Celiac Disease and Zinc Deficiency

Celiac disease zinc deficiency happens because of the malabsorptive nature of celiac. In fact, a key sign of celiac is malabsorption in the small intestine and thus nutrient deficiencies.

Zinc is one of the minerals of major concern with celiac because the damage to the small intestine from gluten can impair absorption. Thus, celiac disease can cause zinc deficiency. This make zinc an important nutrient to pay attention to for those with celiac.

Written by Jan Wasmuth (nutrition intern) and revised by Tayler Silfverduk, RDN.

Table of Contents

Celiac Disease and Zinc Deficiency - Tayler Silfverduk, celiac dietitian

What is Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease is a chronic condition in which the body launches an autoimmune reaction to the protein gluten, which is found in wheat, rye, barley, and some other grains.

When an individual with celiac ingests gluten, the immune system reacts and causes damage to the villi in the small intestine. The villi are the absorptive surface in the small intestine, so they are vital points for absorption of nutrients. As they become damaged, the finger-like projections become flattened and are no longer able to absorb all of the nutrients that pass through the small intestine after someone eats.

Thus, vitamins and minerals pass through to the colon and are excreted from the body with the waste, rather than being absorbed and used by the body.

This damage to the small intestine and the inflammatory autoimmune response to gluten cause over 300 reported symptoms, including nutrient deficiencies.

All About Zinc

Zinc is an essential trace mineral, which means that it plays a key role in various processes of the body. Zinc is found in various food sources. When consumed, these foods pass through the small intestine, where the villi allow the absorption of zinc. The zinc is then used in various mechanisms to impact the functioning of the body.

Why is Zinc important For Celiac Disease

Zinc contributes greatly to your health. Zinc is found in nearly every cell in the human body.

Some ways that zinc is used in the body include it’s use in enzyme activity, healing of wounds, synthesis of DNA, protein, and hemoglobin. It also is a key for human development and is needed for the growth of fetuses, children, and adolescents.

Finally, zinc is very important for immune system function, which is a point of interest for those with celiac. Celiac disease interferes with the immune system when glutened, so zinc is important to stay well and recover from accidental gluten exposures. It’s important to note that zinc helps reduce inflammation and contributes to a healthy gut, which is very beneficial for someone who has celiac.

Signs of Zinc Deficiency With Celiac Disease

There are several signs of zinc deficiency. One may experience signs such as fatigue (the body is lacking the ability to run efficiently since zinc plays a part in so many enzymatic reactions) and bone health issues (further playing a role in bone health with celiac).

Someone who is deficient in zinc may also have other signs. For example, since zinc plays a notable role in the development of an unborn baby, thus with deficiency, pregnancy complications can occur.

Children and adolescents can experience failure to thrive; they may not grow physically at the expected rate and may not mature sexually as they should.

An individual deficient in zinc may notice his or her sense of taste is affected or may have a reduced appetite, which may lead to weight loss.

How to know if You’re Deficient in Zinc

Determination of zinc deficiency with celiac disease can be measured through blood tests. These blood tests can either examine the serum zinc level or the plasma zinc level.

A physician may order these blood tests if one has been diagnosed with celiac to assess the nutritional status of the individual in order to determine the best course of action for nutritional rehabilitation (a registered dietitian can further assist in this nutritional rehabilitation).

You can also order an at-home Micronutrient test kit like this one by Let’s Get Checked (sponsored) to assess your zinc status with celiac. It will also help evaluate other nutrient deficiencies that may occur with celiac (like low vitamin D and low B12).

Other signs and symptoms, such as mentioned above (poor growth, poor appetite, etc.) can be warnings of zinc deficiency.

Why Zinc is Important with Celiac -Celiac Disease and Zinc Deficiency - Tayler Silfverduk, celiac dietitian

Celiac Disease and Zinc Deficiency

Zinc deficiency is common in those newly diagnosed with celiac. In a 2010 study, 71.6% of those with celiac presented with zinc deficiency. Since celiac causes malabsorption of vitamins and minerals, zinc is a micronutrient of concern.

Can Celiac Disease Cause Zinc Deficiency?

For someone with celiac, the consumption of gluten damages the villi of the small intestine, thereby inhibiting the body’s ability to absorb nutrients.

Zinc is provided to the body through food sources. The foods are consumed and the zinc is absorbed during the digestive process in the small intestine. However, when gluten exposure has damaged the villi so much that the surface is flattened, the zinc cannot be properly absorbed.

Since this malabsorptive state causes the zinc to pass through the gastrointestinal tract unabsorbed, the individual can experience zinc deficiency.

Furthermore, many gluten-free foods lack the zinc fortification that many gluten-containing products have, which makes zinc deficiency for someone with celiac even more of a risk.

List of Gluten-Free Food Sources of Zinc -Celiac Disease and Zinc Deficiency - Tayler Silfverduk, celiac dietitian

Celiac-Safe Sources of Zinc

Zinc is found in many food sources. An individual can consume these foods to help replenish zinc in the body to correct zinc deficiencies.

It is important to note that the villi (absorptive surface of the small intestine) needs to heal to allow the zinc to be absorbed. After diagnosis, a strictly gluten-free diet is the way to heal the villi and restore proper absorption in the small intestine.

Meanwhile, it is important to be sure one consumes adequate zinc (along with other vitamins and minerals) to replenish these micronutrients in the body.

Celiac-Safe Foods to Prevent Zinc Deficiency

Since gluten-free foods are often not fortified with zinc like their gluten-containing counterparts are, it’s important to focus on gluten-free foods that naturally contain high amounts of zinc.

Meats and seafood are excellent food sources of zinc. Examples include shellfish, shrimp, beef, and chicken.

Some other foods are also good sources of zinc, although in less high amounts. These foods include beans, chickpeas, nuts and seeds, and dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt). Gluten-free oats and legumes are other notable sources of zinc.

Celiac-Safe Recipes to Prevent Zinc Deficiency

Now that you know the roles zinc plays in the body and why it is so important for people with celiac, it’s time to enjoy some foods high in zinc! Below are some recipes that include foods with lots of zinc!

  • Cashew Maple Yogurt – This delicious bowl has lots of zinc from the yogurt and nuts (you can get even more zinc if you use a whole grain gluten-free cereal, especially if it is fortified).
  • Easy Black Bean Soup – The black beans in this recipe offer zinc (and are a great source of protein and fiber) and a dollop of sour cream or Greek yogurt on top adds even more.
  • 30 Minute Easy Chicken Chickpea Curry – Curries are so delicious and come in many varieties. This curry recipe is packed with zinc from the chicken, chickpeas, and even Greek yogurt!
  • Peanut Butter Oatmeal – Warm oatmeal and creamy peanut butter is a great combination and both are great sources of zinc. 
  • Best 3-Bean Chili – Triple the beans means triple the zinc! Plus, ground beef also is very high in zinc.
  • Pecan Crusted Salmon – Salmon offers lots of zinc and the crushed pecans top it off with another great source of zinc.

Can Supplements Prevent Zinc Deficiency With Celiac?

If it’s so important that celiacs consume enough zinc, should they take zinc supplements? There are mixed thoughts about the need for zinc supplementation in celiac disease.

A 2010 study found that zinc levels rose the same for participants newly diagnosed with celiac who did and did not take zinc supplements. The increase in serum zinc levels was attributed to adherence to a gluten-free diet, which allows the villi to heal so zinc can be absorbed.

However, in some situations, zinc supplementation may benefit people with celiac because they are at a high risk for malabsorption and deficiency of zinc.

It is important to note, though, that zinc toxicity can occur, so it’s important not to consume too much in the form of supplements. So, the bottom line is that, while zinc supplements COULD potentially be beneficial to replenish zinc levels in some individuals, the research shows it is unnecessary.

This is because once someone has been diagnosed with celiac and is following a gluten-free diet, absorption will increase as the small intestine heals. This corrects the zinc deficiency since the body can then absorb zinc from food sources.

Celiac Disease and Zinc Deficiency - Tayler Silfverduk, celiac dietitian

The Zinc Ultimatum:

Zinc plays an important role in a vast number of functions in the body. However, celiac disease causes damage to the villi in the small intestine, thus causing malabsorption of zinc.

This puts individuals with celiac at a high risk for zinc deficiency and the health problems that result. However, when a gluten-free diet is followed, the gut is healed and can absorb zinc again.

This allows the deficiency to be corrected. Ultimately, to ensure that you have adequate zinc levels, follow a balanced gluten-free diet so your villi can heal. And be sure to consume lots of foods rich in zinc, including meats, seafood, dairy, nuts, seeds, legumes, and oats.

And if you want help balancing your gluten-free diet, consider working with a celiac dietitian!

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