Zinc – The Mighty Mineral For Learning, Brain Development and Mood

Zinc nails white flecks lines

Our body uses zinc to do many amazing things and zinc is one of the most important minerals that every parent of a child with learning, behavioural or developmental differences needs to know about and consider. It is also a super important mineral for supporting our mental health and our relationship with food.

If your child has a diagnosis of (or you suspect) developmental delay, dyslexia, dyspraxia, attention deficit disorder, autism, sensory processing disorder or tourette’s syndrome then zinc is a key nutrient to think about supporting. If there are some behavioural or mental health challenges or an eating disorder (that are not easily accounted for by trauma or stress), then also read on to hear why getting enough zinc is so important.

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Why is zinc so important for brain development? It helps to keep our neurons in out brain healthy and communicating with each other effectively. Zinc also helps to make acetylcholine which is the key brain neurotransmitter that helps us learn, have a good memory and be able to self-regulate our emotions and behaviour.

Zinc also helps to create and regulate other important brain and mood hormones such as dopamine (key for motivation), norepinephrine (adrenaline and fight or flight regulation), serotonin (to keep us cheery) and GABA (our calming inner yogi) which are often out of sync in kids with neurodivergent minds and the young with mental health challenges.

Zinc also helps to build a robust and well-balanced immune system. And since we now know that a misdirected immune system can lead to “immunopsychiatric” or neurological presentations in some people, such as anxiety, OCD, depression and brain fog, then this is another key reason to optimise zinc levels.

It is also a key player in creating all our gastric juices, and zinc helps kids to digest and assimilate foods and to grow. It also helps with a healthy sense of smell and taste which helps kids to enjoy a wide variety of food tastes and textures. A lack of zinc may be the reason why many neurodiverse kids or youngsters with mood disorders are very selective eaters and drawn to plain beige and crunchy foods.

Kids going through a growth spurt need more zinc than usual, and this is even more so during the years when they are going through puberty. Zinc is a key nutrient for making enough testosterone. The ovaries love zinc too, and this mighty mineral helps them to produce oestrogen and progesterone. This is why during teenage years, the minimum recommended daily allowance for zinc goes up from 8mg to 11mg per day (equivalent of leaping from 100g pumpkin seeds a day to 140g a day or from 100g to around 150g roast beef a day).

Research has found that adolescents with eating disorders are often low in serum zinc, and it is thought that a zinc deficiency can be a key reason why they can go onto develop an altered relationship with food and find it hard to get back on track with their weight. This is probably because the lack of zinc means less gastric juices are made and sense of smell and taste are blunted. And this in turn leads to less efficient digestion, a smaller appetite and less interest in food. Plant-based foods tend to be low in zinc and many tweens and teens give up seafood, fish, meat and dairy just at the moment when then need zinc-rich foods the most.

And without enough zinc, heavy metals can more easily build up in the system which can potentially skew neurodevelopment and learning quite significantly. Researchers in both Japan and Boston have found much less zinc and far more lead, mercury, aluminium, cadmium in the baby teeth and hair of many young children who go onto be diagnosed with autism and developmental delay.

Which foods contain zinc?

We cannot store zinc easily, so we need to consume enough zinc in our diet every day. Zinc rich foods include nuts, seeds, wholegrains, pulses, eggs, dairy products, red meat and seafood. Oysters contain the most zinc, but the reality is that these are expensive and not very child-friendly! Ideally seeds, nuts, legumes, and whole grains should be soaked and sprouted to help optimise zinc absorption, as natural phytates in these foods can block nutrient absorption.

What else depletes zinc?

Environmental toxins such as BPA and phthalates found in everyday plastic products bind to zinc and deplete zinc levels in the body. Chronic loose stools or toddler diarrhoea, as well as intestinal malabsorption issues like coeliac disease, yeast overgrowth and parasitic infection can also lead to shortfalls in zinc. These are important factors to check out if you are struggling to raise your child’s zinc to an optimal level.

Sometimes you can tell a child is low in zinc, if they develop lots of white speckles on their nails. These white flecks are not definitive of a zinc deficiency, but they are a strong indicator to get zinc levels tested. It is also worth checking calcium, magnesium and selenium levels at the same time, as these white marks on the nails known as Leukonychia tend to be a more generalised mineral deficiency sign.


There is also a genetic trait that can be passed on through the generations known as Kryptopyrrole (KPU) or Pyrrole disorder. This essentially means that the person excretes more zinc and B6 through their urine than they are able to gain from their diet. Slowly the body becomes depleted, so this is why symptoms tend to become more marked and obvious as a child gets older. This can continue into adulthood and the symptoms can be similar.

These kids tend to have beautiful porcelain skin like a china doll, almost angel like, but also carry a feisty character alongside. Many are red heads and their ancestors are likely to be Irish, Scottish or from Scandinavia, but this is not always the case. They also often don’t tan in the sunshine very easily.

Excess pyrroles in the urine can manifest in a range of symptoms which include poor stress control, extreme mood swings, severe inner tension, high anxiety. People with KPU can have poor short-term memory, reading difficulties, and a general underachievement at school below their natural IQ.

Kids with KPU tend to have poor growth or or delayed puberty. They can be picky eaters or can be very stubborn or particular in what they will or wont eat. They have a tendency to skip breakfast or eat a tiny breakfast, as zinc helps to create morning hunger and also helps to prevent morning nausea. Because of the blunted sense of taste and smell they can have a love of spicy or salty foods – many add ketchup or chilli sauce to everything they eat or crave high umami-tasting foods like flavoured crisps and soya sauce.

They can be kids who get run down with frequent infections, or the opposite and never get ill. They may struggle to balance their blood sugars. Kids with KPU tend to be super sensitive to their environment and often have allergies, eczema, hay fever or asthma or food intolerances. They can be sensitive to noise and bright lights and another hallmark is little or no dream recall as this is a key sign for vitamin B6 deficiency.

Those people with raised Kryptopyrroles tend to have a very changeable mood and the atmosphere at home can be like “walking on eggshells” as a pyrrole child’s mood can be “predictably unpredictable”. They can seem emotionally charged and volatile. It can feel like they have adrenaline pumping round their blood all the time and they can be in a fight or flight state.

Luckily this genetic trait can be tested easily through a simple urine test and can be reblanced relatively quickly from taking zinc and vitamin B6 supplements.

A fine balance with copper

Zinc works as a “buddy” with copper and problems can occur when the delicate balance gets skewed. We all need some copper, but when copper levels are too high, more norepinephrine and epinephrine (adrenaline) are synthesized from dopamine, which can cause feelings of hyperactivity, impulsivity, agitation, anxiety and panic. Excess adrenaline can also give you the feelings of overstimulation, racing thoughts, restlessness, and insomnia.

Too much copper also blocks the production of serotonin, which is the neurotransmitter responsible for regulating mood. Not enough serotonin can lead to emotional, mental, and behavioural distress such as depression and anxiety states. It can also lead to oxidative stress which can affect cellular repair. Too much copper can mean that women can hold onto oestrogen for too long which can lead to a build of excess oestrogen in the body. In teenage girls this can mean heavy periods, period pain and premenstrual tension.

We can be exposed to too much copper through corroded copper water pipes and maternal use of IUD’s and contraceptive pill. Some genetic disorders, such as Wilson’s disease, can also lead to copper toxicity.

A hair mineral test will often highlight high copper levels; however, copper is clever at hiding, and if you suspect a copper: zinc imbalance it’s important to also carry out blood tests for serum copper, plasma zinc and serum ceruloplasmin. These results can then be interpreted by a nutritional therapist or functional medicine doctor who has experience in zinc:copper imbalance.

As you can see this is complex! Working with a NatureDoc practitioner can help you navigate the intricacies of getting zinc levels right, and it may be an important piece in the puzzle to help your child become the best version of themselves.



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    1. Hi Georgina – here are the upper tolerable levels for zinc on a daily basis if taken for a long time:
      1–3 years 7 mg
      4–8 years 12 mg
      9–13 years 23 mg
      14–18 years 34 mg

      I hope this is helpful.
      Lucinda x