Zinc: Benefits, sources, deficiency, side effects, dosage, uses

Zinc, a trace mineral our bodies require, often goes under the radar in discussions about essential nutrients. 

Yet, its importance is undeniable. From supporting our immune system to aiding metabolism, zinc plays a pivotal role in maintaining our overall health. 

While many of us receive adequate amounts through our diets, understanding its benefits, sources, and potential side effects can offer insights into optimizing our well-being. 

In this article, we’ll explore the multifaceted roles of zinc, helping you make informed decisions about its place in your health regimen.

What is zinc?

Zinc is a fundamental trace mineral essential to numerous aspects of human health. Present in every cell of our body, it plays a crucial role in various physiological processes. 

It is a vital component of many enzymes responsible for everything from the metabolism of nutrients to the synthesis of DNA [1].

This element is naturally found within the Earth’s crust. However, our bodies cannot produce zinc independently; it must be obtained externally, primarily through dietary sources. 

Commonly, foods rich in protein such as meats and legumes serve as primary sources of this mineral.

What are the benefits of taking zinc?

Zinc is more than just a mineral; it’s a cornerstone of health, supporting various bodily functions and systems. 

Let’s break down some of the essential benefits of zinc to understand its influence on our well-being better.

1. Bolsters the immune system 

Zinc stands as a key player in bolstering our immune system. It aids the production and activation of T-lymphocytes, which manage immune responses and attack infected cells [2]. 

A sufficient zinc intake can potentially help shorten the duration of illnesses like the common cold, highlighting its role in immune defense.

Boosts metabolism and digestion
Photograph: Sonyachny/Envato

2. Boosts metabolism and digestion

Our body’s ability to metabolize food into energy owes a lot to zinc. It acts as a catalyst in several enzyme reactions, aiding the breakdown of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. 

Without adequate zinc, our metabolism might not function as efficiently, leading to potential energy slumps.

3. Supports DNA synthesis

The blueprint of life, DNA, requires zinc for its synthesis. Zinc is essential for cell division and growth, ensuring that our body’s genetic material is accurately copied and disseminated in new cells. 

This is particularly crucial during periods of rapid growth, such as pregnancy or adolescence.

4. Accelerates healing and reduces inflammation

Zinc accelerates the healing process, making it invaluable in wound recovery. Whether it’s a minor cut or a more significant injury, zinc helps reduce inflammation, promotes cell regeneration, and strengthens skin tissue. 

It’s often a primary ingredient in creams and ointments designed to treat minor skin irritations.

5. Enhances skin health

Speaking of skin, zinc is a popular choice for treating various skin conditions. Acne, for instance, can be managed more effectively with zinc [3], as it controls the production of oil in the skin and adds an antimicrobial defense against acne-causing bacteria. 

Zinc treatment may be helpful for atopic dermatitis and diaper dermatitis. While there may be some benefits of zinc in the treatment plan for these conditions, further studies are needed to fully evaluate its potential positive effects [4].

6. Promotes cognitive function

The brain, with its myriad connections and processes, benefits from zinc in multiple ways. Zinc is found in high concentrations in the hippocampus, a part of the brain essential for learning and memory. 

It aids in neurotransmission, ensuring messages between nerve cells are clear and efficient. 

Maintaining optimal zinc levels can, therefore, be instrumental in preserving memory and preventing cognitive decline.

7. Maintains taste and smell sensitivity

Zinc maintains our senses of taste and smell. It’s integral to the structure of proteins that form taste and smell receptors [5]. 

A deficiency can lead to a diminished capacity to taste or detect odors, emphasizing zinc’s importance in these sensory functions.

8. Strengthens reproductive health

Zinc plays a role in male reproductive health, notably in testosterone synthesis and sperm production [6]. 

For women, zinc reduces the pain during the menstrual cycle [7].

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What foods are high in zinc?

Zinc plays such a pivotal role in our health, and yet our bodies can’t produce it. So, where can we find this essential mineral in our daily diet? Let’s explore some of the best dietary sources.

Animal-based sources

Animal products are often considered top-tier sources of zinc, primarily because the mineral from these foods is more bioavailable, meaning our bodies can absorb and use it more efficiently. Some top contenders include:

  • Oysters: These are a zinc powerhouse. Just a few provide more than the daily recommended intake.
  • Red meat: Beef, lamb, and pork are rich in zinc, with beef particularly standing out.
  • Poultry: Chicken and turkey offer good amounts, especially the dark meat.
  • Seafood: Aside from oysters, crab and lobster also contribute to our zinc intake.

Plant-based sources

For those who lean toward vegetarian or vegan diets, there are still ample sources of zinc. 

While the zinc in plant-based foods is less bioavailable due to the presence of phytates (compounds that can inhibit zinc absorption), with a varied diet, you can still meet your requirements. Consider adding:

  • Legumes: Lentils, chickpeas, and beans are all commendable choices.
  • Nuts and seeds: Cashews, almonds, and hemp seeds can be part of your daily zinc intake.
  • Whole grains: Foods like quinoa, rice, and oats contain zinc, though they also have phytates.
  • Vegetables: While not as high in zinc as other sources, green beans, asparagus, and kale can contribute to your intake.

Fortified foods

In recent years, to combat nutrient deficiencies, some foods have been fortified with essential minerals, including zinc. This offers another avenue to ensure you’re getting your daily dose:

  • Cereals: Many breakfast cereals now come fortified with zinc.
  • Plant-based milks: Some almond, soy, or oat milk have added zinc.
  • Bread and pasta: Check the label; some brands fortify their products.

Finding the right sources of zinc and incorporating them into your meals can have a profound impact on your health. 

Whether you’re enjoying a steak, snacking on some cashews, or starting your day with fortified cereal, there are numerous ways to get this essential mineral. 

How do you know if you are zinc deficient?

Zinc might not be the most talked-about mineral, but its deficiency can lead to a wide range of symptoms, affecting multiple aspects of our health. 

When your body runs low on zinc, it sends out signals. Some individuals might experience one symptom, while others could face multiple. Here are some telltale signs to watch for [8]:

  1. Hair loss: Unexpected or excessive hair loss can be a direct result.
  2. Impaired immune function: Frequent infections or illnesses might indicate a deficiency.
  3. Skin issues: Conditions such as acne, dermatitis, or rashes can worsen.
  4. Appetite loss: A decreased desire to eat, leading potentially to weight loss.
  5. Impaired vision: Particularly in low-light situations, night vision might deteriorate.
  6. Mood disturbances: Increased irritability or mood swings can occur.
  7. Wound healing slows: Minor injuries or cuts might take longer to heal.
  8. Taste or smell alterations: Changes in these senses can be subtle yet noticeable.

Who is at risk for zinc deficiency?

Certain groups face a higher risk of zinc deficiency, either due to increased needs or decreased absorption:

  • Vegetarians and vegans: Since plant-based zinc sources are less bioavailable, those abstaining from animal products might need to consume more zinc-rich plants.
  • Pregnant and breastfeeding women: Increased needs during these stages can lead to deficiencies if not addressed.
  • Alcohol users: Regular alcohol consumption can decrease zinc absorption and increase its loss from the body.
  • Elderly individuals: Reduced dietary intake and decreased absorption capacity can lead to deficiencies.
What causes a zinc deficiency?

What causes a zinc deficiency?

Several factors can either reduce zinc intake or increase its loss from the body. Being aware can help in making informed dietary and lifestyle choices:

  • Dietary restrictions: Limited access to varied foods or specific diet choices can lead to inadequate intake.
  • Digestive disorders: Conditions like Crohn’s disease can impede zinc absorption in the intestines.
  • Kidney diseases: These can lead to excessive zinc loss through urine.
  • Medications: Some drugs, like antihypertensives or diuretics, can reduce zinc levels.

What are zinc supplements good for?

Supplementing with zinc can offer several advantages:

1. Filling nutritional gaps: Supplements ensure you meet daily requirements, especially if dietary intake is insufficient.

2. Supporting immune function: Zinc plays a crucial role in immune responses, and supplementation can bolster immune health.

3. Skin health: Supplements might benefit those with skin conditions like acne or dermatitis.

4. Enhanced healing: Zinc can speed up wound recovery, making supplements beneficial after surgeries or injuries.

Who should take zinc supplements? 

While a balanced diet is the primary source of essential nutrients, sometimes supplementation becomes necessary. Zinc, with its pivotal roles in numerous physiological functions, is no exception. 

It’s important to determine if you actually need zinc supplements before taking them. While they may be beneficial for certain conditions or situations, they are not necessary for everyone.

1. Dietary restrictions: Vegetarians, vegans, or those with specific food allergies might find it challenging to get adequate zinc from their diet alone.

2. Health conditions: Certain medical conditions, like digestive disorders, can impair zinc absorption.

3. Life stages: Pregnancy, breastfeeding, or growth spurts during adolescence can increase zinc requirements.

4. Chronic stress: Extended periods of stress can deplete the body of zinc faster.

5. Medication interactions: Some medications can reduce zinc levels, making supplementation necessary.

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Types of zinc supplements

The market offers a variety of zinc supplements, each with its unique characteristics:

  • Zinc Gluconate: Commonly found in cold remedies like lozenges, this form is well-tolerated and widely available.
  • Zinc Citrate: Known for its neutral taste, it’s often used in dental care products, but is also available as an oral supplement.
  • Zinc Picolinate: Some studies suggest this form, bound to picolinic acid, might have better absorption rates.
  • Zinc Sulfate: While effective, it might not be as well-tolerated, leading to stomach upset in some individuals.
  • Zinc Acetate: Often used in lozenges for colds, research indicates it can reduce the duration of cold symptoms.
  • Zinc Orotate: Bound with orotic acid, this form is considered by some to be more readily absorbed and used by the body.

What are the side effects of excessive zinc intake?

Consuming too much zinc, whether from supplements or other sources, can cause a variou side effects. Here are some potential consequences.

Immediate symptoms

If you’ve taken a large amount of zinc in a short span, your body might react with some immediate symptoms. These can be discomforting, but they’re usually a temporary response:

  • Nausea: A feeling of unease or discomfort in the upper stomach.
  • Vomiting: In severe cases, the body might try to expel the excess zinc.
  • Diarrhea: Rapid bowel movements can be a direct response to too much zinc.
  • Stomach cramps: Discomfort or pain might be felt in the abdominal area.
  • Headache: Some individuals report a throbbing pain or pressure.

Longer-term consequences

Continually consuming high doses of zinc over an extended period can have more persistent and concerning effects:

  • Lowered immunity: Ironically, while moderate zinc supports the immune system, too much can weaken it.
  • Neurological issues: High levels of zinc might lead to neuropathy, especially in high-risk populations.
  • Digestive disorders: Chronic excessive intake can disrupt the stomach’s balance, leading to ongoing issues like heartburn or indigestion.

Interference with other minerals

Zinc doesn’t work in isolation in our bodies. Consuming excessive amounts can interfere with the absorption and function of other essential minerals:

  • Copper: High zinc levels can hinder the absorption of copper, an essential trace mineral that supports various functions like iron metabolism and energy production.
  • Iron: Zinc can compete with iron for absorption, potentially leading to reduced iron levels.

When considering zinc supplementation or evaluating your dietary intake, it’s crucial to strike a balance. Meeting our daily requirements is essential, but going overboard can lead to complications. 

If you suspect you’ve consumed too much zinc or are experiencing any symptoms, it’s always a good idea to consult with a healthcare professional. They can guide you on the right path, ensuring you harness the benefits of zinc without the risks.

How much zinc should you take per day?

Understanding the recommended dosages is essential to harness its benefits and avoid potential pitfalls. Let’s break down the suggested intake based on various factors.

Zinc requirements can vary depending on one’s age and gender [9]:

  • Infants (0-6 months): 2 mg/day
  • Babies (7-12 months): 3 mg/day
  • Children (1-3 years): 3 mg/day
  • Children (4-8 years): 5 mg/day
  • Males (9-13 years): 8 mg/day
  • Males (14 years and older): 11 mg/day
  • Females (9-13 years): 8 mg/day
  • Females (14-18 years): 9 mg/day
  • Females (19 years and older): 8 mg/day

Certain life stages or conditions necessitate adjusted zinc intake:

  • Pregnancy: An increased need to support both the mother and growing fetus, typically 11-12 mg/day.
  • Breastfeeding: Lactating mothers have higher requirements, usually around 12-13 mg/day.

While ensuring you meet the daily requirement is vital, it’s equally important not to consume zinc in excess. There’s an upper intake level set to prevent potential adverse effects:

  • Infants and Babies (up to 12 months): 5 mg/day
  • Children (1-3 years): 7 mg/day
  • Children (4-8 years): 12 mg/day
  • Males and Females (9-13 years): 23 mg/day
  • Males and Females (14 years and older): 40 mg/day

What is the best use of zinc?

While we often associate zinc with its foundational role in everyday health, it also boasts a range of therapeutic uses. 

When applied in specific scenarios, zinc has shown promise in addressing particular health concerns. Let’s explore some of these applications.

Combating colds and respiratory infections

Zinc lozenges and nasal sprays have become popular remedies for those battling the common cold. 

Research suggests that when taken at the onset of symptoms, zinc can reduce the duration and severity of colds. 

It achieves this by preventing the virus from multiplying and spreading within the body.

Managing skin conditions 

Zinc’s anti-inflammatory properties make it one of many consumer’s favorites for treating various skin ailments

For acne sufferers, topical zinc formulations can reduce oil production and the proliferation of acne-causing bacteria. 

It’s also been effective in treating inflammatory conditions like dermatitis, offering relief from redness and irritation.

Wound healing

In hospitals and clinics, zinc’s role in cell production and immune function is harnessed to promote faster wound recovery. 

Burn victims and those undergoing surgery often benefit from zinc-supplemented dressings or creams. 

These formulations not only speed up the healing process but also reduce the chances of infection.

Gastrointestinal relief

For those with ulcers or gastrointestinal inflammation, zinc can offer therapeutic relief. Zinc carnosine, a specific compound, is often recommended to repair damaged stomach lining and promote overall gut health.

Mental health and neurological support

Emerging research points to zinc’s potential in supporting mental health. Its presence in key brain regions and its role in neurotransmission has led scientists to investigate its effects on mood disorders like depression. 

Some studies have even found zinc supplementation beneficial in conjunction with traditional antidepressant treatments.

Closing thoughts

Understanding zinc’s multifaceted role in our health is truly enlightening. From bolstering our immune system to supporting mental well-being, this essential mineral proves its worth time and again. 

Whether we’re focusing on daily intake through diet or considering therapeutic applications, it’s clear that zinc deserves our attention. 

Always remember to consult with healthcare professionals when making changes to your zinc consumption. 

They can offer tailored guidance to ensure optimal health benefits. With the right knowledge and approach, we can harness the power of zinc to uplift our health and wellness journey.

FAQs

How does zinc help the immune system?

Zinc bolsters the immune system by aiding the production and activation of T-lymphocytes, cells that manage immune responses and attack infected cells. Additionally, sufficient zinc intake can help shorten the duration of illnesses, underscoring its role in immune defense.

Is it good to take zinc everyday?

Taking zinc daily can be beneficial to meet essential bodily requirements and support various functions. However, it’s crucial to ensure the intake stays within recommended limits to avoid potential side effects.

When should I take zinc morning or night?

Zinc can be taken at any time of the day, as long as it’s consistent. However, it’s often recommended to take it at least 1-2 hours before or after meals to maximize absorption.

Can I take zinc and vitamin C together?

Yes, you can take zinc and vitamin C together, and they often complement each other in supporting immune function. However, it’s always a good idea to consult with a healthcare professional regarding the right dosages and potential interactions.

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[1] https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/ 
[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5666901/ 
[3] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40257-019-00484-0 
[4] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31745908/ 
[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK557768/ 
[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7926410/ 
[7] https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/12/8/2464 
[8] https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/zinc-deficiency 
[9] https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-Consumer/

The information included in this article is for informational purposes only. The purpose of this webpage is to promote broad consumer understanding and knowledge of various health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.