Few nutrients have as broad and critical a role as zinc. Considering this crucial mineral, the age-old image of two kids whispering to each other through cans — connected by a string — comes to mind.
Zinc is the string, without which the body's "voices" can't be heard. Zinc is the nutritional version of a modern-day satellite or cell tower that allows the rapid-fire communication to which we're so accustomed.
In addition to serving as a messenger and catalyst, zinc plays a central role in growth. It's linked to the production of testosterone, regulation of blood sugar and insulin and is important for proper vision, prostate and thyroid function. Zinc helps our bodies utilize fats, managing immune function and controlling inflammation.
Studies show that many people with HIV and AIDS are zinc deficient.
When malaria-infected African kids supplemented zinc, they more easily overcame the disease. Zinc is the most commonly deficient nutrient among American kids, leaving them more susceptible to infectious disease. Deficiency may worsen with age, especially given the typical American intake of processed foods, which are especially low in the nutrient.
Estimates are that 80 percent of pregnant women worldwide may be zinc deficient, possibly leading to complications.
Like many nutrients and plant foods, zinc affects the signaling of cells and plays a regulatory role in hormone release and genetic "behavior." In short, zinc is a player in the brave new world of nutrigenomics — how nutrients and diet affect our genes.
Good zinc sources include oysters, beef, turkey, wheat germ and pumpkin seeds.
Google "pumpkin seed recipes" to find numerous ways to prepare them. Pumpkin seeds, aka pepitas, are tasty when flavored and toasted. Once the seeds are separated from the pumpkin's flesh, rinsed, dried, lightly oiled and salted, consider other flavors such as curry, Cajun or your favorite powdered herb blends to lend some zing along with your zinc.
Michael Altman is a nutritionist at Ventana Wellness and the Centre for Natural Healing. He teaches at Southern Oregon University and College of the Siskiyous. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org