You may have heard that zinc benefits include the ability to help people recovering from the common cold or other illnesses, but this mineral is also needed by those who aren’t sick and who don’t have compromised immune function.
As an essential mineral, zinc should be consumed in small amounts every day in order to maintain overall health and perform hundreds of important functions.
What are the benefits of taking zinc, as well as consuming foods high in zinc? Zinc benefits the body in many ways — such as by helping with hormone production, proper growth and repair, improved immunity, and normal digestion.
It also has the ability to act as an anti-inflammatory agent, which means that it may have significant therapeutic benefits for several chronic diseases, such as cancer or heart disease.
So ask yourself: Are you getting enough zinc in your diet?
What Is Zinc?
Zinc is a type of metal and an essential trace element. It’s “essential” because you must obtain it from your diet, since your body can’t make its own.
Behind only iron, it’s the second-most-abundant trace mineral in the human body.
How does zinc help your body exactly? It’s actually present within all bodily tissues and needed for healthy cell division. It acts like an antioxidant within the body, fighting free radical damage and helping slow the aging process.
This mineral also has a major impact on hormonal balance, so for this reason, even a small deficiency can result in an increased risk for infertility or diabetes.
You’ll find zinc in foods that are rich in protein, plus in supplement form. It comes in several forms, including zinc gluconate, zinc acetate (the kind often used in lozenges) and zinc sulfate.
Top 12 Zinc Benefits
Below are some of the most important benefits of zinc and reasons to make sure you get enough of it:
1. Supports Immune Function and May Help Fight Infections/Colds
As the National Institutes of Health explains, “Severe zinc deficiency depresses immune function, and even mild to moderate degrees of zinc deficiency can impair macrophage and neutrophil functions, natural killer cell activity, and complement activity.”
This mineral is an essential component of pathogen-eliminating signal transduction pathways. It helps control inflammation and prevent elevated inflammatory responses, including release of cytokines, as well as damage to tissues.
It has an intricate function during an immune response because it helps the body return to homeostasis.
It is often taken as a natural over-the-counter remedy for fighting the common cold, flu symptoms, etc. When taken for at least five months, it may reduce your risk of becoming sick with the common cold — plus supplementing once you already feel sick may speed up the healing process.
Research shows that this essential mineral can help with development of immune cells and interfere with the molecular process that causes mucus and bacteria to build within the nasal passages. Ionic zinc, based on its electrical charge, has the ability to exert an antiviral effect by attaching to receptors in nasal epithelial cells and blocking their effects.
One 2020 review of clinical trials found that when zinc supplements are administered to otherwise healthy adults with cold symptoms, the duration of symptoms tends to be significantly reduced. Zinc supplementation was observed to potentially reduce cold duration by 2.25 days on average.
Among people who are sick, even those fighting cancer, it may also reduce symptoms such as fatigue.
2. Acts as a Powerful Antioxidant
This mineral has been shown to be an effective anti-inflammatory and antioxidant agent, helping fight oxidative stress and decrease the chance for disease development. Especially in elderly patients, zinc benefits include the ability to support healthy cell division, potentially preventing cancerous cell mutation and stunting tumor growth.
When researchers from the School of Medicine at the University of Michigan studied potential benefits from zinc supplements among 50 adults, they uncovered that levels of oxidative stress markers were significantly lower in the supplemented group than in the placebo group.
Those with lower levels who didn’t take zinc supplements had higher levels of inflammatory cytokines, higher plasma oxidative stress markers and endothelial cell adhesion molecules.
After supplementation, the incidence of illness-related side effects and infections was also significantly lower in the supplemented group.
3. Can Help Balance Hormones
Because zinc supports normal hormone production, including by increasing testosterone naturally, it can promote reproductive health in both men and women.
This mineral also impacts female sex hormones and is even involved in the creation and release of eggs within and from the ovaries.
Additionally, it’s needed for the production of reproductive hormones, including estrogen and progesterone in women, which both support reproductive health. You can reduce your risk for experiencing problems with menstruation, mood swings, early menopause, infertility and possibly even certain cancers (such as ovarian, cervical and endometrium cancers) by avoiding having either too high or too low levels.
4. Helps Fight Diabetes
This essential mineral is needed to balance most hormones, including insulin, the main hormone involved in the regulation of blood sugar. It positively affects blood sugar levels because it binds to insulin, so insulin is adequately stored in the pancreas and released when glucose enters the bloodstream.
It also allows for proper utilization of digestive enzymes that are necessary for insulin to bind to cells — this way glucose is used as fuel for the body, instead of stored as fat.
As one 2020 abstract explains, zinc “regulates insulin receptors, prolongs the action of insulin and promotes healthy lipid profiles … Abnormal zinc and copper metabolism appears to accompany and may also cause diabetes complications.” It’s now thought that zinc supplementation may have clinical potential as an adjunct therapy for preventing or managing diabetes.
5. Helps Maintain Heart Health by Supporting Blood Vessels
Zinc is needed to maintain the health of cells within the cardiovascular system, while also lowering inflammation and oxidative stress. The endothelium, the thin layer of cells that lines the blood vessels, partially relies on adequate levels of this mineral.
It also assists in heart health by supporting healthy circulation, since it helps with high blood pressure and cholesterol levels from clogged or damaged arteries. This explains why one meta-analysis found that adults with heart failure tended to have lower levels of zinc compared to those with healthier hearts.
6. Can Help Prevent Diarrhea
Zinc deficiency is related to chronic digestive problems and diarrheal diseases. This has been shown in several clinical trails.
7. Supports Fertility
Studies show that zinc plays an important role in fertility, especially modulating serum testosterone levels in men and improving sperm quality and motility.
What does zinc do for you sexually? It can potentially improve low sex drive by increasing testosterone levels.
Dietary zinc restriction and deficiency in normal young men are associated with a significant decrease in serum testosterone concentrations, which can negatively impact fertility and lower libido.
In one study by the Department of Internal Medicine at Wayne University, after 20 weeks of zinc restriction, giving patients zinc supplements effectively increased serum testosterone in the majority of men.
This mineral also impacts women’s fertility, since adequate levels are needed during the growth process of a female’s eggs, otherwise eggs cannot properly mature and ovulation suffer.
Other ways that it supports reproductive health are by protecting against infections of the urea system and promoting epithelial integrity by maintaining the lining of the reproductive organs.
8. Aids in Nutrient Absorption and Digestion
This essential mineral affects protein synthesis and is required by the body to use amino acids from foods. It’s also involved in the breakdown of carbohydrates from foods, which are one of the main sources of energy for the body.
For this reason, you can reduce your risk of experiencing low energy levels and adrenal or chronic fatigue by avoiding deficiency.
9. Supports Liver Health
Supplementing with this mineral is shown to reduce the incidence of infection and correlated with lower levels of liver damage. It can promote liver health by reducing inflammation in the liver, decreasing free radical damage, helping with nutrient absorption and allowing for proper waste elimination.
10. Helps with Muscle Growth and Repair
This particular mineral is involved in normal cell division and cell growth, meaning it assists in muscle repair and growth by making it possible for the body to heal itself and maintain strength in the muscular and skeletal systems.
It also helps with the release of testosterone, growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), all of which build muscle mass and a healthy metabolism.
It can help promote growth of muscle mass because it helps increase the amount of testosterone the body is able to produce following exercise — especially weight training and high intensity interval training.
11. Supports Vision and Eye Health
A high intake of zinc may help reduce the risk for advanced stage age-related macular degeneration and vision loss.
One review of clinical trials found that supplementation alone may not be sufficient to produce clinically meaningful changes in visual acuity, however it seems to help slow down the rate that macular degeneration progresses.
12. Can Help Decrease Acne and Promote Wound Healing
Some of the zinc stored in your body is actually held within your skin, so it’s involved in the development, differentiation and growth of various human tissues. According to a 2019 report, “Disturbances in zinc metabolism may give rise to disorders that typically manifest themselves on the skin.”
Because it supports production of collagen, the most abundant protein in the human body that forms connective tissue, this mineral is sometimes used to help people recovering from burns, ulcers, slow-healing wounds, and other types of skin damage or injuries. It can also support the immune system in a way that may limit skin’s susceptibility to infections while healing.
Additionally, this mineral is used to help naturally decrease acne breakouts due to its anti-inflammatory properties. It’s considered by some experts to be “a promising alternative to other acne treatments owing to its low cost, efficacy, and lack of systemic side effects.”
Some studies suggest that higher levels of zinc in one’s diet may lead to less severe acne breakouts.
A 2020 review of clinical trials also concluded that in addition to treating acne, zinc may be of some benefit in the treatment plan for atopic dermatitis and diaper dermatitis.
Signs of Deficiency
Zinc plays an essential role in numerous biochemical pathways: organ systems, including the integumentary, gastrointestinal, central nervous system, immune, skeletal, and reproductive systems… Zinc deficiency results in dysfunction of both humoral and cell-mediated immunity and increases the susceptibility to infection.
If you have low levels of zinc due to a lack in your diet, it’s possible to experience negative reactions like:
- frequently getting sick
- chronic fatigue (feeling like you’re always tired and run down)
- digestive issues
- poor concentration
- stunted growth
- the inability to heal wounds
Zinc deficiency is somewhat common around the world, including in the U.S. A 2019 report estimates that up to 17 percent of the global population is at risk for inadequate intake.
It typically occurs when someone doesn’t eat enough foods that contain the mineral or has trouble absorbing and using it from foods due to digestive disorders or very poor gut health.
Who is most at risk for low intake? Anyone following a plant-based diet that doesn’t include meat or dairy products (like vegans or vegetarians) are usually at the greatest risk since, their diets eliminate the top zinc food sources. While some plant foods have small amounts, animal products are the richest sources.
People who suffer from long-term health issues like sickle cell disease, severe stomach-acid issues, and chronic digestive problems like leaky gut syndrome or alcoholism are also more likely to have a zinc deficiency.
Finally, it’s believed that women taking birth control pills or who are on hormone replacement therapy drugs may also be at a higher risk, since this can interfere with zinc’s hormone-related roles in the body. Pregnant women, lactating women and breastfed infants should also be careful to consume enough of this essential mineral to support normal development.
Which foods contain zinc? The best way to avoid deficiency is by increasing your dietary intake. High-protein foods, such as red meat, poultry, other meats, nuts and beans, contain the highest amounts of naturally occurring zinc.
Oysters actually contain the most of any food, but we generally recommend avoiding shellfish for a number of reasons.
Here are the top 12 food sources of zinc (percentages below are based on the average adult women’s recommended daily intake of eight milligrams/day):
- Lamb — 3 ounces: 2.9 milligrams (35 percent DV)
- Grass-fed beef — 3 ounces: 2.6 milligrams (32 percent DV)
- Chickpeas — 1 cup cooked: 2.5 milligrams (31 percent DV)
- Cashews — ¼ cup: 1.9 milligrams (23 percent DV)
- Pumpkin seeds — ¼ cup: 1.6 milligrams (20 percent DV)
- Yogurt (or Kefir) — 1 container of plain yogurt/6 ounces: 1 milligrams (12.5 percent DV)
- Chicken — 3 ounces: 1 milligrams (12.5 percent DV)
- Turkey — 3 ounces: 1 milligrams (12.5 percent DV)
- Eggs — 1 large: 0.6 milligrams (7 percent DV)
- Mushrooms — 1 cup: 0.6 milligrams (7 percent DV)
- Salmon — 3 ounces: 0.5 milligrams (6 percent DV)
- Cocoa powder — 1 tablespoon: 0.3 milligrams (3 percent DV)
You can add more zinc to your diet naturally by including plenty of zinc-rich foods in your meals. Here are three ideas to get you started:
Supplements and Dosage
Sometimes, zinc supplements are used to prevent or treat a deficiency. People who are unable to get enough through their diets or who can’t properly absorb it may benefit from zinc supplements.
This mineral is usually available in various forms, including oral zinc lozenges, syrups, gels and capsules. It’s also found in most multivitamin and mineral supplements.
These supplements can contain zinc in several forms:
- zinc oxide
- zinc gluconate
- zinc sulfate
- zinc acetate
As of now, all are believed to work in very similar ways so one type is not thought to be superior over the others. Ideally look for “enzyme activated” supplements to support zinc absorption.
Typically, prescribed zinc supplements (like zinc sulfate) are taken by mouth, but sometimes patients receive zinc injections under the care of a health care professional.
How much zinc should you take in a day? According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the dietary reference intakes for zinc below are based on age and gender:
- 0–6 months: 2 milligrams/day
- 7–12 months: 3 milligrams/day
- 1–3 years: 3 milligrams/day
- 4–8 years: 5 milligrams/day
- 9 –13 years: 8 milligrams/day
Adolescents and adults:
- Males age 14 and over: 11 milligrams/day
- Females age 14 to 18 years: 9 milligrams/day
- Females age 19 and over: 8 milligrams/day
- Pregnant and breastfeeding women: 11 to 12 milligrams/day
How much zinc is safe? How much zinc is too much?
Is 50 milligrams of zinc too much for the average adult? Most experts consider the tolerable upper limit to be around 40 milligrams per day.
A “high dose” of a zinc supplement is considered to be between 25 and 45 mg/day, so just under 50 mg. This means that before taking any more than the tolerable upper limit of 40 mg/day, discuss this with your doctor, especially if you take daily medications.
That said, some studies have found that taking high doses around 80 to 90 mg/day can help safely fight off cold symptoms. Still, consuming over 40 to 60 mg/day may lead to certain zinc overdose side effects, so speak to your health care professional before increasing your dosage.
When should I take zinc?
In order to maximize zinc absorption, it’s best to take it at least one or two hours before or after meals. If you find that this contributes to stomach pains, try taking it with meals instead.
Toxicity, Risks and Side Effects
Taking high doses of supplemental zinc for a prolonged period can interfere with the body’s absorption of other important minerals, including copper. Zinc supplementation is a common cause of copper deficiency because zinc and copper compete for absorption in the stomach.
Too much zinc has the potential to do the opposite of what zinc is supposed to do — it can depress the immune system and impair blood cell formation. More commonly, only short-term and minor symptoms occur when taking moderately high doses of zinc.
Some people who use zinc nasal sprays and gels long term also experience changes in the ability to smell or taste foods (such as loss of sense of smell, also called anosmia), which can impact appetite.
Some signs of a zinc overdose can include:
- abdominal cramps
Side effects usually occur within three to 10 hours of swallowing the supplements but go away within a short period of time after stopping the supplements.
Another thing to keep in mind is that zinc supplements may interact with several types of medications, including antibiotics, penicillamine (a drug used to treat rheumatoid arthritis) and diuretics. If you use these medications on a regular basis, speak to your health care professional before using zinc supplements.
- Zinc is an essential trace element that’s needed in small amounts every day for supporting immune function, regulating hormone production, promoting growth and repair, reducing inflammation, and fighting free radical damage.
- What are the signs of a zinc deficiency? People with low zinc levels may experience changes in appetite, chronic fatigue, weight gain or loss, hair loss, poor concentration, more frequent colds symptoms, slowed wound healing, and hormonal problems — just to name a few.
- The best way to meet your needs is by increasing your dietary intake, such as by eating red meat and other animal meats, fish, cashews, pumpkin seeds, and yogurt.
- Taking a zinc supplement is another option for people who don’t get enough in their diets or who have issues absorbing this mineral.