Zinc for pregnancy and breastfeeding
When it comes to nutrition during pregnancy, folate and iron are usually the first supplemental nutrients that spring to mind. These two nutrients are essential for fertility and preventing fetal abnormalities. They’re also often automatically recommended by doctors for those who are pregnant or trying to conceive.
But there’s actually another element that’s equally important for pregnant individuals and those who are breastfeeding - zinc. Zinc plays a significant role in fetal growth and development and in improving the quality of breastmilk.
Zinc during pregnancy
Did you know that zinc deficiency increases the risk of low birth weight, preterm birth, abnormalities during labour, and pregnancy-induced hypertension? One study found that those who supplemented with zinc during pregnancy reduced their risk of having premature births and babies who are small for their gestational age.
Zinc doesn’t always get the airtime that other nutrients do, but this mineral is incredibly important for normal fetal growth and development. However, a shocking 82% of pregnant individuals worldwide are likely to have inadequate zinc intake, which could have negative impacts on their growing baby’s health and immunity.
While severe zinc deficiency is mainly only seen in less developed countries or in those with low socioeconomic status, research shows that even mild zinc deficiency—which is, unfortunately, very common—can prevent a healthy pregnancy.
How does zinc support fetal development?
Zinc is essential for cellular division, DNA synthesis and brain development in a developing fetus. Cases of severe zinc deficiency increase the risk of long-term effects on a baby’s growth, immunity and metabolic status. At a time when a fetus is growing from a single-cell organism into a trillion-cell little person, a healthy intake of zinc is essential.
Studies show that zinc depletion during pregnancy reduced the offspring’s immune function for up to three generations after. After all, zinc is necessary for the normal activity of enzymes, peptides and cytokines in immune cells, all hardworking proteins that keep the immune system in balance. It also helps to stabilize the membranes of immune cells and supports the migration of these cells to organs and tissues where they’re needed.
Zinc is also found in high concentrations in the brain, where it supports the fetus’s future cognitive function, learning and memory.
Recommended daily amounts of zinc and dietary sources
Getting an adequate amount of zinc from your daily diet is possible if you’re eating one that’s rich in seafood and other animal products such as meat, eggs and poultry (and you don’t have other conditions that interfere with zinc absorption, like Crohn’s, celiac disease and irritable bowel syndrome). However, if you’re vegetarian or vegan, the risk of zinc deficiency is higher.
While foods such as grains, cereals, nuts, seeds and beans have zinc in them, they also contain high amounts of phytic acid, which inhibit intestinal absorption of zinc and other minerals. This is why, if you eat a mainly plant-based diet, supplementation is essential to prevent zinc deficiency.
The recommended daily intake for this group is 8 mg, which increases to between 11–12 mg when pregnant and breastfeeding.
Supplementing for zinc deficiency
Aside from low dietary intake of zinc or a vegetarian/vegan diet, research shows that frequent use of antibiotics, as well as gastrointestinal imbalances affecting absorption of zinc, can increase the risk of deficiency.
Some research also suggests that supplementation with iron and folate supplements can significantly decrease the oral bioavailability of zinc in pregnant individuals—which is a real concern when these supplements are commonly taken during pregnancy. Supplementing with a multivitamin rather than singular nutrients, as well as ensuring healthy dietary intake, may be a more effective approach to prevent deficiency.
Zinc during breastfeeding
Throughout your pregnancy, you’ve eaten well, increased your intake of essential nutrients for you and your baby, and taken your prenatal vitamins religiously. Once baby finally arrives, your nutrient needs… actually increase! This is particularly true of breastfeeding individuals for the first few weeks after labour.
Did you know that it’s possible to burn an average of 500 extra calories per day during lactation? Making breast milk is an extremely energy-demanding process, and that extra energy needs to come from the food you eat.
Making sure that you’re eating a healthy, balanced diet, and supplementing with additional nutrients as necessary, is key to keeping your energy up and avoiding nutrient deficiencies during this period.
Zinc in breast milk
Zinc has been shown to improve the production and quality of breast milk, which is essential for the baby’s growth and development. Some studies indicate that infant zinc intake during the first few months of life can determine the child’s growth rate.
Zinc is also an essential nutrient for the proper immune function of both parent and baby, helping to prevent infections from bacteria and viruses. Even a mild to moderate zinc deficiency can impair the function of immune cells such as macrophages, neutrophils and natural killer (NK) cells. The body also requires zinc to develop and activate T cells, which are crucial for adaptive immune responses—that is, the ability for your immune system to remember how to respond to certain pathogens.
Does my baby get enough zinc from breast milk?
In the first four to six months of the baby’s life, breast milk provides around 2 mg of zinc a day. From seven to 12 months, zinc requirements go up to 3 mg a day, and breast milk is no longer enough. This is one reason why supplementing the baby’s dietary intake with food from this time on is essential.
Babies also have very clever ways of ensuring they’re getting enough zinc to meet their needs. For example, research shows that, if zinc from breast milk isn’t sufficient, babies marginally increase their intestinal absorption of zinc and redistribute zinc from the liver.
Preventing zinc deficiency
Studies show that lactation can deplete zinc status, so breastfeeding parents will want to ensure they’re getting a healthy amount through their diet or supplementation. According to Health Canada, the tolerable upper limit for adults is 40 mg per day during breastfeeding. So, be sure to take no more than this to prevent toxicity and deficiencies in other nutrients, such as copper.
Making sure you’re getting enough zinc from your diet and supplementation can help in more than one way. This mighty mineral not only helps you and your baby stay healthy but also aids with proper growth and development for your newborn!