Zinc genes: The healing power of zinc

Key takeaways:
~ Zinc is an important cofactor in many cellular processes.
~ Low zinc can impact immune health, impair wound healing, cause skin issues, and increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.
~ Genetic variants impact how zinc is transported into your cells.

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Zinc, genetics, and your health:

Zinc is an essential trace mineral that is vital to the way your cells function. Researchers estimate that over 2,500 different cellular functions rely on zinc.[ref]

This mineral is a component of many different types of biological molecules – impacting metabolism, immune function, skin barrier function, and more. Zinc is needed for the function of all cell types.

Dietary zinc insufficiency or deficiency:

We need to replenish our zinc stores daily (or nearly daily) from the foods that we eat. The body doesn’t have a long-term storage reservoir for zinc.[ref]

What happens when you don’t get enough zinc on a long-term basis? Signs of zinc deficiency can include:

  • Decreased growth and development in children (a big problem in developing countries)
  • Decreased immune function (getting more colds, respiratory or diarrheal illnesses than usual)
  • Increased risk of type 2 diabetes (zinc is needed for beta-cell function in the pancreas)
  • Impaired wound healing

Zinc supplementation has been shown to cut childhood mortality rates by 50% in developing countries. That is huge![ref]

What causes dietary zinc deficiency? The answer can be summed up as simply a diet that is high in phytates and low in animal foods.[ref][ref] Phytates bind to and reduce the intestinal absorption of zinc. Phytic acid, or phytate, is found in plant seeds, so a diet high in beans, grains, and nuts can be high in phytate, depending on how the food is cooked or processed. Animal protein both contains higher levels of zinc and also increases the absorption of zinc.

It is estimated that over 1 billion people worldwide suffer from frank zinc deficiency, with some estimates as high as a third of the world’s population being zinc deficient.[ref][ref]

While most people in developed nations don’t have a frank zinc deficiency, a high percentage still have insufficient zinc intake. This can be especially true for older people with a poor diet and reduced intestinal absorption. People with celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, or alcohol addiction are more likely to have reduced intestinal absorption.

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Dietary sources of zinc:

We need zinc regularly because the body doesn’t have a way to store it. Thus, regularly eating foods that contain zinc is important for optimal health.

Zinc is found in abundance in oysters, crab, beef, elk, lamb, bison, certain types of mushrooms, and fortified cereals.[ref]

Studies show that people on a vegetarian or vegan diet have a lower daily zinc intake and are at a greater risk for zinc deficiency.[ref] (See the Lifehacks section below for ways of tracking zinc intake and supplementing.)

Intestinal absorption and regulation:

First, you have to make sure the diet contains enough zinc, and then you also need to be able to absorb the zinc in the right amount. The body tightly regulates the amount of zinc absorbed — you don’t want too much or too little.

Zinc is absorbed in the intestines via zinc transport proteins. These zinc transporters are part of a feedback loop: when zinc levels are low in intestinal cells, this triggers the formation of more zinc transporters. When zinc levels increase to the right level, the expression of the zinc transport proteins decreases.[ref] The body is pretty awesome in the way that it can regulate micronutrient levels.

A dietary zinc deficiency, especially longer-term, can lead to a decrease in mucin production in the intestines. Zinc is one of the micronutrients needed for mucin production. Mucin lines the intestines and keeps bacteria and viruses away from the intestinal epithelial cells. When mucin is decreased, the risk of intestinal diseases and pathogenic infections rises.[ref]

Additionally, zinc is vital in cells that turn over rapidly – like intestinal cells and skin cells. Thus, a zinc deficiency can cause problems in intestinal barrier function relatively quickly.[ref]

The cellular level of zinc needs to be tightly regulated since too much available zinc could cause oxidative stress. Metallothionein (MT) is a protein that can bind to zinc if levels are too high in a cell.[ref]

Zinc and the immune system:

Zinc is vital to the immune system, and a lack of zinc can have detrimental effects, including increased susceptibility to infectious diseases.

T-cells are part of our adaptive immune system’s defense against viruses and bacteria. T-cells are a type of white blood cell that is produced in the bone marrow and then travels to the thymus to mature into pathogen-fighting cells. The thymus is a small lymph-system organ that is located in the upper chest, behind the breast bone. As we age, the thymus decreases in both size and function due to a process called thymus involution. The thymus is at its maximum size in adolescence.

Due to its significant role in the immune system, zinc deficiency is linked to decreased T-cell function, especially in aging. In animal studies, supplemental zinc increases the thickness of the thymic gland and increases T-cell function.[ref]

Both primary and secondary antibody responses are decreased in zinc deficiency.[ref]

Clinical trials show that zinc supplementation (in populations with dietary insufficiency) can decrease diarrheal illnesses by 18% and pneumonia by 41%.[ref] A 2019 study shows that diarrheal diseases in children still cause more than a half-million deaths each year worldwide. But this is down considerably over the last couple of decades due to efforts to use oral rehydration along with zinc to combat diarrheal illnesses in kids.[ref]

Zinc has been in the news recently for its connection with COVID-19. Patients with more severe COVID-19 symptoms have lower zinc levels, on average, with more than half reaching the point of full zinc deficiency.[ref] While it is known that having sufficient zinc improves immune function for respiratory viruses, giving IV zinc to hospitalized, severe COVID-19 patients is probably not a magic cure. A retrospective study of NJ hospital patients found no mortality benefit from zinc sulfate.[ref] So, if you are worried about your susceptibility to COVID-19, increase your consumption of zinc before getting sick.

Zinc for your skin and hair:

The epithelial cells that make up your skin require zinc, and since these cells turn over quickly, the skin is one of the first places where people notice zinc deficiency. Zinc deficiency can also cause hair loss.

Low zinc is linked to:[ref]

  • dermatitis
  • alopecia
  • acne
  • eczema
  • dry, scaly skin

Epigenetic role of zinc:

Recent research shows that zinc is an important cofactor in several genes that are involved in the epigenetic regulation of gene expression. Essentially, this means zinc is important in certain genes that turn on or off a bunch of other genes.

For example, a zinc transporter (ZIP10) is important in the epigenetic regulation of genes important in skin homeostasis. Other research shows zinc is required for several epigenetic enzymes, including DNA methyltransferases (DNMTs).[ref]

Zinc Genotype Report:

In addition to the amount of zinc in your diet and the absorption of zinc in your intestines, your genetic variants also play a role in how much zinc your body needs.

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IL-6 gene:

IL-6 is an inflammatory cytokine important in the immune response to pathogens and in chronic inflammation. Genetic variants in IL-6 interact with zinc supplementation.

Check your genetic data for rs1800795 -174G/C (23andMe v4, v5; AncestryDNA):

  • G/G: may benefit more from zinc supplementation in aging (most common genotype in many population groups)[ref]
  • C/G: may benefit more from zinc supplementation in aging
  • C/C: additional zinc may not be needed in aging

Members: Your genotype for rs1800795 is .

SLC30A8 gene: Zinc Transport in Beta Cells

The SLC30A8 gene codes for the zinc transporter ZnT-8. This zinc transporter is found in pancreatic beta-cells and transports the zinc from the cytoplasm into insulin secretory vesicles, where it stabilizes it and prevents degradation.[ref]

Check your genetic data for rs13266634 (23andMe v4, v5)

  • C/C: (most common variant in most populations) increased risk of type 2 diabetes[ref]; zinc supplementation may help lower blood glucose levels if high
  • C/T: somewhat increased risk of type-2 diabetes; zinc supplementation may help lower blood glucose levels
  • T/T: less common genotype, lower risk for type-2 diabetes

Members: Your genotype for rs13266634 is .

Check your genetic data for rs11558471 (23andMe v4, v5; AncestryDNA):

  • G/G: typical
  • A/G: zinc may help to lower blood glucose levels (if zinc is insufficient)
  • A/A: zinc may help to lower blood glucose levels (if zinc is insufficient)[ref][ref]

Members: Your genotype for rs11558471 is .

SLC30A2: Zinc transporter

This zinc transporter is important in the amount of zinc that is included in breast milk. Zinc is vital for the growth and development of babies, so low zinc levels in a mother’s breast milk can cause zinc deficiency in the baby.

Check your genetic data for rs587776926 (AncestryDNA):

  • T/T: typical
  • C/T: carrier of a zinc transporter deficiency mutation (a problem if breastfeeding a baby)
  • C/C: carrier of a zinc transporter deficiency mutation (a problem if breastfeeding a baby)[ref][ref]

Members: Your genotype for rs587776926 is .

Check your genetic data for rs185398527 G87R (23andMe v5):

  • C/C: typical
  • C/T: carrier of a zinc transporter deficiency mutation (a problem if breastfeeding a baby)
  • T/T: carrier of a zinc transporter deficiency mutation (a problem if breastfeeding a baby)[ref][ref]

Members: Your genotype for rs185398527 is .

Check your genetic data for rs117153535 (23andMe v5):

  • C/C: typical
  • A/C: lower zinc in breast milk
  • A/A: lower zinc in breast milk[ref]

Members: Your genotype for rs117153535 is .

SLC39A2 gene:

The SLC39A2 gene codes for zinc transporter ZIP2, controlling zinc influx into the cytoplasm.

Check your genetic data for rs2234632 (AncestryDNA only)

  • G/G: typical
  • G/T: higher inflammatory cytokines — zinc supplementation works here to reduce inflammation
  • T/T: higher inflammatory cytokines — zinc supplementation works here to reduce inflammation[ref]

Members: Your genotype for rs2234632 is .

SLC39A13: Zinc transporter ZiP-13

Check your genetic data for rs121434363 (AncestryDNA only):

  • G/G: typical
  • A/G: carrier of a rare mutation linked to Spondylocheirodysplastic Ehlers-Danlos
  • A/A: rare mutation linked to Spondylocheirodysplastic Ehlers-Danlos[ref][ref]

Members: Your genotype for rs121434363 is .

CA1 gene:

The CA1 gene codes for a carbonic anhydrase enzyme that uses zinc and catalyzes the reversible hydration of carbon dioxide, important in cellular respiration.

Check your genetic data for rs1532423 (23andMe v4, v5; AncestryDNA):

  • A/A: higher serum zinc levels[ref]
  • A/G: higher serum zinc levels
  • G/G: typical serum zinc

Members: Your genotype for rs1532423 is .



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About the Author:
Debbie Moon is the founder of Genetic Lifehacks. Fascinated by the connections between genes, diet, and health, her goal is to help you understand how to apply genetics to your diet and lifestyle decisions. Debbie has a BS in engineering and also an MSc in biological sciences from Clemson University. Debbie combines an engineering mindset with a biological systems approach to help you understand how genetic differences impact your optimal health.

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