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Is There A Link Between Zinc Deficiency and Eating Disorders?

Is There A Link Between Zinc Deficiency and Eating Disorders?

Is There A Link Between Zinc Deficiency and Eating Disorders?

Challenging the perception that anorexia nervosa is solely about the desire to be thin, this blog explores the complex interplay between mental health, nutrient deficiencies, particularly zinc, and the development of eating disorders. Anorexia nervosa, one of the deadliest mental health disorders, is often misunderstood. Demystifying this complex condition necessitates considering myriad factors such as home life, familial relationships, self-esteem, media influences, and more. But the role that nutrient deficiencies may play in fostering and fueling such disorders is often overlooked. This blog delves into the potential correlation between zinc deficiency and the onset of eating disorders, with a specific focus on anorexia nervosa, aiming to shed light on the confusion and enlighten our understanding of these complex disorders.


Is Anorexia Fatal?

Anorexia nervosa is a grave disease that sadly claims the lives of about 10% of those afflicted within the first ten years of their battle. The mortality rate increases to roughly 20% within two decades. More than half of those affected by anorexia will experience at least two relapses. The reasons for these tragic outcomes are multifaceted.

Primary causes include the advent of cardiovascular diseases such as cardiac arrest or blood clot formation. These disorders are consequences of a weakening heart, which is in itself a muscle. Under starvation conditions, the body self-consumes to survive, detrimentally affecting the heart. As the heart's strength diminishes, so does its capacity to pump blood efficiently, potentially leading to blood clots, prolapse, and low blood pressure.

Additionally, endocrine disorders can arise from anorexia. These disorders can suppress growth hormone production, reduce thyroid gland function leading to lower thyroid hormone levels, impair kidney function, and disrupt other crucial hormone productions, like that of aldosterone. Gastrointestinal complications such as malabsorption are also common. In certain cases, individuals may resort to laxative abuse or other purging methods to eliminate food, actions which can further aggravate and damage the colon or esophagus.

A particularly dangerous situation, known as "refeeding syndrome," can occur during recovery if an individual starts eating too quickly or excessively. This can overload the body, triggering a shock response and causing extreme cardiac stress. This situation can prove fatal, meaning refeeding should always occur slowly and under the vigilant supervision of a healthcare provider. Heartbreakingly, some individuals facing the relentless torment of anorexia choose suicide as an escape from their suffering. Anorexia nervosa is an intensely complex and dangerous disease that requires comprehensive understanding and attention to manage and attempt to overcome.


What Causes Anorexia Nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder that is as tragic to witness as it is to endure first-hand, necessitates an extensive understanding of the multitude of causes behind its onset. The complexity of this disorder transcends singular ideologies and, instead, comprises an intricate weave of various elements from an individual's environment and inner life.

A multitude of factors, including an individual’s home environment, familial relationships, and self-esteem, can greatly influence the development of eating disorders. These elements combine and interact uniquely in each person's life, shaping their perceptions, reactions, and coping mechanisms. An unstable home environment or strained familial relationships can breed feelings of chaos and lack of control, making the strict rules and routines an eating disorder provides appealing as a coping mechanism.

Similarly, low self-esteem can instigate a desire for change and control over one’s appearance, potentially manifesting in disordered eating patterns. For many, secretive behaviors associated with eating disorders can emerge as a means to regain control in a world they perceive as uncontrollably chaotic. Findings from various studies highlight that individuals with low self-esteem are more susceptible to aligning with societal standards of beauty and succumbing to self-doubt and negative body image, thereby increasing their vulnerability to developing an eating disorder.

In modern society, the influence of media is overplayed. While media platforms often amplify the idealization of slim or fit body aesthetics, this constant exposure to unrealistic and overly strict beauty standards can create significant distress for individuals fighting a continuous battle of comparison and inadequacy. However, it's a misconception that these unhealthy relationships with food and body image stem from a mere "want" to be thin.

In reality, eating disorders typically symbolize a yearning to exert control over an aspect of life when other areas feel unmanageably chaotic or distressing. The misconception of eating disorders simply being about "wanting to be thin" oversimplifies this highly complex mental health issue. It is crucial to understand that anorexia nervosa and other such disorders signify a deep-seated agony and a desperate effort to alleviate it, not just a superficial desire to conform to society's beauty standards. This understanding is pivotal in shaping our response as a society, allowing us to provide more informed support and compassion to those struggling with them.


What are the Links Between Anorexia Nervosa and Other Mental Disorders?

The intricate array of behaviors characterizing anorexia nervosa, including the need for control, inflexibility, reliance on routines, the longing for predictability, the pursuit of certainty, all reflect elements mirrored in other mental health disorders. These can include obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), bipolar disorder (BPD), anxiety, and depression. All these conditions share common threads, illustrating the interwoven nature of mental health complications.

Beneath the surface, these disorders often represent methods of coping with overwhelming fear, insecurity, or panic. The overwhelming obsession with control in anorexia nervosa, for instance, could be understood as a response to feeling out of control in various other aspects of personal life. Similarly, the rigidity and strict routines may provide a sense of security and predictability in a world that otherwise feels unstable and unpredictable.

There's an intricate nexus of causes for these disorders, both genetic and environmental, as no singular factor can account for their development. It's within this multifaceted etiology that we can uncover surprising links—like the connection between nutrient deficiencies and the development or exacerbation of mental health disorders. The general understanding of mental health disorders has long been dominated by a focus on psychological and social factors. Still, in recent years, there has been an increasing acknowledgment of the significant role that physical health, specifically nutritional status, plays in mental wellbeing. The brain, like any other organ in our bodies, depends on varied nutrients to function effectively. Substantial evidence now supports the fact that nutrient imbalances and deficiencies can contribute to the onset and progression of many mental health conditions, including anorexia nervosa.

To ensure that we, as a society, friends, family members, or as individuals grappling with these disorders, address mental health holistically, we need to recognize the connection between nutrition and mental health. Nutrient deficiencies are not merely an accompanying symptom of eating disorders; they could be a fundamental player in the disease's onset, aggravation, or persistence. This recognition isn't a simplified answer to complex disorders. Still, it constitutes a much-needed expansion of our understanding, bringing us a step closer to comprehensive and nuanced treatments for these conditions. It provides a promising area of exploration for clinicians and individuals seeking prevention strategies or adjunctive treatments on the path to recovery.


How do Nutrient Deficiencies Affect Mental Health?

There's an emerging understanding in the field of mental health of the possible links between nutrient deficiencies and the onset or exacerbation of numerous mental health disorders. For many years, mental health research primarily focused on psychological and social factors, neglecting the biological and physiological components that could have a bearing on mental well-being. One essential mineral that is gaining attention due to its potential impact on mental health is zinc.

Zinc is an essential trace element that is involved in numerous biological processes and plays a crucial role in brain function. It contributes to the structure and function of various proteins, including enzymes, and is imperative for the proper function of the immune system. Zinc also plays a role in neural transmission and activity. Altered levels of zinc in the body have been linked to several mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and anorexia nervosa. The importance of zinc in maintaining mental health becomes clearer when we look at its role within the neurons.


What is the Importance of Zinc in Regulating Appetite, Mood, and Digestion?

Statistics reveal that nearly 20% of the global population grapples with zinc deficiency. A surprising factor contributing to the upward trend in zinc deficiency is the increasing popularity of veganism. Given the crucial role of this essential mineral in various physiological processes, zinc deficiency is fast assuming the scale of a global health concern.

The consequences of zinc deficiency are multifaceted, manifesting in an array of symptoms. These range from impaired physical and sexual development to sensory deficiencies, reduced appetite, and fatigue. Mental health is also substantially influenced by zinc levels. Conditions like anxiety and depression have been associated with low zinc intake. However, it's crucial to note that lack of proper zinc levels is not only a concern for those with severe deficiencies. Even low to moderate levels of zinc consumption, if sustained over time, may have long-term implications for brain health.

Notably, the areas with the highest concentration of zinc in the human brain are the hippocampus and the cerebral cortex. Within these regions, zinc plays an integral role in neural synaptic vesicles. Not merely a passive participant, zinc actively modulates synaptic transmission and can even function as a neurotransmitter. Even mild zinc deficiency can manifest in diverse ways. Often, a decrease in appetite is one of the first discernable symptoms. Digestive issues such as loose stool and bloating can also occur. A weakened immune response is another key indication of low zinc levels, as are acne and various other skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema.

Zinc deficiency can also have substantial implications for endocrine health, potentially leading to lower thyroid function and disrupted hormone production, specifically with progesterone and testosterone. From a mental health perspective, anxiety and depression can stem from or become exacerbated by insufficient zinc levels. Other physical markers of a potential deficiency may include hair loss, white spots on nails, and even changes in taste and smell. Some individuals may lose their ability to taste and smell altogether; in contrast, others may experience alterations in taste buds. The growing understanding of zinc's importance in diverse physiological functions underscores the urgency to address its widespread deficiency. By promptly identifying and treating this deficiency, we can help preserve and promote global health at multiple levels.


Studies Linking Zinc Deficiency and Anorexia

A pivotal study conducted in 1989 provided an interesting perspective on zinc deficiency and its potential implications on dietary behavior, specifically in relation to mental health disorders like bulimia and anorexia nervosa.

The research showed that symptoms of zinc deficiency might manifest as a decrease in food intake, the development of rigorous eating routines, and even weight loss. Evaluating a sample of 62 patients diagnosed with bulimia and 24 with anorexia nervosa, researchers found compelling evidence of zinc deficiency. They noted that 40% of bulimic patients and 54% of those with anorexia showed biochemical indications of zinc deficiency. This zinc deficiency in these patients could be attributed to a myriad of factors. Lower dietary intake of zinc, impaired absorption within the digestive system, habits of purging, and frequent consumption of zinc-poor foods could all contribute to the deficiency. This study illuminated the significance of zinc, or lack thereof, in the context of eating disorders.

Expanding upon this, another research study linked the deficiency of zinc to broader implications on brain health. One of zinc's critical roles is as an allosteric modulator of NMDA (N-Methyl-D-aspartate) receptors, which are crucial for glutamatergic functions—neuronal signaling activities involving the neurotransmitter glutamate. When these NMDA receptors are not adequately activated—potentially due to a lack of zinc—this can give rise to neurological disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and epilepsy. Zinc deficiency can also trigger an increase in the neuronal stores of calcium, consequently reducing the modulation of these receptors. At a fundamental level, it's as if calcium is interrupting the signaling process. The result? Higher levels of glutamate, an influx of calcium, and what is known as excitotoxicity—essentially, an overstimulation of the receptors damages or kills the neurons. This could have a negative bearing on synaptogenesis (the formation of synapses) and synaptic plasticity (the ability of synapses to strengthen or weaken over time), key processes in the brain's ability to learn and adapt.

One important research work that deserves our deliberation involves the drop in meat consumption, particularly among those suffering from zinc deficiencies. This deficiency is often witnessed in patients diagnosed with anorexia. In an interesting exploration, 45 individuals diagnosed with anorexia were studied, of which a whopping 96% of the patients consciously avoided consuming beef. Furthermore, an astonishing 75% refrained from both beef and poultry. A common thread linking all participants in this study was their evident zinc deficiency. Zinc deficiency can precipitate into more severe conditions including reduced secretion of pancreatic enzymes, and diminished stomach acidity, which in turn, can affect protein digestion. This is especially crucial as the body relies on specific enzymes and stomach acid to break down animal proteins. As these prerequisites dwindle, changes in taste buds occur, desire to eat decreases, and subsequently, the vicious cycle of deficiency perpetuates.

Counterintuitively, meat, especially from red sources, is one of the most concentrated sources of zinc, surpassed only by certain seafood like oysters. Taking this matter further, it's imperative to understand how stress plays a role in depleting zinc from the body. One enlightening research documentation in this context unveiled that when rats were assimilated to a zinc-deficient diet over a span of 5 weeks, their zinc levels plummeted significantly while also displaying weight loss. Furthermore, they manifested signs of glandular stress, a reduction in mast cell count in gastric glandular mucosa - a condition underlining an impaired ability to rejuvenate the gut lining swiftly - and loose stool.

Delving into another study, it has been discerned that administering zinc can function as an appetite stimulator by interacting with orexigenic peptides tied to the afferent vagus nerve. During this experiment, researchers introduced zinc sulfate to the subjects, which led to an amplified expression of Neuropeptide Y (NPY) - a potent neuropeptide that is found in the brain and is recognized for its orexigenic properties. NPY excites food intake with a pronounced effect on the consumption of carbohydrates, invigorates the motivation to eat, and delays feelings of fullness by augmenting meal sizes. This thus opens up an intriguing avenue for further studies on the correlation between zinc intake and appetite stimulation.



In conclusion, there appears to be a significant correlation between zinc deficiency and the incidence of anorexia nervosa. Maintaining optimum zinc levels could play an essential role in the healing process from this condition.

If you are considering supplementing your diet with zinc, we highly recommend checking out our Upgraded Formulas Zinc. This supplement has been specially designed to offer high bioavailability and absorption to efficiently restore your zinc levels. Equally important is staying informed about your zinc levels. Curious about your zinc status? We suggest availing our Hair Tissue Mineral Analysis (HTMA) test. An HTMA provides a scientific analysis of mineral content in the hair, offering a visual insight into your body's nutrient and toxic metal levels. This valuable data can assist you in making informed decisions about your supplementation and dietary needs in accordance with your zinc status. Stay proactive about your health and initiate the journey towards improved wellness today!

Barbara Madimenos
Hair Tissue Mineral Analysis Practitioner
Functional Diagnostic Nutrition Practitioner
Integrative Health Coach

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