Hashimoto’s and hypothyroidism are complex conditions that can be rooted in many causes, including mineral deficiencies, such as with zinc.
Zinc deficiency is apparently quite common with an estimated 17% of the world population at risk of inadequate zinc intake through diet or supplementation. Given the importance of zinc in 100’s of enzymatic reactions in the body, including for thyroid hormone conversion, understanding how to determine if your levels are low and then how to safely improve levels, can be instrumental in managing Hashimoto’s and hypothyroidism.
What is Zinc?
Zinc is an essential trace mineral meaning it is not something that the body can make on its own yet is essential in small amounts for wellness.
The body must have adequate levels of zinc for body functions such as thyroid hormone conversion (T4 to T3), DNA repair, protein synthesis, cell division and growth, tissue healing, breakdown of carbohydrates, detoxification and so much more.
Of particular importance when considering the autoimmunity and zinc relationship are the essential roles of zinc with keeping tight junctions at the cells of the gut lining intact as well as its role in immune function. So, a zinc deficiency can lead to increased intestinal permeability, increased susceptibility to infections, reduced detoxification to toxins from environment and microbes, and reduced responses to infections all of which are hallmarks of autoimmune development.
How Zinc Relates to the Thyroid
Zinc is essential for thyroid function.
A zinc deficiency will interfere with the conversion of T4 hormone to the more biologically active T3 hormone which could lead to a myriad of related symptoms, including hair loss, weight gain, fatigue, aversion to cold, brain fog and more. An important point to keep in mind here is that even if someone is medicated with a thyroid hormone, such as Synthroid, they will still likely have symptoms as just described if zinc is low because there may be insufficient T3 available.
Given zinc is also needed to form the hormone TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone), if hypothyroidism is not well managed, they may be constantly producing TSH which can lead to an eventual zinc deficiency, compounding the problem.
Fortunately, when zinc is taken with selenium, another nutrient proven to be beneficial for those with hypothyroidism and Hashimoto’s, thyroid function tends to improve.
Symptoms of Zinc Deficiency
As you may realize now from this discussion, symptoms of zinc deficiency can look like hypothyroidism and immune difficulties. Symptoms can include not only thyroid hormone insufficiency but also poor wound healing, issues with taste and smell, allergies, frequent colds and respiratory infections, hair loss, skin issues (acne, rashes, canker sores), poor concentration, depression, detoxification issues, impaired vision, unexplained weight loss, poor appetite, and problems with nails (thin, brittle, peeling, white spots).
Causes of Zinc Deficiency
As alluded to, unmanaged hypothyroidism can eventually lead to a zinc deficiency. However, there are many other contributors as indicated below.
- Celiac disease: The intestinal damage common in conditions such as autoimmune Celiac disease will impair zinc absorption at gut level. Celiac disease is often present in ~20% of those who have Hashimoto’s.
- Low stomach acid: When stomach acid is frequently low, common in those with Hashimoto’s, zinc absorption (as well as absorption of iron, calcium, some B vitamins etc) will be impaired.
- Iron supplements: When iron supplements are taken along with meals or zinc supplements, zinc absorption may be inhibited.
- Phytate-rich foods: Phytates found in grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds are compounds that can bind zinc and prevent its absorption when they are eaten alongside zinc containing foods.
- High cortisol levels: Zinc can become depleted with excessive cortisol production which is generally associated with increased levels of stress and adrenal dysfunction.
- Inadequate diets: Many diets, including what some believe are healthy like vegan, gluten free, paleo, low fat, high protein, low carb, low sodium and so on, may not incorporate adequate zinc rich foods. It is important to have a balanced diet rich in variety on any of these diets.
- Alcoholism: Excessive alcohol consumption has been linked to poor zinc absorption.
- Medications: Certain medications, like synthetic estrogen and progesterone in hormonal birth control methods and HRT, acid blocking medications like proton pump inhibitors (eg: Prilosec, Nexium, Omeprazole), and H2 receptor blockers (eg: Pepcid) can all deplete zinc levels.
If any of these issues apply to you, you may be at risk of having a zinc deficiency and should check levels.
How to Test for Zinc Deficiency
Zinc levels can be evaluated through a standard blood test ordered by your health care practitioner. But keep in mind that a blood value for zinc is not the same as what would be found inside cells, and you can have signs and symptoms of zinc deficiency even if you have a normal blood zinc level. Doing a liver function blood test may be more helpful identifying a zinc deficiency as it will present as a low alkaline phosphatase (ALP) level.
Advanced functional testing for vitamin and mineral deficiencies can also be done to help determine your body’s zinc levels. The SpectraCell Laboratories Micronutrient Test is a great functional lab test to consider, as it will check for many other nutrient deficiencies as well, including Vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, B6, B9, B12, biotin, C, D, E, K, and the minerals calcium, magnesium, manganese, copper, selenium, and others.
How to Improve Zinc Levels
To optimize zinc levels, you can increase your intake with zinc-rich foods and use a nutraceutical supplement.
Food Sources of Zinc
Zinc can be found in many foods with some of the highest concentrators being oysters, beef (especially beef liver), pork, lobster and chicken. There are many resources available on the internet for lists of high zinc foods.
To help your body absorb zinc from foods, it is ideal to avoid consuming too many oxalate rich foods, alcohol, white flour, rice, and refined sugar as these can reduce zinc availability for absorption.
Since zinc is not stored by the body, supplements may be very useful when dealing with Hashimoto’s and other autoimmune conditions that commonly present with zinc deficiency.
Supplementing With Zinc
Taking a high quality zinc supplement is warranted when levels are low even with eating appropriate foods and/or managing other contributors, like chronic low stomach acid. Not all nutraceutical products are created equal though, so do your homework or work with a health professional who has already done so.
I prefer zinc picolinate, in general, because of its improved absorption profile compared to other forms. Not all supplements contain this form. To ensure proper absorption, it is best to take zinc supplements with food and at least two hours away from an iron supplement. You can check out products through my online dispensary.
Zinc supplementation may also not be appropriate for those with HIV/AIDS, those taking antibiotics, or those with kidney dysfunction. Zinc can also lead to symptoms of nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, headaches and a metallic taste in the mouth which can be signs of zinc overdose or toxicity.
Discuss dosing with a trusted health advisor if you have any of those issues above or take greater than 30 mg daily. It has been shown that doses greater than 40 mg can deplete copper and iron levels. Therefore, it is important that you ensure zinc supplementation above 30 mg daily is appropriate for your needs.
Zinc is an essential nutrient in our bodies, playing a key role in over 100 functions! We need zinc for proper function of the immune system, for repair of intestinal walls, tissue healing, detoxification, and for TSH production and conversion of T4 to T3 hormones.
For those with zinc deficiency, various symptoms will arise, including a weakened immune system, allergies, frequent cold and respiratory infections, poor wound healing, weight issues, lack of appetite, impaired taste and smell, skin issues, poor concentration and so much more. These symptoms are common with autoimmune conditions and improving zinc levels can help reduce symptoms and even attain remission in some cases.
I recommend evaluating your zinc level to determine if you need to work on your diet and/or supplement daily with zinc picolinate, my preferred form. If your zinc levels do not improve after starting supplementation, however, I recommend evaluating if you have copper toxicity.
There are many ways to begin successfully managing autoimmune progression for those with Hashimoto’s and hypothyroidism. Evaluating zinc levels and then managing them if low are easy to do and can change the trajectory of your health in a rapid, positive way. It is possible to manage Hashimoto’s and you are now armed with more knowledge to help yourself heal!