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What's wrong with my lips?

Now the cold weather has really kicked in you might have noticed that your lips don't feel quite right. Maybe they are dry, cracking or just feel tight or painful. Most of us think we are just dehydrated with being inside heated buildings more during the cold snap. And maybe that is the case, but if you increase your fluid intake and still there is no improvement, then maybe you need to look at little further at potential nutrient deficiencies. This happened to me recently, causing me to examine what I might be lacking. There are three key nutrients to consider when you have chapped lips: B vitamins, iron and zinc. You may be lacking in one or more of these but I want to focus on zinc as it's so important to the immune system, which gets taxed at this time of year.

How does zinc affect the lips?

The skin and lips contain one of the highest concentrations of zinc in the body. One of its main functions is the formation of the skin's structural protein - collagen - which is produced by zinc-dependent enzymes called collagenases. Collagen is the most abundant component of the skin's extracellular matrix and is the decisive protein that determines skin physiology, by maintaining the skin structure and enabling its numerous functions to take place. This extracellular matrix retains water which hydrates the skin and lips and provides smoothness, firmness and strength. Studies have shown that decreased zinc results in decreased total collagen. Even mild deficiencies in zinc can impair collagen production and lead to skin and lip dehydration.

Why might I be zinc deficient?

Around one third of the world's population is zinc deficient. It's not stored in the body so a continuous supply is needed from your diet. But there are a number of factors that can lead to low zinc levels that include inadequate dietary intake, poor absorption or increased loss. This can be a result of:

  • Low protein intake and/or vegetarian diets - reduced intake

  • High intake of foods that contain phytates - inhibits zinc absorption

  • Pancreatic insufficiency or gut problems - causes malabsorption

  • Infections or pathogens - activate the immune system which uses up a lot of zinc

  • Excessive alcohol intake - zinc is needed to detoxify alcohol

  • Modern chemical farming and use of pesticides - reduces the availability of zinc in the soil

Other signs of zinc deficiency

It may not just be your lips that are suffering. Here are some other common signs that you may be low in zinc:

  • White spots on your nails

  • Mouth ulcers/canker sores

  • Blurry vision or twitching eyes

  • Blocked ears or ringing in your ears

  • Loss of taste or smell

  • Poor appetite

  • Depressed mood

  • Decreased immunity

  • Delayed wound healing

  • Diarrhea

  • Hair loss

How can I increase my zinc levels?

Start by eating foods that contain the highest levels of zinc. The top foods are (in this order): oysters, lamb, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, beef, chickpeas, lentils, cashews, kefir/yoghurt, ricotta cheese, mushrooms, spinach, avocado, chicken, almonds, eggs. But also be aware of foods that contain phytates, which reduce zinc absorption. Phytates are found to varying degrees in all seeds, grains and legumes. But as these are healthy foods, rather than avoiding them you can significantly reduce the phytate levels by soaking, sprouting or fermenting these foods. Sourdough bread is a great example of a fermented bread that contains low levels of phytates.

What about supplementation?

Supplementing with zinc can be very helpful, especially in the winter months when your immune system is challenged. Always start low and go slow with any supplement but especially zinc as it can up regulate so many other body processes that you may experience some unwanted symptoms. You could start with a simple multi-vitamin and mineral that contains zinc or a standalone supplement of 15 mg. This is a very safe amount and a good level to start with. Always check with your doctor first before starting any supplements, especially if you are on any medication as nutritional supplements may impair absorption or increase excretion of your medication.

This is my favourite zinc supplement, which you can buy from the Natural Dispensary. Using my discount code of JCL010 will give you a 10% discount.

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  • Bolke L, Schlippe G, Gerß J, Voss W. A Collagen Supplement Improves Skin Hydration, Elasticity, Roughness, and Density: Results of a Randomized, Placebo-Controlled, Blind

  • Study. Nutrients. 2019 Oct 17;11(10):2494.

  • Gupta M, Mahajan VK, Mehta KS, Chauhan PS. Zinc therapy in dermatology: a review. Dermatol Res Pract.2014:709152.

  • Ogawa Y, Kinoshita M, Shimada S, Kawamura T. Zinc and Skin Disorders. Nutrients. 2018 Feb 11;10(2):199.

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