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 or they have some mental health challenges or an eating disorder (that are not easily accounted for by trauma or stress), then read on.

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 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 neurodiverse kids or those 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 assimilate their foods and 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 kids 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 going through puberty as zinc is a key nutrient for making enough testosterone. The ovaries love zinc too and helps them 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 develop an altered relationship with food. 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 a smaller appetite and less interest in food.

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. So does chronic loose stools or toddler diarrhoea as well as intestinal malabsorption issues like coeliac disease, yeast overgrowth and parasitic infection. These are important 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 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 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. These kids tend to have beautiful porcelain skin like a china doll.

Excess pyrroles in the urine can manifest in a range of symptoms which include poor stress control, poor short-term memory, reading disorders, sensitivity to noise and bright lights, little or no dream recall, poor growth, underachievement, tendency to skip breakfast, frequent infections, extreme mood swings, severe inner tension, high anxiety, a love of spicy or salty foods or delayed puberty.

Those with raised Kryptopyrroles tend to be very emotionally changeable and the atmosphere at home can be like “walking on eggshells” as a pyrrole child’s mood can be “predictably unpredictable”.

Luckily this genetic trait can be tested easily through a simple urine test and can be remediated 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, 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.

We can be exposed to too much copper through corroded copper water pipes and maternal use of IUD’s and contraceptive pill. 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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