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zincLike iodine, zinc is an essential trace mineral. Though you only need a little, it matters a lot.

Zinc helps regulate your digestive system and strengthen your bones. It’s involved in cellular metabolism and immune function, protein synthesis and wound healing, DNA synthesis and cell division. More than 100 enzymes in your body depend on it to do their work.

With all this power, it’s easy to overlook the specific role it can play in oral health, such as its ability to defend against plaque build-up and gum disease. A 2012 study in Pediatric Dentistry suggested that children with systemic zinc deficiency are more likely to have both caries (tooth decay) and periodontal problems. Earlier research likewise showed that low zinc levels may be a risk factor for poor oral health.

Low zinc levels can also affect your sense of taste, which can have big time implications for your health, depending on how it affects your eating habits.

A distorted sense of taste can be a risk factor for heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and other illnesses that require sticking to a specific diet. When taste is impaired, a person may change his or her eating habits. Some people may eat too little and lose weight, while others may eat too much and gain weight.

Loss of taste can cause you to add too much sugar or salt to make food taste better. This can be a problem for people with certain medical conditions, such as diabetes or high blood pressure. In severe cases, loss of taste can lead to depression.

And there is, of course, the potential for oral health damage, as well.

Most importantly, zinc supports your immune system, and that is a very big deal.

Severe zinc deficiency depresses immune function, and even mild to moderate degrees of zinc deficiency can impair marcophage 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 developing countries and the elderly.

Although profound zinc deficiency is considered rare here in the US, most of us can benefit from getting more of it on a regular basis – especially when you consider, for instance, that about half of Americans currently have at least one chronic health condition, most of which are inflammatory in nature.

Although zinc supplements are available, your best bet it to get as much as you can naturally, through the foods you eat. You get not only zinc but the whole nutritional package, making it easier for your body to use those nutrients effectively. Good vegetarian sources of zinc include

  • Quinoa
  • Spinach
  • Kidney beans, chickpeas and other legumes
  • Flax, pumpkin and sesame seeds
  • Peanuts and cashews
  • Garlic

Good animal sources of zinc include beef, lamb, pork and turkey, as well as salmon and a variety of shellfish.

If you like, you could even throw in a bit of dark chocolate for dessert! (Dark chocolate contains a surprising amount of zinc.)

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