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If you’ve ever had a case of the sniffles and immediately had someone recommend you take a zinc supplement, you might have wondered if they even work. Believe it or not, there’s some decent research behind zinc.
Keep reading for an overview of the primary zinc benefits and who should consider taking a zinc supplement.
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What is zinc?
Zinc is a mineral and an essential trace element, which means your body needs small amounts of it for normal functioning. Your body cannot make or store zinc, so you need to consume it, either via food or zinc supplements.
Foods with the highest zinc content include red meat, poultry, some seafood (like oysters, crab, and lobster), and fortified breakfast cereals. While whole grains and beans are also good sources of zinc, they contain phytates, which are compounds that prevent zinc absorption.
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) is 11 mg of zinc per day for adult men and 8 mg per day for adult women (NIH, 2021).
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What are the benefits of zinc?
Zinc plays a role in many of your body’s functions, including (IOM, 2001):
- Enzyme functioning
- Cell life cycle
- Formation of DNA and proteins
- Growth and development
- Senses of taste and smell
Because of these molecular effects, zinc has been linked to several health benefits like boosting your immune function, reducing inflammation, improving wound healing, and supporting fertility.
May boost immune function
Zinc is required for your immune cells to function properly, which means a zinc deficiency may lead to immune system problems. But this connection to your immunity goes both ways. Studies suggest that zinc supplements may improve your ability to fight off infections, like the common cold (Wessels, 2017). You may be familiar with zinc lozenges for treating cold viruses. One meta-analysis found that zinc lozenges cut the duration of the common cold by an average of 33% in several clinical trials (Hemilä, 2017).
Can reduce inflammation
Not only can it boost your immune function, but zinc also has anti-inflammatory properties. Zinc acts as an antioxidant and may decrease oxidative stress. Inflammation and oxidative stress are tied to many chronic medical conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease (also known as heart disease), and diabetes (Marreiro, 2017).
Seems to improve wound healing
The anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties of zinc contribute to wound healing—but zinc takes it a step further. Zinc helps your skin mend by promoting collagen, an important part of wound recovery. Studies propose that zinc may help heal pressure ulcers (bed sores) and diabetic foot ulcers (Desneves, 2005; Momen-Heravi, 2017).
May support fertility
Zinc seems to support fertility in both males and females. Low zinc levels may interfere with sperm production and may disrupt serum testosterone levels (Fallah, 2018). Zinc plays a key role in egg cell development, but the months before pregnancy are also important—low levels of zinc before pregnancy may be harmful to the developing fetus (Terrin, 2015). So it may be critical for both men and women to monitor their zinc intake while trying to get pregnant.
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Why take zinc supplements?
Most people in the United States get enough zinc from their diet. However, certain people are more likely to develop a zinc deficiency—even a mild zinc deficiency may need treatment.
Risk factors that increase your likelihood of low zinc levels include age, digestive issues that prevent the absorption of zinc (like ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, or other malabsorption disorders), diabetes, liver disease, and sickle cell disease. Pregnancy and breastfeeding also boost your zinc requirements. People who don’t get enough dietary intake of zinc, such as many vegetarians and alcoholics, may also require zinc supplementation (NIH, 2021).
Acrodermatitis enteropathica, a rare genetic disorder of zinc absorption, may require lifelong zinc supplements.
Since zinc is an essential mineral, you may develop problems if you are not getting enough of it. Some of the signs and symptoms of zinc deficiency include (Pazirandeh, 2020):
- Slowed growth
- Low sperm count
- Hair loss
- Impaired taste
- Immune system issues
- Vision problems, like night blindness
- Poor wound healing
- Skin lesions
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
What to consider when taking a zinc supplement
If you suspect you’re suffering from low levels of zinc, speak with your healthcare professional. A zinc deficiency can be challenging to diagnose since the trace mineral is distributed throughout your body. Some of the symptoms (like loss of appetite and hair loss) can be non-specific. However, your healthcare provider may still want to check your serum zinc levels.
Depending on the condition you are treating, you may need to take your zinc combined with other mineral supplements. For example, people with age-related macular degeneration (AMD) take zinc to help slow the progression of their eye disease and potentially prevent vision loss. However, the best results for AMD come from supplements that combine zinc with vitamin A, vitamin C, beta-carotene, and copper.
Types of zinc supplements
Zinc is readily available in many common foods. Hitting your RDA of zinc intake through a well-balanced diet or lifestyle changes is possible—so zinc supplements are not necessarily required for many people. However, if you and your healthcare provider decide on oral zinc supplementation, the most common forms you’ll see when shopping around include the following (NIH, 2021):
- Zinc gluconate is the most common form of zinc, generally found in common cold remedies, such as zinc lozenges and nasal sprays.
- Zinc acetate is another common over-the-counter form often used to treat deficiencies and in cold remedies.
- Zinc sulfate has a history of potentially improving skin conditions like acne (Cervantes, 2018). Recent clinical trials also suggest that zinc sulfate may help people hospitalized with COVID-19 (Carlucci, 2020).
- Other types of oral zinc supplements include zinc picolinate, zinc orotate, and zinc citrate.
- You are likely to see zinc oxide in sunscreens and topical creams to treat minor skin irritations like diaper rash. It is usually in cream or lotion form, so it is not used as a zinc supplement.
Lastly, the amount of elemental zinc varies. For example, 220 mg of zinc sulfate contains 50 mg of elemental zinc. No definitive data indicates which type has the best absorption of zinc.
Side effects of zinc supplements
Medical professionals might treat severe cases of deficiency with high-dose zinc. However, there are risks to taking in too much zinc. The recommended maximum daily intake of zinc is 40 mg. This dose is enough to improve zinc status without risking other side effects like nausea, vomiting, changes in taste, lowered immune response, or diarrhea. Very high doses of zinc (more than 150 mg per day) can decrease copper absorption, leading to a copper deficiency over time (Pazirandeh, 2020).
- Carlucci, P. M., Ahuja, T., Petrilli, C., Rajagopalan, H., Jones, S., & Rahimian, J. (2020). Zinc sulfate in combination with a zinc ionophore may improve outcomes in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Journal of Medical Microbiology, 69(10), 1228–1234. doi: 10.1099/jmm.0.001250. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32930657/
- Cervantes, J., Eber, A. E., Perper, M., Nascimento, V. M., Nouri, K., & Keri, J. E. (2018). The role of zinc in the treatment of acne: a review of the literature. Dermatologic Therapy, 31(1), 10.1111/dth.12576. doi: 10.1111/dth.12576. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29193602/
- Desneves, K. J., Todorovic, B. E., Cassar, A., & Crowe, T. C. (2005). Treatment with supplementary arginine, vitamin C and zinc in patients with pressure ulcers: a randomised controlled trial. Clinical Nutrition, 24(6), 979–987. doi: 10.1016/j.clnu.2005.06.011. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16297506/
- Evans, J. R., & Lawrenson, J. G. (2017). Antioxidant vitamin and mineral supplements for slowing the progression of age-related macular degeneration. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 7(7), CD000254. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD000254.pub4. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28756618/
- Fallah, A., Mohammad-Hasani, A., & Colagar, A. H. (2018). Zinc is an essential element for male fertility: a review of zn roles in men’s health, germination, sperm quality, and fertilization. Journal of Reproduction & Infertility, 19(2), 69–81. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30009140/
- Hemilä H. (2017). Zinc lozenges and the common cold: a meta-analysis comparing zinc acetate and zinc gluconate, and the role of zinc dosage. JRSM Open, 8(5), doi: 2054270417694291. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28515951/
- Institute of Medicine (IOM) Panel on Micronutrients. (2001). Dietary reference intakes for vitamin A, vitamin K, arsenic, boron, chromium, copper, iodine, iron, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, silicon, vanadium, and zinc. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 12, Zinc. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK222317/
- Marreiro, D. D., Cruz, K. J., Morais, J. B., Beserra, J. B., Severo, J. S., & de Oliveira, A. R. (2017). Zinc and oxidative stress: current mechanisms. Antioxidants (Basel, Switzerland), 6(2), 24. doi: 10.3390/antiox6020024. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28353636/
- Momen-Heravi, M., Barahimi, E., Razzaghi, R., Bahmani, F., Gilasi, H. R., & Asemi, Z. (2017). The effects of zinc supplementation on wound healing and metabolic status in patients with diabetic foot ulcer: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Wound Repair and Regeneration: Official Publication of the Wound Healing Society [and] the European Tissue Repair Society, 25(3), 512–520. doi: 10.1111/wrr.12537. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28395131/
- National Institutes of Health-Office of Dietary Supplements. (2021, March). Zinc. Retrieved on Apr 30, 2021 from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/
- Pazirandeh, S., Burns, D.L., Griffin, M.B. (2020). Overview of dietary trace elements. In UptoDate. Seres, D. and Kunins, L. (Eds.). Retrieved on Apr 30, 2021 from https://www.uptodate.com/contents/overview-of-dietary-trace-elements
- Terrin, G., Berni Canani, R., Di Chiara, M., Pietravalle, A., Aleandri, V., Conte, F., & De Curtis, M. (2015). Zinc in early life: a key element in the fetus and preterm neonate. Nutrients, 7(12), 10427–10446. doi: 10.3390/nu7125542. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26690476/
- Wessels, I., Maywald, M., & Rink, L. (2017). Zinc as a gatekeeper of immune function. Nutrients, 9(12), 1286. doi: 10.3390/nu9121286. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29186856/