingernails. These "milk spots" as they are sometimes called are relatively common and would come and go without much cause for concern. Fast forward to the pandemic and popular awareness of the importance of zinc seems to have reached a whole new level.
Natural health advocates and their disciples began flooding online vitamin retailers looking to ward off Covid naturally and without drugs. What they knew was that even though zinc is a trace mineral required in only trace amounts, it is such an integral part of a well functioning immune system and critical for so many vital functions that even a slight deficiency can have major consequences. What maybe they didn't know was that perhaps the most studied kind of zinc deficiency is related to hair- specifically hair loss, thinning and even premature greying. Why? For many reasons, but mainly because of the very specific role zinc plays in DNA synthesis, repair and protein replication. Hair, after all, is composed primarily of protein, so it stands to reason that if our ability to synthesize or 'make' protein is impaired, it will have direct implications for hair health and growth.
In our never-ending quest to explain the current epidemic of hair issues, could zinc be the answer?
Like so many nutritional deficiencies, the body usually signals to us that something is awry. In the case of a zinc deficit, the severity of symptoms will vary greatly are a matter of degree. Once the problem becomes chronic, however, things can go very wrong. Not enough zinc could first present itself simply as frequent fatigue, poor wound healing or skin that bruises easily. Left unchecked though and symptoms could snowball to include:
- skin lesions
- muscle wasting
- lack of appetite leading to anorexia
- IBS (irritable bowel syndrome)
- impairment of motor skills and cognitive function in children
- dysmenorrhea (painful periods)
- distressed gestation in pregnant women
People may be also surprised to learn that how zinc happens to be a well known factor in the maintenance of blemish free skin and the treatment of acne. This fact seems to be rarely discussed in the mainstream and yet a quick google search of 'zinc' and 'skin conditions' will yield many articles on how topical zinc has been useful in treating a myriad of skin problems from diaper rash to rosacea and eczema, with some even touting the benefits of using diaper creme (containing zinc oxide) to soothe facial acne. This is attributed to zinc’s antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, which can potentially calm even the angriest acne lesions. When topical use is coupled with internal supplementation, acne sufferers have reported a marked decrease in symptoms and outbreaks. Who knew?
This all seems to confirm what studies have shown for quite some time: zinc is involved in so many critical bio-chemical processes and right down to the cellular level, among them: cell reproduction, stability and repair, protein synthesis and replication and even production and maintenance of hormones (especially thyroid) as well as a key role in the absorption of other key vitamins and minerals.
So what does this mean for our hair? Let us explain.
The new magnesium
First, It is worth reminding everyone that any chronic nutritional deficiencies -especially minerals- can have huge consequences for the average person in a myriad of ways. But when it comes to hair, some nutrients are just more important than others. While biotin consistently seems to get all the attention, zinc has actually been clinically shown to be a critical component of DNA and RNA production, repair and protein synthesis. Operating in the form of structures called 'zinc fingers', these have a wide range of molecular functions including the division of follicle cells and binding of proteins both of which are necessary to bring about the division of new cells that in turn brings about new hair. Think of it as a hair building block- without them, no new hair can be made. For these reasons the zinc has influence over the anagen or 'growth cycle' of hair. If zinc levels are optimal, so will the growth cycle be, extending it and even making it more productive. In this way is zinc involved in the actual regulation of hair growth, something that has long been a source of mystery and frustration for so many. As a building block of hair, zinc is therefore involved in the structure of the hair itself impact the integrity of the protein you produce, in other words, the look, feel and texture of your hair. If there isn't enough zinc to go around, the hair can be thinner, weaker, more easily shed and even as reported in some studies, go grey faster. While this area of research needs more study, there are recorded cases of people whose hair happily changed back from dull grey to their original colors when placed on diets rich in zinc.
As any hair conscious person can tell you, the hair growth mechanism is a delicate one and can easily be disrupted by any number of factors. Chronic or extreme stress, lack of sleep, hormonal issues etc all can throw the wheels of hair growth off track. An often referred to study on the topic explains that "...the epithelial matrix is one of the proliferating and damage sensitive tissues in the mammalian organism". (Plonka et al: 2005). Hair is at least 90% protein and is (along with our nails) designed to be among the most actively replicating proteins in the human body and yet this replication process can easily be impaired and our hair simply won't grow well or in some cases, stop growing altogether. The use of zinc has been clinically proven to be useful in these extreme cases as well, where supplementation was shown to have "...inhibited chemotherapy induced alopicia and accelerated the growth of normally pigmented hair shafts." This means that in situations of significant hair loss such as during cancer treatment, the use of zinc has been demonstrated to be helpful in addressing or even reversing the problem. In fact clinical use of zinc for cancer patients and those with alopecia has already been used for decades.
It's just hormones
Any woman who is pre or post-partum knows the critical role hormones play with regard to hair. This is mostly a natural occurrence in pregnant women and is not too much cause for concern as the growth-loss-growth seesaw is usually self correcting with time. Persistent hair loss however -especially in women- is a problem, one that is widely thought to be related to the thyroid, specifically poor thyroid hormone production or hypothyoroidism. Normal zinc levels in the body is thought to be important in bringing about thyroid homeostasis or thyroid stability by assisting with the synthesis of TRH or Thyrotropin Releasing hormone. For healthy hair, normal thyroid hormone production is key and the role that zinc plays in this cannot be underestimated.
Let's be honest though- any hormonal instability can impact hair health. For example, there is recent research to support the claim that women taking the pill or other hormonal therapy can, over time, experience suppressed zinc absorption and eventual zinc deficiency. This is thought to occur because the synthetic oestrogen from contraceptives or hormonal therapy cannot be metabolized by some women and is instead retained causing copper levels to be elevated as a result. Just like sodium and potassium, minerals often work in pairs and the copper/zinc pair is no different. Copper and zinc work closely together and once copper is dominant in relation to zinc it can exert an 'anti-nutrient' or toxic metal influence causing a multitude of issues, including oddly enough, increased hair fall. This is because when copper is high, it can actually restrict the absorption and utilization of zinc but can also affect iron, magnesium, vitamins B3 and B5 and B6, vitamins C and E and certain other trace elements. So it must be emphasized that the copper/zinc continuum is a delicate one and too much is nearly as bad as too little. Like with everything, balance is key and the zinc/copper issue may be yet another reason to avoid oral contraceptives altogether, especially long term.
Thankfully, like many other minerals (read magnesium) we can supplement both internally and externally. There is a magical version of zinc called zinc l-pyrrolidone carboxylic acid or zinc PCA that can be extremely effective when used topically, most commonly in shampoos. Zinc PCA works directly on the hair to limit the production of DHT or dehydroxytestosterone, which is thought to be the primary cause of hair loss in men. In everyone else, slowing down DHT also slows the activity of the sebaceous glands, those being the glands responsible for sebum and oil production in the hair and scalp. Zinc PCA helps to bring oil production from these glands under control, reducing the feeling of greasiness that is a problem for so many of us. If this weren't enough it also protects the scalp against bacteria and fungal overgrowth, in particular the Malassezia fungus (the one that causes dandruff) on the scalp. Reduction in fungus is a good thing: it reduces free fatty acids, scalp flaking, itch and even odor, thus treating the root causes of dandruff. This makes zinc PCA an excellent addition to any and all hair products, especially shampoo.
Before you consider yourself exempt from all of this and declare yourself 'all good' consider that worldwide zinc deficiency is estimated to be at least 25% (Underwood et all: 2013). This number is most likely a reflection of only the most obvious cases, such as in populations of less developed nations, in children and the elderly who are more at risk due to malnutrition or diarrhea. But we think in reality, this number is much higher. Zinc deficiency can easily occur in those with restricted diets such as vegans (and more seriously anorexics), alcoholics as well as those with gut malabsorption issues such as celiac or Crohn's disease. However, the real reason why we think zinc deficiency is occurring on a much larger scale than is officially reported is due to the state of our food supply. Our soils are eroded and the mineral content of our food is depleted, in large part due to the continued worldwide spaying of glyphosate and other herbicides, pesticides and fungicides. These poisons have dramatically altered the nutritional content of our food, so much so that the mineral content of a tomato today is not at all the same as a tomato from say, 1955. If this weren't enough, it has been estimated that only 30% of the zinc actually present in our food is actually absorbed in the body.
So what to do? Yes, we can absolutely get some measure of zinc though our diet but those on exclusively plant based or vegan diets take note: plant based foods such as whole grain bread, legumes or cereals contain phytates, which are substances that actually binds zinc and inhibits its absorption in the bloodstream. This could be why those on a vegan diet have reported not only hair thinning but a short or even absent hair growth cycle, as well as other health issues. And yet plant based sources of zinc are plentiful, readily available and they are not all to be avoided. Good amounts of zinc can be found in chickpeas, kidney beans, cashews, almonds, chocolate and many seeds including pumpkin- which is why you will sometimes find the addition of pumpkin seed oil in better hair care products.
Those firmly focused on a plant based diet might look to a type of mushroom super-high in zinc called Chaga. Native to North America, Russia and Japan, chaga is a relatively common tree mushroom found on birch trees. Corky in texture and dark brown or black in color ( always a sign of high mineral content) chaga is not only high in zinc but in other essential minerals as well as difficult to find polysaccharides. Take it as a tincture or in a capsule if you must but the best and most satisfying way to consume Chaga is in tea form hands down. Indeed, mushrooms are so high in minerals and so very many other life extending and anti-aging properties you might be asking yourself why you aren't consuming them. But if we had to be honest we would say that animal proteins are still by far the best source of zinc in comparison to plant based or other food sources. Why? For many reasons, but not least because animal protein is rich in all minerals and so the zinc/copper conundrum is all worked out ahead of time. It's kind of a no-brainer. Just do make sure that your animal foods are organic, grass-fed and coming from a trusted source. The best animal sources of zinc include:
- red meat (beef liver is an excellent source)
- seafood such as prawns, crab and lobster
- egg yolks
- dairy products
When these aren't always within reach, we supplement. While the recommended daily allowance (RDI) is set at 8 to 11 mg please do keep in mind that modern life does tend to mean that we humans burn through minerals at a high rate and are almost always at risk of not having enough. This is why we think a more generous dose of 25 mg may be more helpful especially for those with absorption issues, people who are more physically active or the excessively hair conscious. If you are supplementing, you may be interested to know that zinc works very well with magnesium, especially taken at bedtime. Zinc helps to facilitate the absorption of magnesium into the cell which in turn assists with the production of melatonin, that magical hormone so critical for a solid nights sleep. Try it and be amazed how you didn't know about it sooner.
So take your zinc and your magnesium (keeping a watchful eye on copper) and go to bed knowing you will have a good night's sleep and dreams of great hair.