Zinc is, in my opinion, the most important mineral for men, especially active men who lift weights. A zinc rich diet and supplementary zinc is extremely effective at raising testosterone levels and helping men to improve their body compositions.
Zinc is one of the most common mineral deficiencies in western countries, and even a mild zinc deficiency lowers sex drive, limits muscle gain potential, causes weight gain and hurts energy levels.Zinc rich foods are a man’s best friend for a number of reasons:
- Zinc is the number one mineral for raising testosterone levels.
- Zinc supplementation significantly improves insulin sensitivity and guards against diabetes.
- Zinc protects against prostate problems.
- Zinc is a powerful aromatase inhibitor making it an extremely effective anti-estrogen.
- Zinc is crucial for the immune system and will help you to train harder without overtraining.
- Zinc balances copper in the body leading to greater energy levels and clearer thought processes.
Zinc improves sex drive, increases semen volume and leads to generally better sex!
As well as discussing why zinc is so effective for raising testosterone levels, I look at what diet and lifestyle factors reduce zinc absorption and retention, how to cheaply test your zinc status at home, and which are the best forms of supplemental zinc to take.
Zinc, insulin sensitivity and diabetes:
Zinc is an extremely important mineral for insulin function and a marginal deficiency has been shown to increase insulin resistance and to worsen glycemic control.
Other common mineral deficiencies, such as chromium, manganese and magnesium, are also linked to the development of insulin resistance and diabetes.
Those of us interested in getting or staying lean and muscular should aim to maintain good insulin sensitivity as insulin resistance and the unstable blood sugar levels and poor nutrient partitioning that it brings about makes fat gain very likely.
Zinc is involved in insulin synthesis, storage, secretion and utilisation; zinc also protects against beta cell destruction.
Deficiencies in zinc and vitamin D have been implicated in the development of type 1 diabetes and other autoimmune diseases such as crohn’s disease, although trials investigating zinc’s effects on blood sugar levels in type 1 diabetics have given mixed results(1).
Many clinical features of both liver cirrhosis and diabetes mellitus have been linked to zinc deficiency. Trials have found that high doses of zinc dramatically improves glucose disposal in people with liver cirrhosis(2), and zinc given alongside arachidonic acid, an omega 6 fat found in meat, has been shown to improve glucose disposal and thereby reduce hyperglycaemia in diabetic mice(3).
It seems extremely likely to me that zinc deficiency is a major factor behind the widespread incidence of non alcohol fatty liver disease(NAFLD) in Western countries at present.
Studies such as the above ones (and there are lots) must come as a kick in the teeth to nutritionists who advocate meat avoidance or limitation, since zinc and arachidonic acid are found most abundantly in red meat.
These findings help to explain why reasonably high protein moderate fat diets actually tend to improve insulin sensitivity rather than decrease it as many nutritionists suggest they will.
Aside from its crucial role in insulin action, zinc improves insulin sensitivity simply by raising testosterone levels; despite the load of negative press it once received, testosterone isn’t a ‘nasty’ hormone that we want to limit.
In fact, low testosterone levels, which are often caused by a marginal zinc deficiency, ‘have been shown to be associated with type 2 diabetes, visceral adiposity, dyslipidaemia and metabolic syndrome’(4) in men.
Testosterone replacement therapy given to men has been shown improve insulin sensitivity, glycemic control and to fight diabetes(5). Simple diet and lifestyle adjustments, such as getting more zinc each day, are effective at raising testosterone levels.
Zinc for raising testosterone levels
Zinc deficiency is extremely widespread throughout the world, and even a mild deficiency will quickly lower your serum testosterone concentration.
A low zinc diet stops the pituitary gland from being able to release the luteinising and follicle stimulating hormones that stimulate testosterone production in the testes.
A diet that supplied inadequate zinc reduced the number of androgen receptor sites by 40 percent in a rodent study, and estrogen receptor sites increased by 60 percent!(6)
A mild zinc deficiency will reduce the number of androgen binding sites and the unbound testosterone in the blood stream then becomes converted to estrogen in the liver; at the same time the number of estrogen receptors increases. This is extremely bad news!
A man who has regular sex, drinks a lot and/ or who lifts weights is at increased risk of becoming marginally zinc deficient and should make sure they eat zinc rich foods every day and take supplements of this mineral.
Zinc fights excess estrogen!
Zinc is a powerful aromatase inhibitor that will greatly reduce the conversion of testosterone to estrogen in the body.
When we don’t get enough zinc levels of the aromatase enzyme rise and we begin to experience weakened sex drive, reduced muscle mass, lower energy levels and increased body fat (alongside other problems).
Men with too much estrogen often develop minor issues such as bloating and get a fatty build up around their nipples. These problems can be eliminated by taking extra zinc.
The latest research suggests that excess estrogen is the most likely cause of prostate problems in men, not the form of testosterone called dihydrotestosterone (DHT). Despite claims that DHT causes prostate problems, this hormone may actually be good for the prostate because it is a strong estrogen antagonist.
One of the best ways men can protect themselves from getting prostate problems is to make sure they eat a high zinc diet so that estrogen levels in the body are kept low.
Zinc ramps up sex drive!
Zinc is without doubt the most important mineral for a man’s reproductive and sexual health. When a marginal zinc deficiency is corrected you can expect your sex drive to greatly improve and your semen volume to increase.
Zinc is very important for a woman’s sex drive too, but not nearly as important as it is for men who lose zinc every time they ejaculate.
Prolactin is a nasty hormone that reduces sex drive in men which we generally want to limit. Zinc, in combination with b6, reduces prolactin levels and keeps dopamine levels high.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is crucially important to mental outlook – when dopamine levels are low, sex drive is reduced and life just becomes less fun.
Recent studies show that zinc helps to regulate the function of dopamine and that a marginal deficiency in zinc may be involved in the cause of the diseases Parkinson’s and ADHD, which are both linked to problems in dopamine signaling.(7)(8)
Zinc is a crucially important mineral for thyroid function – the thyroid is the organ that largely determines our metabolic rate, and when it’s working properly energy levels are high and we burn fuel efficiently.
Zinc rich meats are also rich in the amino acid tyrosine which is the precursor to both thyroid hormone and dopamine. This is one of the many reasons why red meat is great food for raising testosterone levels and sex drive in men.
Zinc is a major component of seminal fluid and is what makes it white. A marginal deficiency is a major cause of infertility in men. Many guys notice a very obvious increase in semen volume after taking 50mg to 100mg of extra zinc a day alongside eating a zinc rich diet.
Zinc improves Immune system function
We should all prioritise eating high zinc foods to keep our immune systems working at peak levels. Zinc is used by the thymus gland to promote the growth of T cells that protect us against infection.
A mild zinc deficiency from overtraining partly explains why we become more prone to catching colds during these periods. With a high zinc diet and zinc supplementation it becomes possible to train harder without overtraining and the recovery time needed between workouts is reduced.
While one study suggested that taking 150 mg of zinc a day could impair immune response, Mark Konlee, author of the Immune Restoration Handbook, notes ‘the same amount of zinc taken as zinc sulphate caused T-lymphocytes to proliferate and persistent infections were cured in another study’(9).
Zinc is non toxic even up to a very high dosage; the only potential problem is that at high levels zinc depletes copper, and to a lesser extent iron.
Many men, however, are suffering from a copper-zinc imbalance in favour of copper these days and a high zinc low copper diet will greatly improve their immune system function.
There is an easy way to test your zinc levels. Swallow two teaspoons of zinc sulphate solution (‘Zinc Tally’) and hold in your mouth for ten seconds:
An immediate taste sensation suggests your zinc status is adequate, keep eating zinc rich foods every day though.
A delayed taste sensation or no taste sensation at all suggests inadequate zinc status. If this is what you find, I’d recommend you take a look at your diet and make sure it’s very zinc rich and that you supplement with zinc – many of us guys need a lot of zinc and will struggle to consistently get enough without supplementing.
I’d recommend testing with ‘zinc tally’ every other week or month until you get a good taste sensation. Then you need to find the level of supplementation that, combined with a zinc rich diet, will keep zinc levels high.
I generally recommend men who lift weights take at least 50mg of supplemental zinc a day, or 100mg every other day, alongside eating a zinc rich diet for raising testosterone levels.
If the ‘zinc taste test’ tastes like water then consider taking up to 150mg of zinc a day to correct this. Minor side effects that some people experience can be avoided if you build up your zinc dose gradually i.e 25mg one week, 50 the next, and so on…
Problems of too much zinc
Theoretically if you take too much zinc for a long period of time you will deplete copper and iron as zinc competes with these minerals for absorption. This may lead to decreased immune system function, slow wound healing, dry skin and other side effects.
Bear in mind, however, that men should be zinc dominant and many men are copper toxic due to having been in a state of mild zinc deficiency for a long time and from haven taken in too much copper from sources such as tap water.
Smoking, clothing dyes (especially dark ones), copper pots, the new high copper amalgam fillings, and herbicides and pesticides can increase your copper according to Carl Pfeiffer, one of the most knowledgeable experts on copper imbalance.
For such men it is actually a great thing that zinc competes with copper and reduces the levels of this mineral in the body. Men that want copper as well as zinc should take ‘opti-zinc’ and include copper rich foods in their diets. Opti-zinc contains small amounts of copper and has been shown not to affect copper or iron absorption even at dosages like 150 mg a day.(10)
A high zinc diet can theoretically cause an iron deficiency but this is, however, extremely unlikely. Iron is very effectively absorbed from zinc rich animal products so if you start eating more of these to get more zinc you’ll get more iron too.
Also, iron is very well retained in the body so that men, who don’t lose iron through menstruation, rarely become iron deficient and can suffer from iron overload.
If you’re worried about iron loss from taking lots of zinc try a supplement called lactoferrin – this supplement (one of my favourites) is a natural component of breast milk. It’s fantastic for the immune system, promotes a healthy complexion and helps to soothe and heal the gut.
Lactoferrin improves iron absorption and regulation, treating iron deficiency anaemia as effectively as the iron supplement ferrous sulphate but without any gastrointestinal side effects(11).
Good forms of Zinc
Chelates such as zinc picolinate, optizinc (zinc monomethionine), zinc gluconate and zinc citrate are all good forms of supplementary zinc for raising testosterone levels.
Opti-zinc has been proven not to compete with copper for absorption and not to remove iron from cells, so if you are worried about negatively affecting the status of these minerals then take this form.
As already discussed, many men are suffering from a copper zinc imbalance that will make raising testosterone levels very difficult. These guys will benefit from a form of zinc that lowers copper levels in body. I would recommend zinc gluconate or zinc picolinate.
Factors that reduce zinc:
1) High fibre diets
In some studies high fibre diets have been shown to reduce zinc absorption. However, these studies have generally used cereal fibres like wheat bran. Prebiotic fibres such as inulin, found in vegetables such as onions, artichoke, asparagus and chicory have been shown to enhance the absorption of the minerals zinc, magnesium, calcium and iron in rats, but this has not been proven to occur in humans(12).
I don’t recommend bodybuilders or people interested in raising testosterone levels eat very high fibre diets. High soluble fibre diets have been shown to reduce testosterone levels(13); even high levels of insoluble fibre in the diet will somewhat reduce T levels. Anecdotal reports also suggest that changing to a high soluble fibre diet reduces mens’ sex drive.
Studies show that supplementing the diet with 15 grams of inulin a day can significantly increase numbers of beneficial bifidobacteria in the colon(14). However, other studies show that as little as half a gram of inulin a day is enough to positively alter gut flora and enhance mineral absorption.(15)
I’d recommend that that you eat a normal diet that isn’t particularly high in fiber and not to supplement with additional fiber. Enjoy root vegetables such as onions and garlic as these may improve mineral absorption but dont become obsessed with eating loads of these – more of these gut friendly fibers may not be better if your looking at raising testosterone levels and building muscle mass.
2) The Phytate controversy:
Some nutritionists claim that phytates that are naturally present in cereal grains, nuts and legumes decrease zinc absorption and that these foods should be carefully prepared to remove these phytates.
This may be true but is probably pretty irrelevant to real life. Whilst you would absorb the zinc from oats better if they were cooked on a low heat for many hours, oats aren’t where you’ll be getting most of your zinc from anyway.
Eating unprepared grains will not affect the absorption of zinc from animal foods or of your zinc supplements. Therefore I wouldn’t worry about including these foods in your diet. Make sure your diet doesn’t contain excessive amounts of fibre and eat a lot of zinc rich foods every day for raising testosterone levels.
One study recently confirmed that the addition of oatmeal, three meals a day, to a low fibre diet made no difference to zinc absorption in healthy young people(16).
Interestingly, it turns out the phytate hating nutritionists that recommend soaking your grains for many hours in a slightly acidic water are wrong about how best to deactivate phytates. You should actually slow cook phytate rich grains like oats on a slow heat for about 6 hours rather than soaking them if you’re bothered about phytates.
3) Zinc antagonists: Copper, calcium and Iron
Copper: Copper is a zinc antagonist – when using zinc for raising testosterone levels it’s a good idea to minimise exposure to concentrated sources of copper such as tap water from copper pipes and foods rich in copper such as chocolate, carob, shellfish and mushrooms. Make sure your multivitamin doesn’t contain copper as well.
Calcium: High levels of dietary calcium competes with zinc for absorption. I don’t recommend high calcium diets for many people because of the effects high calcium has on the status of other important minerals.
Magnesium deficiency is extremely widespread in western countries. A high calcium diet reduces magnesium absorption and a magnesium deficiency stops calcium from being used properly.
Forward thinking practitioners such as Dr. Guy Abraham, M.D argue that calcium is actually used much better by the body when you eat a low calcium diet that supplies adequate levels of other minerals such as zinc and magnesium along with sufficient vitamin D.
Iron: Iron is another zinc antagonist and iron supplements should not be taken unless you are sure you need them whilst using zinc for raising testosterone levels.
Lactoferrin is a supplement that will improve iron status without negatively affecting zinc.
4)Sugars and alcohol
Heavy consumption of alcohol, particularly hard liquor, and of sugary foods and drinks will gradually deplete the body of important minerals such as magnesium and zinc.
Moderate drinking of beer and wine is fine for most people as long as you eat a nutrient rich diet – heavy drinking is a nightmare if you’re looking at raising testosterone levels and building muscle.
After outlining the benefits of eating a zinc rich diet and supplementing zinc for raising testosterone levels, here’s a response to the negative comments critics always make about using zinc for hormonal enhancement.
The most common criticism is that too much zinc hurts the immune system, the second is that if you are not zinc deficient then zinc supplementation won’t be effective for raising testosterone levels.
Most of the studies showing extremely positive effects on zinc raising testosterone levels and lowering estrogen have been done on animals and humans who are zinc deficient to some degree. Critics argue that once you correct a zinc deficiency extra zinc wont help you, and may hurt you.
This is simply missing the point. Zinc is one of the most common mineral deficiencies in developed countries and most of us need to take extra zinc to avoid becoming mildly deficient.
We use a lot of zinc each day and you need to get a good amounts of zinc from your diet and/ or supplements to stay the right side of the zinc equation. Ignore the scaremongering about taking zinc supplements as long as you’re not taking a very high dose i.e. over 100 mg a day for long periods.
Whether or not taking extra zinc will hurt or help you is an interesting question though. Many bodybuilders on steroids find that taking 100 plus mgs of extra zinc a day helps them to avoid excess estrogen problems by inhibiting aromatase activity; zinc does this without the side effects caused by many other anti-estrogens.
In terms of the immune system I’ve already pointed out that the vast majority of studies have not shown immune suppression from high levels of zinc.
Zinc will only cause problems by competing with other minerals, mainly copper and iron, and many people are zinc deficient and have a resulting copper overload. Zinc supplementation is crucial for improving immune function and curing persistent infections in many men.
It is my opinion that a major reason why people find they can put on more muscle when they move to a lower carb, higher protein diet is that they tend to eat many more zinc rich, animal protein foods on such a diet.
When you substitute meat for some of your starches, which are nutritionally poor in comparison, you start getting a lot more highly bio available zinc every day. Since zinc is so important for both fat loss and muscle gain your body composition quickly improves.
It’s likely because zinc is essential for raising testosterone levels that low levels of this mineral in vegetarian diets helps to explain why these diets are less effective for building and maintaining muscle mass than diets that include animal protein.
Another obvious difference problem with vegetarian diets for raising testosterone levels is that they are almost always low cholesterol and contain very few saturated and monounsaturated fat sources – I point out in loads of my articles how important these fats are for raising testosterone levels and building muscle.
It may be that the reduction in the carbohydrate content of your diet is a fairly minor factor affecting fat loss; the addition of high quality fat, protein and bodybuilding nutrients such as zinc on a higher protein diet results in easy weight loss and muscle gain through raising testosterone levels and by improving insulin sensitivity.
Ed Clements is a fitness and health writer who offers advice to men and women explaining how to optimise hormone balance through diet, training, lifestyle improvement and through intelligent supplementation.
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References and Footnotes:
(9)Mark Konlee, Immune Restoration Handbook, p.219
(10)15.Wedekind KJ, Hortin AE, Baker DH, Methodology for
Assessing Zinc Bioavailability: Efficacy Estimates for
Zinc-Methionine, Zinc Sulfate, and
Zinc Oxide, Journal of Animal Science, 70:178-187, 1992.
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