Why zinc? Our bodies have a line of defense against bacteria, virus and other pathogens known as the immune system. Having immunity against microorganisms that can harm us depends upon whether our lifestyles support health or work against us. When in a weakened state, we become more susceptible to microorganisms that can make us sick.
But, just like any other bodily system, the immune system can be supported with a healthy lifestyle and superior nutrition, allowing it to function at its best. And when we fall short, zinc may be one way to help support the immune system.
What is Zinc?
Zinc is a nutrient that the body needs to function properly and is classified as an essential mineral or essential trace element. This means it is essential we get this particular mineral from our diet, through nutritious food sources. And while many foods are touted for their nutritional content, it pays to be choosey because highly processed, fried foods and foods cooked at high temperatures may naturally lose their mineral content.
Zinc in Your Diet
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of zinc is 8 mg for adult females and 11 mg for adult males, with certain groups such as pregnant women, requiring slightly more. Luckily you can get zinc from a variety of food sources including:
- Red meat
- Fortified breakfast cereals
- Fortified bread
Oysters come in at the highest amount of zinc with 74 mg per serving. The next highest is beef chuck roast at 7 mg per serving, with all the other foods being significantly less. The trick to zinc intake is to get a steady amount into your daily diet; a task that proves to be more difficult than it seems.
Most people do not consume oysters on a daily basis, while others may be vegetarians or vegans, making it a little more challenging to get the RDA of this all-important mineral. At the same time, foods such as fortified cereals or breads contain synthetic zinc, yet not all of these are digestible. For example, zinc oxide comes back with mixed study results, while other forms like zinc gluconate are merely a chemical substitute for the true mineral. But plant-based forms of zinc may be the most absorbable as it is in a more natural state.
Zinc and Your Body
Zinc plays many roles in our health and is found in every cell of the body. It is required for healthy digestion and metabolism, nerve function, skin health and even protein production. It plays a role in cell growth and division and most importantly for many people today, it supports immune function.
The role that zinc plays in immunity is one reason why many throat lozenges and over-the-counter cold remedies contain this important element. While many studies have been done, a 1998 review of these suggested that zinc was indeed helpful for reducing the severity and duration of cold symptoms.
Chronic internal inflammation is a problem for many people with busy lifestyles, and results from risk factors like stress, poor diet, certain medications and sedentary lifestyles. Surprisingly, older adults who used zinc supplements were able to reduce inflammatory markers, one of the only ways to measure the risk of chronic inflammation. (1) This may be why zinc also seems to be an effective mineral to support immune health since inflammation has an effect on immunity.
Some people are deficient in zinc because either their diet does not include zinc rich foods or digestive issues inhibit absorption of the mineral. Pregnant women, older adults and women who are breastfeeding are at the highest risk of zinc deficiency. And for those who breastfeed, a zinc deficiency may pass to the nursing infant.
Some researchers find that zinc deficiency is prevalent in populations of low animal protein consumption and increased cereal consumption. (2) Vegans and vegetarians have lower levels of zinc because their diets lack meat and fish. But adding to the problem is that while they may eat more mineral-rich beans than non-vegetarians, phytates in beans, legumes, nuts and seeds can impair digestion and make it difficult to absorb the small amounts of zinc that they do consume. Soaking these foods before consuming them may help lessen this problem.
Others who may be at risk for zinc deficiency include those with Chrohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and alcohol addiction because they may not sufficiently absorb zinc from their diet. Also, at risk are those with pancreatic disease, celiac disease, diabetes or chronic liver disease. Signs of zinc deficiency includes the following:
- Hair loss
- Loss of appetite
- Poor immunity
- Eye and skin lesions
- Slow wound healing
Many people use zinc supplements to enhance their diets, especially if they have one of the above risk factors such as digestive problems. Supplementation is also popular during cold and flu season as a natural way to support the immune system. But be wary of zinc in many over-the-counter throat lozenges or syrups as it may be a form that is difficult for the body to use.
For best absorption, zinc supplements are most effective when taken within two hours after a meal and in liquid form. And if you are using it to ward of a cold or flu, enhanced supplements that include a plant-based form of zinc along with vitamin C and herbs like elderberry may offer additional immune support.
In today’s world of uncertainty, stress becomes the norm, wreaking havoc on digestion and our immune systems, while superbugs seem to be more prominent. Doing all you can to support your body can help you stay strong and better protect you from harmful pathogens. Support your health with a wholesome diet, daily exercise, rest and supplementation when you need to ensure you stay healthy through any season.
1 Bao B, Prasad AS, Beck FW, et al. Zinc decreases C-reactive protein, lipid peroxidation, and inflammatory cytokines in elderly subjects: a potential implication of zinc as an atheroprotective agent. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010;91(6):1634–1641. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.28836
2 Roohani N, Hurrell R, Kelishadi R, Schulin R. Zinc and its importance for human health: An integrative review. J Res Med Sci. 2013;18(2):144–157.