Zinc is a trace mineral which is essential because we can’t make it ourselves. If we don’t eat enough, deficiency signs and symptoms appear. Shockingly, studies have revealed that about 75% of the population in Western nations have suboptimal zinc intakes. The average intake is about 8-10 mg a day whereas the optimal amount is 15-50 mg zinc a day, depending on the amount of zinc you are losing every day, through your stool, urine and sweat; a quantity which varies from person to person. For example drinking coffee and alcohol, as well as smoking are all activities which increase excretion of zinc, along with excessive exercise and stress.
OK, so we need to be having more zinc – but why? What does zinc do?
Benefits of Zinc
Zinc has so many functions that when I first studied it, it would not be an exaggeration to say that there were so many that it made my head spin! But I will try to organize the wonderous benefits of zinc into 8 manageable bite-size pieces for you here!
Benefit 1: It helps Build and Repair our Cells and Tissues
Build and repair cells… That sounds really biological and a bit vague, so let me give some examples as to how zinc’s role in building and repairing cells is important in the body.
a.) Zinc Keeps muscles healthy and allows them to grow:
Most of the body’s zinc is found in muscles, where its use in cell building and repair is helpful particularly after a workout.
When we exercise, especially in weight-training, we put our muscles under strain and in order for them to grow, we literally rip them apart and build new cells in the tears. Then viola! A bigger muscle is created. Zinc is needed for this cell growth and rip-repair and is therefore used as a supplement by some body builders for this purpose.
Zinc is useful in muscles not only for its use in cell building and repair. It’s also important here because it is an antioxidant mineral. Muscle cells create a lot of energy when they are active, and this process of energy production creates health-damaging free radicals as a byproduct. As an antioxidant mineral, zinc is a free radical antidote which is helpful in obliterating free radicals and keeping the body healthy.
b. Zinc helps maintain strong, healthy bones:
Zinc plays an important role in “bone mineralization”, the process in which minerals are bound to the bone matrix to help harden and strengthen the bone tissue. There are a couple of enzymes which are vital in bone maintenance which need zinc, including alkaline phosphatase and collagenase. Zinc also regulates the production of a hormone called calcitonin which helps regulate bone health.
Zinc’s use in bone health comes in useful when healing broken bones when taking a zinc supplement could be of benefit.
Zinc also plays role in keeping tooth enamel strong and cavity-free.
c. Needed for growth in childhood and adolescence:
A time when a lot of new cells are made is whenever there is growth. So children and teens use up a lot of zinc to make new cells! Not only this, but zinc may also be needed to make growth hormone.
One of the first discoveries of the essentiality of zinc found that children who didn’t have enough zinc didn’t grow properly and dwarfism resulted.
d.) New Cell Growth Keeps skin healthy:
Skin is constantly renewing as old cells are shed, and new cells grow to replace them. Since zinc is needed for cell building, it is essential for healthy skin.
Zinc also plays a role in enabling vitamin A function, another vitamin which keeps skin healthy.
If ever you have a wound, a cut, or a burn, zinc is very important in sealing up and repairing the damage. It is also useful for treating acne, psoriasis, dandruff, boils, dermatitis, dry skin, bedsores, and recovery from surgery. All of these could benefit from zinc supplementation.
e. Keeps hair and nail cells healthy:
Because it helps cells grow and because it is needed for the production of keratin, zinc is very helpful in maintaining healthy hair and nails. It can be used where there is hair loss, poor hair growth, and unhealthy nails, although care should be taken because excessively high doses of zinc (usually over 50mg a day) can cause hair loss. Getting just the right amount of a nutrient is a fine balancing act sometimes!
f. Zinc Keeps the cells layers internal surfaces in good condition
Our insides are full of tubes and surfaces which are made of cells, all of which need healthy cell production and maintenance that is enabled by zinc.
For example, the gut wall and all the intestinal tubes, and the walls of blood vessels, all need healthy cell production to function well.
This means that if you have an ulcer of some kind, whether it be a mouth ulcer or a more serious ulcer in your gut, or if you have a leaky gut, zinc would be useful to help repair this.
Zinc also strengthens the lining of bronchioles, lungs and just about all other tissues in the body.
g. Builds immune cells to protect you from disease:
Because zinc helps the body build cells, it is very important in building your immune cells which protect your from disease.
Zinc is one of the main nutrients needed when you have a cold, or another illness, because your body uses it up very quickly in the process of making immune cells to fight the intruding germs! So supplementing with zinc when you next have a cold or some other bug will be a good idea! It can also help protect the body from warts and speed up recovery from herpes, and other viruses, bacteria, fungi and baddies. Any case of excessive microorganisms in the body can be helped by zinc, to rally the immune system to fight these bugs. So conditions like bad breath, body odour, foot odour, gum disease, high amounts of tooth decay, and dysbiosis can all be helped by zinc supplementation.
Any condition where immune cells are imbalanced can also be helped by zinc, because zinc can help make the cells which are deficient. For example, the Th2 dominance disorders: asthma, allergies, eczema, hayfever, CFS, Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative Colitis (to name but a few), can all be helped by zinc supplementation.
With allergy-type conditions, zinc may be particularly helpful because it may also inhibit allergic inflammation by inhibiting histamine release, and helping reduce inflammation by promoting anti-inflammatory chemical production (called eicosanoids).
h. Needed to build reproductive cells and is therefore essential for fertility in both men and women:
Not only is zinc important in building reproductive cells for normal sexual function and development, but zinc is also a part of semen. When semen is lost, so too is zinc (15mg zinc lost per ejaculation to be precise!) and this must be topped up. This is partly why men need a little more zinc than women.
Zinc is one of the first nutrients to think of in cases of infertility.
i. Needed to build new cells in pregnancy and lactation
Another time when many new cells are being produced is in pregnancy and lactation. Zinc helps support cell production at these important times.
Benefit 2: Zinc helps us Detoxify all sorts of nasty chemicals
As mentioned above, zinc acts as an antioxidant mineral to fight against damaging free radicals which we come in contact with every day. Zinc does this by encouraging the production of enzymes that break down free radicals, SOD (super oxide dismutase). Zinc also helps form a molecule called glutathione which helps to mop up free radicals by absorbing them thus neutralizing them.
Because zinc is an antioxidant mineral, it helps prevent all sorts of free-radical-driven diseases including cataracts, ageing, sun-damaged skin, atherosclerosis, age-related macular degeneration and cancer, amongst others.
Free radicals aren’t the only baddies that zinc helps your body detoxify. Zinc also helps the body eliminate some heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium, mercury and lead, and also aids the body metabolise and get rid of alcohol. Since a lot of zinc is used up to detox alcohol, it is really important to top up zinc in heavy drinkers.
By protecting the body from all these damaging toxins, zinc also helps protect the liver from problems like cirrhosis and liver damage.
Benefit 3: Zinc helps us Digest our food
Zinc helps make both stomach acid, and some of the digestive enzymes made by the pancreas (e.g. carboxypolypeptidase). Both of these are essential for good digestion.
For this reason, zinc is useful in treating heartburn that is commonly caused by low stomach acid, and a wide range of other conditions caused by low stomach acid.
Benefit 4: Zinc helps us with all sorts of housekeeping tasks in our body
Over 100 enzymes in our body need zinc to function, so zinc plays an important role in maintaining healthy functioning of a lot of processes in our body, from protein synthesis, to carbohydrate metabolism and DNA synthesis. It also helps maintain the body pH and aids in the production of a range of hormones in the body including sex hormones e.g. testosterone, stress hormones e.g. cortisol and insulin.
Benefit 5: Zinc helps us with blood sugar balancing
Zinc is needed to make insulin, the hormone which helps us regulate blood sugar levels. Healthy insulin production is incredibly important in maintaining healthy blood sugar levels, keeping good energy levels, and in controlling cravings, amongst other things.
Benefit 6: Zinc plays a role in making us feel energetic and vibrant
Zinc plays a role in energy production because it helps make enzymes needed to make energy, like lactate dehydrogenase.
Zinc’s wide array of housekeeping uses and cell-building skills, in organs that regulate energy (e.g. the thyroid) make it a crucial part of energy production.
People with low zinc levels can feel lethargic and low on stamina.
Benefit 7: Zinc controls all sorts of things in our nervous system, keeping them functioning optimally
Zinc is responsible for a list of functions including helping us be able to taste, smell, hear, have a good appetite, and have a good libido.
Zinc also plays a role in the production of omega 3 fatty acids in the brain which are important in brain functioning. For this reason, zinc is useful in treating ADHD, alzheimer’s disease, apathy, autism, dyslexia, depression, schizophrenia, and in boosting attention, learning and memory.
Benefit 8: Zinc inhibits the enzyme 5 alpha reductase which has been implicated in causing male pattern baldness and prostate enlargement
The enzyme 5 alpha reductase converts testosterone to DHT, which has been implicated in hair loss and prostate enlargement. By inhibiting this enzyme, zinc may be able to inhibit these processes.
If you think you might be deficient in zinc, or have a condition that may benefit from zinc, there are two main ways to go about supplementing zinc.
(1.) Supplement Zinc with Zinc Rich Foods
The first way to supplement zinc is through having lots of zinc-rich foods in your diet. The best absorbed form of zinc is from animal foods, particularly oysters, liver, shellfish like whelks and crabs, and red meat. Plant sources of zinc aren’t as well absorbed, but can contribute to zinc intake too, and these include wheat germ, quorn, nuts, pine nuts, tahini and seeds.
For a list of zinc-rich foods, here’s an article I wrote for HealthMad.com which you can have a look at.
Elson M. Haas MD says that in his experience it’s difficult to acquire sufficient levels of zinc through food alone, because who eats oysters or liver every day? Not many people! And nutritionally speaking, this would not necessarily be advisable either for various reasons (e.g. oysters containing heavy metals and pollutants from the sea, and liver potentially containing some undetoxified toxins). In more everyday foods, zinc is found in relativeley small amounts.
Zinc supplementation with supplements may be a good alternative.
(2.) Supplementing zinc with zinc supplements
There are a lot of zinc supplements on the market. How do you know which is the best one?
Generally, the best form according to studies is zinc picolinate because it is extremely well absorbed and has no known unpleasant side effects. Zinc citrate, zinc ascorbate, amino acid chelates for zinc, and zinc gluconate are also good, although these aren’t as well absorbed as zinc picolinate. Zinc sulphate is the worst one you could go for because not only is it poorly absorbed but it also may cause nausea.
My favourite brands of zinc supplements are:
- Solgar’s Zinc Picolinate (US) (UK) which contains 22mg per tablet.
- Nutri’s Zinc Picolinate (UK) which contains 15mg zinc per capsule.
- Thorne Research’s Zinc Picolinate (US) (UK) which contains 30mg zinc per capsule.
- Solgar’s Zinc Citrate (US) (UK) which contains 30mg zinc per capsule.
I tend to go with Solgar’s Zinc Picolinate because it is the form that is best absorbed and is the most fairly priced, as well as being from a company whose high quality supplementation practices I am familiar with.
A dose of around 40 mg a day is great if you have a condition that requires zinc, such as a cold, microbial infection of some sort, bone fracture, skin condition, asthma, allergies or if there is high depletion of zinc through smoking, alcohol drinking and stress, to name but a few. For the average person for general wellness around 15-30 mg a day is sufficient.
See articles in the nutrition and health categories including:
- Why do I need iodine?
- Why do I get cold hands and feet?
- Why do I keep getting colds?
- Why did my hair darken as I got older?
- Why does my energy and well-being level change at specific times of the day? The Chinese Body Clock
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Every effort has been made to ensure that the information contained in this article is accurate. However the information contained in this article is for educational purposes only. Suggestions contained in this article are not intended as a substitute for consultation with a health professional. All matters regarding health and supplementation require medical supervision and careful examination of contraindications and possible interactions. The author does not accept responsibility for the use of this information, nor shall the author be liable for any loss, injury or damage allegedly arising from any information or suggestions in this article.