All About Zinc: The Ultimate Immune-Boosting Mineral

all about zinc

I’d bet that when winter comes around each year, optimizing your immune health is at the forefront of your mind. And if you’ve done any research on boosting the immune system, there’s a good chance you’ve stumbled upon zinc supplements. If you have, you’re not the only one. Supplement companies have seen a huge increase in demand for zinc supplements, with one reporting that it’s seen a 3000% jump in zinc sales. (1)  

With so many people interested in or already taking zinc, I thought it was a great time to do a deep dive into this nutrient. Because the truth is, zinc is beneficial for way more than just the immune system.

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Zinc: The Basics 

Zinc is a mineral that’s found naturally on earth — anywhere from the air to the water and the foods we eat. Zinc is also found in our body and plays a major role in our internal world. From supporting the activity of more than 100 enzymes to helping with protein and DNA synthesis to being critical for cell division, zinc is kind of like vitamin D in that it does a little bit of everything. (2)  One of the most interesting things about zinc is that it’s crucial for our taste and smell; in fact, one of the major signs of a deficiency in zinc is a decreased sense of taste and smell.(3) Unfortunately, zinc deficiency is becoming increasingly common. 

Zinc Deficiency Symptoms 

Many of us are deficient in zinc. Why? Because our body can’t store zinc so we have to get zinc in our systems every single day to be our healthiest selves. Signs and symptoms of a zinc deficiency include: 

  • Loss of appetite 
  • Weight loss
  • Delayed wound healing
  • Chronic infection
  • Rough skin or rashes
  • Depression and mental lethargy
  • Loss of taste and smell 
  • Impaired immune function 
  • Hair loss
  • Diarrhea 

So, how much zinc do you need every day, and how can you make sure you’re getting enough? The foods richest in zinc include animal products –  like beef, eggs, and oysters — as well as legumes and some nuts and seeds.  

The Benefits of Zinc 

You’ve probably heard that zinc is a great supplement for the immune system, so let’s start with that benefit and then move onto the lesser-known (but equally as important!) benefits of zinc. 

  • The immune system: Zinc deficiency is associated with depressed immune function. This happens because zinc is required for macrophage and neutrophil function and natural killer cell activity as well as lymphocyte production and proliferation (these are all critical players in the body’s ability to launch an immune response to an infection). If you’re not getting enough zinc, you are more susceptible to infections and pneumonia. (4
  • Acne and skin health: One of the historical uses for zinc was for wound healing, which is just one of the reasons why it’s often used as a supplement for acne and other skin health conditions. Zinc helps maintain the integrity of the skin, mucosal membranes, and helps with collagen production. (5) It’s been studied not just in acne but also for dermatological conditions like warts, rosacea, melasma, and even certain types of skin cancers.(6)    
  • Eye health: Zinc is a key mineral for enzymes that prevent age related vision loss, including a condition called macular degeneration. Zinc supplementation has been studied for preventing this condition and other age-related eye health conditions. (7
  • Reproductive health: Zinc is particularly important for fetal development and growth, so pregnant women should always make sure to be getting adequate amounts of this mineral. (8) In addition, zinc is essential for the maturation of sperm, so it plays a key role in more than one aspect of reproduction.

Zinc is also often suggested as a supplement for those struggling with severe diarrhea, gastric ulcers, and sickle cell anemia.

Zinc Supplements 

As a first line of defense, you can make an effort to eat zinc-rich foods on a daily basis. That said, I frequently recommend a daily zinc supplement, especially to patients that are prone to infections or feel like they get every cough or cold going around. This is even more true if they are vegetarian, consume high amounts of caffeine or alcohol, take diuretics or eat a lot of dairy products, which can all interfere with your body’s ability to absorb zinc. 

So, how much zinc should you take? I recommend taking 15 mg of zinc daily. A word of caution: Zinc supplements should be taken with caution and at appropriate doses. Why? Because taking too much zinc can also be dangerous, causing symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and digestive distress. Zinc is kind of like the porridge in Goldilocks and the Three Little Bears — you don’t want too much or too little, it needs to be “just right.” 

Clearly, zinc is an important mineral for more than just the immune system but also for the skin, eyes, and overall healthy functioning of the body and brain.

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References:

  1. https://www.kktv.com/content/news/Zinc-sales-skyrocket-at-supplement-manufacturing-company-amid-pandemic-569900931.html 
  2. Office of Dietary Supplements - Zinc. (n.d.). Retrieved January 06, 2021, from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/#en9
  3. Prasad AS, Beck FW, Grabowski SM, Kaplan J, Mathog RH. Zinc deficiency: changes in cytokine production and T-cell subpopulations in patients with head and neck cancer and in noncancer subjects. Proc Assoc Am Physicians 1997;109:68-77. [PubMed abstract]
  4. Bahl R, Bhandari N, Hambidge KM, Bhan MK. Plasma zinc as a predictor of diarrheal and respiratory morbidity in children in an urban slum setting. Am J Clin Nutr 1998;68 (2 Suppl):414S-7S. [PubMed abstract]
  5. Wintergerst ES, Maggini S, Hornig DH. Contribution of selected vitamins and trace elements to immune function. Ann Nutr Metab 2007;51:301-23. [PubMed abstract]
  6. Gupta M, Mahajan VK, Mehta KS, Chauhan PS. Zinc therapy in dermatology: a review. Dermatol Res Pract. 2014;2014:709152. doi:10.1155/2014/709152
  7. Age-Related Eye Disease Study 2 Research Group. Lutein + zeaxanthin and omega-3 fatty acids for age-related macular degeneration: the Age-Related Eye Disease Study 2 (AREDS2) randomized clinical trial. JAMA. 2013 May 15;309(19):2005-15. doi: 10.1001/jama.2013.4997. Erratum in: JAMA. 2013 Jul 10;310(2):208. PMID: 23644932.
  8. Castillo-Durán C, Weisstaub G. Zinc supplementation and growth of the fetus and low birth weight infant. J Nutr. 2003 May;133(5 Suppl 1):1494S-7S. doi: 10.1093/jn/133.5.1494S. PMID: 12730451.

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BY DR. WILL COLE

Evidence-based reviewed article

Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.