Could Zinc Deficiency Be Robbing You of Your Taste and Smell?

by Steven Wright

Last week, I published a post that I had found research indicating that my lack of smell might be related to zinc deficiency.  This week I want to give a high level overview of how zinc might be impacting your life and give you some great resources if you want to learn more about it.

Zinc is an essential trace mineral that we obtain through our diet. It is so essential for the body that many articles claim that it is involved in up to 300 of the body’s enzyme processes. It is extremely important in the production of prostaglandins (PG). PG’s are needed for many bodily processes such as immune system function, skin and wound healing, inflammation, the cardiovascular system, and many more.

Signs of Zinc Deficiency

Doctors usually diagnose zinc deficiency by getting an overall picture of your life factors, understanding your current symptoms, and then confirming it with one of the various zinc medical tests. The major life factors that doctors are usually looking for related to zinc deficiency are vegan-ism, total calorie intake (low is bad), alcoholism (zinc is needed to metabolize alcohol), physical activity level (high activity depletes zinc), digestive diseases, and other autoimmune diseases.

To zoom in further, let’s take a look at any possible symptoms related to zinc. The hard part of trying to correlate symptoms with zinc deficiency is that zinc supports so many of the body’s functions. There isn’t one main symptom that can raise a flag for zinc, but rather the symptoms must be observed in context with the patient’s life factors. This pattern can be hard to see so it is easy to become mildly zinc deficient and never put the pieces of puzzle together.

The list of related symptoms for zinc deficiency is a mile long but I think the questionnaire below does a good job of capturing most of the main symptoms. Answering yes to any of these questions indicates the possibility of zinc deficiency and means you should probably get your levels tested:

  • Have you lost much of your sense of taste and smell?
  • Do you have adult acne, even if you didn’t have it as a teenager?
  • Do you get frequent colds and flu, usually with an ear infection?
  • Is your hair going prematurely gray? Does it grow slowly? Is your hair texture dry with brittle ends?
  • Do your nails have white flecks? Do they peel and fray easily? Do they grow abnormally slowly? Do they have hard ridges either vertical or horizontal?
  • Do you have an enlarged prostate (BPH) or prostatitis?
  • Is your skin dry and cracked? Do you get fungal skin infections? Do cuts or rashes heal slowly? Do you sunburn easily?
  • Have you been diagnosed with macular degeneration? Are your eyes overly sensitive to sunlight?
  • Does your body have trouble with sugar balance? Do you have diabetes or hypoglycemia?
  • Do you have a history of low sperm counts? Have you ever suffered from impotence or erection problems?
  • Do you often get herpes-type mouth sores? Are your lips regularly dry, cracked or chapped?

For reference, I have the relevant life factors of digestive disorders and high physical activity levels. My symptoms of possible zinc deficiency are a loss of smell, adult acne, prematurely grey hairs (at least I hope so I’m only 24!), fingernail ridges / white spots and regularly chapped lips.

How Do I Get Tested?

If you identified with any of the life factors that could result in zinc deficiency, and/or you found several symptoms that might correlate to zinc deficiency it would be good idea to confirm the deficiency and get an approximate level.

It is intuitive to think to pick up the phone and call your doctor, because for most minerals a blood test is the golden standard to confirm deficiency. Unfortunately with zinc it isn’t that simple. The problem is zinc supports so many bodily processes that there is quite a bit of disagreement between what serum, plasma, red/white cell zinc level or zinc metalloenzyme studies (zinc dependent enzymes) levels indicate.

From the research, I’ve found the best test to confirm zinc deficiency is actually the Zinc tally taste test. It gets even better; this is a test that could be done at home on the cheap!

The test involves taking a small amount of zinc solution and holding in your mouth for usually 10 seconds (up to 30 seconds) depending on strength of the solution. You can make your own solution at home if you desire, or you can buy some zinc tally solution that is already pre-mixed.  I chose the later route as I don’t have the patience or equipment to sterilize and perform chemistry experiments in my apartment.

The test is relatively straightforward and being honest with the time and the change in taste sensations is the only thing required to perform it correctly. Just like any home self-diagnostic test, it is a good idea to perform the test at least 3 separate times on 3 different days (to remove most biases). It is also important that if you find yourself deficient and decide to supplement with zinc that you continue to self-test and track what is happening.

Replenishing Zinc Stores

After my self-testing, I believe I’m somewhere between level 1 and level 2 zinc deficiency. The good thing about

Zinc Supplementation

replenishing zinc stores is it appears that it can happen relatively quickly. The recommendations I’ve found suggest 150mg a day for people who are level 1 and 100mg a day for level 2 and 50mg a day for level 3 and usual length of supplementation is 3 to 6 weeks.

For my supplementation, I’m going to shoot for 100mg a day and the protocol to use when starting to supplement with zinc is to start slow and slowly build your dosage. I found some 50mg tablets that might be SCD legal (use at your own risk!). I started the first week at one pill a day and then the next week I will start taking 2 pills a day (or 100mg). If you were going to 150mg you wouldn’t get to that dosage for 3 weeks when following this protocol.

I’ve got a couple things for you to remember. Acute zinc toxicity results in the following symptoms: nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and headaches. Chronic zinc toxicity is also something to worry about if you plan on long-term supplementation. Zinc can, in high dosages of 150mg-450mg a day, cause low copper and affect iron levels. This is why it’s recommended to not exceed 150mg a day unless under a doctor’s observation and continue to do weekly zinc tally tests to know when to stop supplementing.

As always, it is best to take this information and present it to your doctor as he/she might have other ways of helping you sort with your symptoms. It is also good to remember that zinc works synergistically with magnesium, vitamin B6, and plays a large role in stomach acid (HCL) production. So, if supplementing with zinc does not cure your symptoms, following one of these other paths may lead to your answer.

I’d love to hear from anyone else who is experimenting with zinc!

-Steve

About the author

Steven Wright Steve Wright is a health engineer and author. In 2009, he reached a breaking point when IBS took over his life and the doctors didn't know how to help. Since then, he has transformed his health and started SCDLifestyle.com to help others naturally heal stomach problems. You can check out his story here and find him on Google+, Facebook or Twitter.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Carol Frilegh May 14, 2010 at 8:59 am

I have the symptoms but fear the corrective treatment because, confirming what you say, have read that you should be careful in taking zinc supplements because too much of zinc can be potentially harmful to your body. It has been reported that intake of more than 50 milligrams of zinc (both from diet and from supplements) can lead to improper copper metabolism, altered iron function, reduction of HDL’s (good cholesterol) and reduced immune function.

Reply

Steven Wright May 17, 2010 at 10:26 am

Carol – I would encourage you to perform the zinc tally test so you will have a better understanding if and at what dosages zinc supplementation is for you. After performing the test, I would encourage you to re-read the zinc supplementation studies, In my research I never found an article or study suggesting that zinc supplementation reduces HDL and everything I read suggest zinc BOOSTS immune function.

During my research I did find that copper and iron levels or functions can be affected through zinc supplementation (the links are in the post above). However I think its important to point out the one study was using daily dosages of 150-450 mg or zinc and the other was a long term study in excess of 10 weeks of supplementing with zinc. The plan I outline above is only a short term supplementation plan of zinc to refresh any body storage issues (3-6 weeks). If copper absorption does concern the individual it would be wise to then supplement with 2-4mg of copper a day during zinc supplementation (my multivitamin from GI Pro Health contains 2mg of copper).

Some people may need long term supplementation of zinc at which point consulting with a doctor to make sure copper and iron levels stay healthy is the best idea.

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Jeff April 9, 2012 at 1:12 pm

What are your thoughts on zinc-carnosine?

There seems to be a lot of research especially from Japan about that combo.

I have had a lot of success with Bitters, Betaine HCL, Digestive Enzymes, and Probiotics thanks to you guys and Chris Kresser. Wondering if Zinc-Carnosine would fit into the list of supplements that can help digestion and healing the gut?

Reply

Steven Wright April 9, 2012 at 6:49 pm

@ Jeff – I think it’s a great supplement if you have leaky gut or have a zinc deficiency. If your going to use it make sure to monitor your zinc levels either using serum zinc levels or the zinc talley taste test. You might think about taking some copper with it to balance it out.

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samy July 1, 2012 at 1:02 pm

Hi Steven,
Thank you for the article and for sharing the information. I am a 43 female and lost my sense of smell about 8-10 years ago and got frustrated with the medical industry to try to find answers….About 6-7 years ago I saw an ENT/Neurologist (had a cat scan and MRI) with no real diagnosis or understanding with why this was happening…I was paying this out of pocket as my insurance deductible was not met. I am in great health and barely ever go to a doctor except for this issue. Lots of sites refer as head injury (not applicable in my case) as a cause of loss of smell…but others refer to malnutrition as a possible cause…
Every once in a while I look things up online to see if there are any answers. There is a doctor in DC (Doctor Robert Henkin, smell&taste clinic- i think) that associated the lack of zinc (malnutrition) to loss of smell…This is making me consider checking if i do have a low zinc…and pursue finding my own diagnosis….Do you know if one can get this from real food then a supplement?
It will also be great if you can keep us posted if it works for you…
Thanks again for sharing the great information.

Reply

Steven Wright July 2, 2012 at 2:36 pm

@ Samy – Sure, I’d love to help out. So yes, I think the problem can be 2 – fold. There can be an actual restriction in the airways, usually from inflamed sinus that I believe are mostly triggered by poor food choices. However or in addition there is also the possibility of a spinal alignment aspect that you might want to check with a qualified chiropractor. And then there is the nutritional problem. Zinc can be easily depleted in our current society. If you don’t want to do supplements, the best food to eat once a week is oysters try that for 8 weeks straight once a week and let me know if it helps.

As I’ve healed and lowered my inflammation levels, supplemented with zinc my smelling has been back and for the most part better than ever.

Reply

Tyler March 6, 2013 at 12:23 pm

The link “there is quite a bit of disagreement between what serum, plasma, red/white cell zinc level or zinc metalloenzyme studies (zinc dependent enzymes) levels indicate.” above is broken.

Do you have a copy of the PDF? I recently got a copper-zinc blood test and scored normal despite a borderline positive pyroluria test and would like to know more regarding the accuracy of zinc tests.

Reply

Rick Jackson November 6, 2013 at 11:31 am

I started supplementing with 50mg of Elemental Zinc (from 388mg of Zinc gluconate pills) last week.

This morning I’ve noticed my sense of smell has improved – I walked past a pine tree that I’ve passed hundreds of times – and I smelled a very faint but fragrant pine odor. I had never noticed that trees fragrance before today.

On a side note, I would like to point out, anyone who eats a lot of vegetables like me, is getting tons and tons of copper in their diet, so since zinc naturally reduced cooper (and therefore the effects of copper toxicity – see Weston A Price Foundation Copper-Zinc Imbalance: http://www.westonaprice.org/metabolic-disorders/copper-zinc-imbalance) I’m guessing it’s extremely healthy to take a zinc supplement!

Reply

vu January 31, 2014 at 10:57 pm

i have no smell for 5 yrs
i see zinc can get back smell
it that true
thanks

Reply

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