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Zinc Is Essential For Health, But Are You Getting Enough?

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When the cold season rolls around, we inevitably turn to immune-boosting supplements. And one of the most common recommendations you’ll hear is to start taking zinc.

But what is zinc, and what is it good for? Is zinc good for the common cold, and for boosting immunity in general? Are there other health benefits of taking zinc supplements? Let’s see what the research tells us …

What is zinc?

Zinc is a trace mineral that’s essential for numerous roles within the body. It is involved in cellular metabolism, immune function, wound healing, and our ability to synthesize protein and DNA. It helps the body develop during pregnancy and childhood. (1)

Because the body doesn’t have a way of storing zinc, it’s important to consistently get enough in your diet.

Zinc deficiency symptoms

Zinc deficiency is uncommon, but research shows that up to 45 percent of adults over the age of 60 are not getting enough. (2)

Zinc deficiency symptoms include: (1)

  • Stunted growth
  • Low appetite
  • Suppressed immune function
  • Hair loss
  • Diarrhea
  • Sexual issues
  • Weight loss
  • Delayed wound healing

Certain people are more likely to have inadequate zinc intake, including people with gastrointestinal diseases, vegetarians, pregnant and lactating women, infants older than 6 months who drink only human milk, people with sickle cell disease, and alcoholics. (3)(4)(5)(6)(7)

What are the health benefits of zinc?

Zinc for immune function

When you’re low on zinc, your immune system suffers. That may be why research has linked inadequate zinc levels with an increased risk of pneumonia, diarrhea, and other infectious diseases. (8)(9)

sick child sitting on the cough with tissues

Zinc is popular for cold prevention and treatment because of its ability to inhibit rhinovirus (the virus that causes colds). It can also calm inflamed nasal passages.

Zinc for the common cold

The immune-system link may also explain why one of the more popular uses for zinc is for cold prevention and treatment. But does zinc work for colds? The research is mixed, but some compelling studies suggest that it is effective.

That’s in part because inadequate zinc levels impair immune responses, but other zinc benefits are at work here too. For instance, zinc can inhibit rhinovirus (the virus that causes colds). It can also calm inflamed nasal passages. But the trick is to use lozenges or syrups, which spend more time in contact with the nose and throat. (10) Also, be sure to take zinc within 24 hours of when you start feeling cold symptoms for best results. (11)(12)(13)

A word of warning: Nasal sprays and gels containing zinc have been known to damage the sense of smell in some users, so you might want to avoid those. (14) Consult with your healthcare practitioner to get the best health advice.

Zinc for eye health

Some research suggests that taking 80 mg of zinc in combination with the antioxidants vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta carotene every day may reduce the risk of age-related macular degeneration (AMD). (15) AMD is a form of progressive vision loss that affects 11 million Americans and 170 million people around the world. (16)

Zinc for acne

Acne can come about when your hormones are raging—as in adolescence or—but it can happen at other times in life too. Zinc is a common treatment for acne. For mild acne, a topical cream containing zinc (which is anti-inflammatory) may be enough to keep the zits at bay. (17) But for more severe cases, you might want to try a zinc supplement. Research has shown that oral zinc can help reduce acne. (18) In fact, one study found zinc to hold its own against the antibiotic minocycline as an acne treatment. (19)

How much zinc do you need?

The amount of zinc you need to consume varies depending on age, gender, and stage of life. Below are the current Recommended Daily Allowances (RDAs) for zinc. The Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine determines RDAs for different nutrients. The RDA serves as a guideline for regular daily consumption, but there are circumstances in which you might need more or less. Ask your healthcare provider for recommendations specific to your needs.

The tolerable upper intake level (UL) is the amount of zinc that research has shown can be taken without unwanted effects.

No RDA exists for infants from birth to 6 months, so the Adequate Intake (AI) is listed instead. The Institute of Medicine bases this off of the mean intake of zinc in babies exclusively fed human milk. (20)

What foods contain zinc?

Zinc is abundant in many foods, including meat, poultry, and whole-grain foods. It’s important to choose whole grains instead of processed grains since 80 percent of zinc can be lost during milling. (3)

It’s important to note, though, that plant sources of zinc may not be absorbed as well as animal sources. That’s because plants contain phytates, which can bind with zinc and make it harder for the body to absorb it.

Dried pumpkin seeds in wooden bowl

Dried pumpkin seeds are a great source of zinc.

Some of the best food sources of zinc: (1)

  • Oysters, breaded and fried: 74 mg per 3 oz. serving
  • Beef chuck roast: 7 mg per 3 oz. serving
  • Pumpkin seeds, dried: 6.6 mg per 3 oz. serving
  • Alaska king crab: 6.5 mg per 3 oz. serving
  • Cashews, dry roasted: 4.8 mg per 3 oz. serving
  • Fortified breakfast cereal: 3.8 mg per ¾ cup serving
  • Lobster: 3.4 mg per 3 oz. serving
  • Baked beans: 2.9 mg per ½ cup serving
  • Chicken, dark meat: 2.4 ounces per 3 oz. serving

Should you take a zinc supplement?

If you’re having a hard time getting enough zinc in your diet, or if you need it for a therapeutic purpose, you should consider talking to your practitioner about taking a zinc supplement. Most multivitamin/mineral supplements contain some zinc.

You can also find zinc as a standalone supplement. It comes in several different forms, each of which will provide a different amount of elemental zinc. You can find out how much elemental zinc a supplement contains by looking at the supplement facts label on the back.

Some of the available forms of zinc include:

  • Zinc gluconate
  • Zinc picolinate
  • Zinc citrate
  • Zinc sulfate
  • Zinc acetate

So what’s the best zinc supplement? It’s unclear. One small study found that zinc picolinate was more effective at raising zinc levels in the body than other forms, but more research is needed. (21)

The bottom line

Zinc is essential for numerous aspects of health—including immunity, eye health, skin health, and more. It’s vital to get enough, but not too much. Excessive zinc can cause digestive upset and headaches. Over time it can cause low copper levels. (1) Be sure to talk with your healthcare practitioner about the right dose for you.

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