Fact Checked: Yes

Written by: James Dixon

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Zinc is a mineral, a micronutrient, important to the healthy performance of many of your body’s different functions.

For example, it plays a key role in maintaining healthy gene expression, immune function, protein synthesis, DNA synthesis, enzymatic reactions, healing, growth and development, to name just a few.

It’s an essential nutrient – this means that your body can neither create it itself nor store it. You need to take in a steady supply through your diet and supplement regime. Plenty of foods, like breakfast cereals and specialist flour, can come fortified with synthetic zinc; lots of natural cold remedies also include it due to its role in maintaining immune function.

However, it’s best to eat plenty of foods rich in zinc and to consider taking a daily supplement if you don’t think you get enough through diet alone – which can be tough.

What Zinc Does

zinc symbol

Second only to iron, zinc is one the most plentiful trace minerals in your body. There are minute amounts in each of the body’s cells. It plays a part in the activity of over 300 enzymes responsible for a broad range of processes, including but far from limited to nerve function, metabolism, and digestion. It plays a central role in the development and function of immune cells, is key to DNA synthesis, protein production, and skin health.

All growth and development occurring within your body needs zinc as it is important for cellular growth and division.

You will also need zinc to maintain your senses, most notably that of taste and smell. One of the enzymes most centrally involved with taste and smell relies on it.

Because of its almost ubiquitous importance within the human body, adequate zinc intake is therefore associated with a great many health benefits.

Zinc’s Health Benefits

One of zinc’s key roles within your body is to maintain a healthy immune system – the system that helps to fight infection. This is because it plays a key role in immune cell function and signaling. Hence, a lack of zinc can impair your immune cells’ efficacy quite drastically.

A metareview of zinc intake showed that taking in between 80–92 mg per day can decrease a common cold’s duration by up to a third

There is more to this healing factor than simply fighting common colds, however.

Zinc supplementation also helps to ward against oxidative stress and significantly reduces your risk of suffering from infections.

In fact, zinc is often used as part of a treatment plan for burns and other skin injuries as it plays a key role in synthesizing collagen and managing inflammatory responses. This combines with its ability to boost immune function to make it vital for healing and proper recovery.

Zinc boosts T-cell activity, as well as the activity of natural, protective/killer cells. It’s thought that this may further help to fight oxidative stress and improve immune function.

Your skin actually holds a fair amount of your body’s zinc content, at around five percent. Keeping this optimal means optimal healing with a speedier recovery. Allowing levels to drop can slow down your healing process.

Zinc doesn’t just help your skin to heal up nicely – it can improve your skin health.

Notably, it can help to ward off acne, a common skin condition affecting around 10% of the world’s population. It’s common to find sub-optimal levels of zinc in those suffering with acne.

Acne is characterized by the obstruction of oil-producing glands alongside increased bacteria and inflammation.

Topical zinc can pair up nicely with oral zinc supplementation here – together, they can cut inflammation down whilst also inhibiting the growth of P. acnes bacteria. It may also help to inhibit oily gland activity.

Zinc can also help you to ward off longer term diseases, especially those related with the aging process. These include age-related macular degeneration (AMD – an issue with the eyes) as well as pneumonia and common infections.

Older adult participants studied as they supplemented using zinc saw improvements to influenza vaccination response alongside a diminished risk of suffering from pneumonia.

Just 45mg per day of elemental zinc supplementation has been shown to decrease the risk of infection in older adults by up to two thirds. 80mg of zinc supplementation every day has been show to inhibit vision loss and reduce the risk from AMD when combined with certain other antioxidants – most notably, vitamins E and C, and beta-carotene. 

Older adults have also been found to enjoy improved mental performance when supplementing with zinc.

Finally, as we have seen, zinc can help to fight inflammation. This underpins a lot of the benefits it has to offer your body across the board.

Zinc can help to alleviate oxidative stress in your body whilst also reducing levels of common inflammatory proteins in your system.

Oxidative stress and the chronic inflammation it inflicts can be a contributing factor to a broad range of common, chronic illnesses. These include cancer, diabetes, cancer, and various neurodegenerative diseases.

All told, therefore, zinc can keep you healthy against a really wide range of diseases.

Zinc Deficiency: Signs & Symptoms

Severe zinc deficiency isn’t very common, though it isn’t unheard of.

Those with certain rare genetic mutations, breastfeeding infants whose mothers under-consume it, those on certain immune-suppressing medications, and those struggling with alcohol addiction can all experience it.

In these cases, the severe deficiency may result in impairments to growth and development, sexual dysfunction, delayed sexual maturity, and mood and behavioral concerns, alongside chronic diarrhea, poor wound healing, skin rashes, and a depleted immune system.

foods rich in zinc
Foods rich in zinc

More mild zinc deficiency forms are a lot more common, especially in those with poor diets or without access to proper nutrition.

Inadequate intake for one reason or another is thought to affect some 2 billion people around the world – or just over a quarter of all people. Zinc deficiency has around 450,000 child deaths (those under five years of age) attributed to it annually.

Obviously, zinc deficiency will affect your immune function. You will have a greater chance of suffering from infection if you are zinc deficient. It can also cause some of the same symptoms as severe deficiency, including diarrhea, impaired healing, and poor skin. It can also lead to disturbances in mood and mental health, as well as problems with appetite.

Zinc is crucial to hormone regulation, as we have seen. For this reason, it is key to maintaining healthy testosterone levels in men. Low zinc levels can mean low testosterone levels, which in turn can lead to poor sexual health, including infertility, erectile dysfunction, and loss of libido, alongside reduced mood and drive, reduced muscle mass, or atrophy, and increased weight gain, among other symptoms.

It’s hard to detect zinc deficiency in the lab – rather, it will usually be detected through symptoms. If you struggle with any of the above symptoms, consider consulting your doctor and taking a zinc supplement – the symptoms may clear up over a matter of months.

Who Is At Risk Of Zinc Deficiency?

There are a few areas of the population more at risk of zinc deficiency than others.

Diet plays a large part. Those who are malnourished, including those suffering with eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia, are at risk. Zinc is often found in animal produce, so vegetarians and vegans may also find their intake lower than average.

It’s quite common to see those struggling with alcohol abuse deficient in zinc, partly due to malnourishment.

Certain diseases can also increase your risk of deficiency. Gastrointestinal concerns like Crohn’s disease can lead to it. Sickle cell anemia and chronic kidney disease are also often characterized by zinc deficiency.

Finally, older infants who get all their nourishment from breast milk may be deficient, as might pregnant or breastfeeding women.

Natural Sources Of Zinc

Zinc is a mineral, a micronutrient. As such, you should aim to get as adequate a supply as possible from dietary sources. Luckily, there are plenty of common types of food that contain plenty. These include:

  • Fish, particularly sardines, salmon, flounder, and sole
  • Shellfish, like crabs, mussels, lobsters, clams, and oysters
  • Red meat, like beef, lamb, and pork
  • Poultry, like chicken and turkey
  • Legumes, like chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans, and black beans
  • Nuts and seeds, particularly cashew nuts, hemp seeds, and pumpkin seeds
  • Dairy products, including milk, cheese, and yoghurt
  • Eggs
  • Whole grains, like brown rice, oats, and quinoa
  • Some vegetables, including asparagus, beet greens, peas, and kale

Bear in mind that zinc is far more abundant in animal sources – meat, fish, dairy – as well as being far more bioavailable than that found in plant-based sources – like vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds.