Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) affects up to 15 percent of women and involves many different parts of the body. Diet plays a significant role in treating PCOS with many nutrients being particularly helpful. Taking zinc for PCOS may help reduce common symptoms of this condition like unwanted hair growth and/or hair loss, acne, high blood sugar, and more.
This blog explains the benefits of zinc for PCOS, food sources, and how to properly use zinc supplements.
What is Zinc?
Zinc is a mineral found naturally in various foods and often added to dietary supplements. It also acts as an antioxidant, meaning it helps prevent cellular damage and has anti-inflammatory benefits.
As an essential nutrient, zinc has many important functions in the body including:
- Immune function
- Protein synthesis
- Wound healing
- Growth and development
- Thyroid health
- Blood sugar regulation
Women require about 8 milligrams (mg) of zinc per day, unless pregnant or breastfeeding, in which the body requires closer to 12 mg of daily zinc.
While most people meet the recommended daily allowances for zinc, there are some groups more prone to zinc inadequacy than others. For example, people following a vegetarian/vegan diet may have lower levels of zinc because the zinc in plant foods is harder for the body to absorb and use than zinc from animal sources. Interestingly, new research suggests that women with PCOS may also be at a higher risk of zinc inadequacy or deficiency.
PCOS and Zinc Deficiency
Zinc deficiency is more common in women with PCOS than those without the condition. This is especially true in cases of insulin-resistant PCOS. In fact, one study found that zinc levels were the most accurate predictors of PCOS even more than body mass index (BMI) or cholesterol levels (1
Zinc deficiency and PCOS have an intricate relationship. To further explain, first consider one of the most common conventional treatments for PCOS: oral contraceptives. Women with PCOS are often prescribed the birth control pill to manage PCOS symptoms. Unfortunately, the pill does not treat the root causes of PCOS but rather covers up symptoms that will likely return if and/or when a woman decides to come off the pill.
What’s more, these oral contraceptives can deplete the body of important nutrients, like folate, vitamin B12, and zinc (2
). Zinc insufficiency can then increase your risk of diabetes, obesity, and glucose intolerance which are key players in the vicious cycle of worsening PCOS.
Blood Test for Zinc Deficiency
Zinc nutritional status is difficult to measure using lab tests due to its distribution throughout the body.
However, the concentration of zinc in blood plasma or serum is currently the best available test for zinc deficiency (3
). This is why we include a plasma zinc test for every member in our Get to the Root
Benefits of Zinc for PCOS
Since women with PCOS are more likely to have inadequate zinc levels, there are some research-based benefits of using zinc supplements for treating PCOS.
Improves Blood Sugar Control
Zinc is required to make and store an important hormone called insulin. This hormone is released from your pancreas in response to a meal containing carbohydrates. Insulin lowers your blood sugar levels back to normal by signaling the cells to allow glucose (broken-down carbohydrates) inside to be used for energy. Insulin resistance occurs when your cells have difficulty binding to insulin causing both insulin and glucose to build up in the blood for longer periods of time.
When zinc levels are inadequate, your risk of diabetes and high blood sugar increases. In fact, some researchers suggest that zinc deficiency may be partly to blame for the insulin resistance often seen in PCOS (4
Thankfully, supplementing with zinc may reduce your fasting blood glucose and insulin levels and improve your cells’ response to insulin (5
). When your blood sugar is better controlled, you may see other secondary benefits like improved fertility, regular menstrual cycles, and fewer sugar cravings.
Reduces Hair Loss and/or Unwanted Hair Growth
Hair loss and/or unwanted hair growth (hirsutism) are two common PCOS symptoms that are both caused by excess androgens, i.e. male hormones.
However, zinc has shown to block these excess androgens. For instance, one study found that taking a zinc supplement significantly decreased both PCOS-related hair loss and hirsutism in just eight weeks (7
Improves Skin Health
Acne is another common symptom of PCOS that is often related to excess androgen production. While not specific to PCOS, zinc levels may correlate with the severity of acne, and taking zinc supplements may be useful in treating moderate to severe acne (8
Reduces PMS Symptoms
Premenstrual syndrome is a common occurrence in women who may report symptoms like breast tenderness, abdominal bloating, depression, and anxiety before their period. Zinc may play a beneficial role in reducing these common PMS symptoms.
Similar to the PCOS connection, women with PMS were also found to have lower zinc levels than women without PMS (10
). Fortunately, taking a zinc supplement may significantly reduce PMS symptoms within three months (11
). Some studies have also found benefits in zinc supplementation to reduce symptoms of depression (12
Supports Thyroid Health
Finally, zinc is a very important nutrient in supporting overall thyroid health.
Women with PCOS are three times more likely to also suffer from thyroid autoimmune disease (Hashimoto’s) than the general population (13
). These two conditions share common characteristics like period irregularities, insulin resistance, and infertility, so it’s important to rule out thyroid disease before assuming you have PCOS. Read more about the connection between PCOS and thyroid disorders.
Zinc is required to convert thyroid hormone
into the active version that your body can use to carry out important jobs, like making reproductive hormones and promoting healthy ovulation! So, ensuring you have adequate zinc levels is beneficial for both thyroid health and PCOS.
Foods High in Zinc
PCOS is highly responsive to positive changes in diet and lifestyle, which is why we always encourage a “food first” approach with our patients.
Not only do these foods contain rich sources of zinc that may be beneficial to treating PCOS, but they also contain other important minerals for whole-body health, hormonal balance, fertility, and more. Try to incorporate a variety of these zinc-rich foods into your everyday meals and snacks (15
- Shellfish: oysters, crab, lobster
- Meat: beef, turkey, pork, chicken
- Legumes: soybeans, chickpeas, kidney beans
- Nuts and seeds: pumpkin seeds, pecans, cashews, almonds
- Whole grains: oats
Dark chocolate also contains a fair amount of zinc, so you can happily choose a few squares of dark chocolate for a sweet treat!
Zinc Supplements for PCOS
Most studies showing the benefits of zinc for PCOS used around 50 mg of supplemental zinc per day. However, the upper limit for zinc is set at 40 mg, and taking too much of this mineral may cause GI upset or a subsequent copper deficiency. While more may be recommended to treat a deficiency, we generally recommend supplementing with around 15mg – 30 mg of zinc per day.
Should I take Zinc for PCOS?
Zinc has many benefits for women with PCOS including blood sugar balance, optimizing hormone production, and decreasing PCOS symptoms, like unwanted hair growth or acne.
Taking a zinc supplement can be a very helpful factor in treating the root cause of your PCOS. However, for the best results, we also recommend a solid foundation of an anti-inflammatory diet and a balanced lifestyle to include stress management, movement, and sleep hygiene. Some people may also require more personalized treatments or additional supplements for PCOS