With COVID-19 still with us, many people are looking for natural ways to enhance their immunity. Lifestyle measures, such as eating right, getting enough sleep, and minimizing stress can help. Expensive supplements that don’t have credible, evidence-based backing likely won’t — they’ll just leave your wallet a little lighter.
But back to eating right — one nutrient to make sure you’re getting enough of is zinc. Zinc is an essential mineral, and it’s also a trace mineral, meaning that we don’t need too much of it. While zinc deficiencies aren’t that common, people with certain health conditions need to make sure they’re getting enough. Read on to learn more about zinc and the role it plays in supporting health.
What does zinc do?
The importance of zinc for human health became evident in 1961 via the case of an Iranian male farmer with anemia and dwarfism who was eating only unrefined bread, potatoes, and milk, according to a review article in 2013 in the Journal of Research in Medical Sciences.
Zinc is needed for several reasons:
- It helps the immune system fight off viruses and bacteria
- It makes proteins and DNA
- It helps with wound healing
- It’s needed for proper senses of taste and smell
- It helps the body grow and develop properly
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How does zinc help the immune system?
We need zinc to develop and activate T-lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell that originates in the bone marrow and matures in the thymus gland, a small organ located in the upper chest. People who have even a mild zinc deficiency have a lower-functioning immune system, which means that they’re more susceptible to illness and infection.
How much zinc do you need?
As with most nutrients, the amount of zinc that you need every day depends on how old you are. Here are the Recommended Dietary Allowances for adults 19 years of age and older:
- Men: 11 milligrams (mg)
- Women: 8 mg
- Pregnant women: 11 mg
- Breastfeeding women: 12 mg
What foods contain zinc?
One of the best food sources of zinc is oysters. But zinc is found in many other foods, including:
- Nuts and seeds
- Whole grains
- Fortified cereals
While zinc is found in many plant-based foods, the phytates in these foods can bind to zinc and limit its absorption. Phytate levels can be reduced by soaking beans, grains, and seeds in water for several hours before cooking them. Also, leavened grain products, such as bread, have less phytate than unleavened grain products, such as crackers.
Who is at risk of zinc deficiency?
Zinc deficiency is common in children living in developing countries; deficiency can lead to diarrhea, malaria, pneumonia, and stunted growth. Elderly adults are also at risk of zinc deficiency due to a decreased intake of zinc, inadequate absorption, increased losses of zinc, or an increased requirement.
Other groups of people in the United States who are at risk of zinc deficiency include:
- Older infants who are exclusively breastfed — breast milk does not provide enough zinc for infants older than 7 months of age
- Pregnant and breastfeeding women
- People who have digestive disorders, such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, celiac disease, or chronic diarrhea
- People with kidney or liver disease
- People with alcoholism
- People with sickle cell disease
- People with skin ulcers
- People with age-related macular degeneration
People who have diabetes are also at risk for a zinc deficiency. It’s thought that poor glycemic control is associated with low zinc levels, according to a study in the January-April 2020 issue of the Journal of Family & Community Medicine.
Signs of a zinc deficiency include:
- Loss of taste or smell
- Loss of appetite
- Delayed wound heeling
- Increased illnesses
- Weight loss
- Hair loss
It’s important to talk with your health care provider if you are at risk of a zinc deficiency. You may be able to get enough zinc from food sources alone, or you might benefit from taking a zinc supplement.
Should you take a zinc supplement?
Zinc is present in most multivitamin/mineral supplements, and it’s also available alone or combined with other minerals in dietary supplements. Taken soon after cold symptoms appear, zinc might shorten the length of a cold. But too much zinc can be harmful (the upper limit amount of zinc for adults is 40 mg).
Too much zinc can interact with some medicines, such as some antibiotics and diuretics, and can interfere with the absorption of iron and copper. Also, avoid using intranasal zinc, as that may lead to a loss of the sense of smell. Again, it’s best to talk with your health care provider before taking a zinc supplement to make sure it’s safe for you.
Finally, a zinc deficiency is a sign that you might be at risk for other nutrition deficiencies, especially if you have a condition that causes malabsorption, or if you’re not eating a diet that includes a variety of foods.
Want to learn more about the immune system? Read “Ways to Support Your Immune System: Fact or Fiction,” “Strengthening Your Immune System for a Healthy Winter,” and “Type 1 Diabetes: Meet Your Immune System.”