When you hear zinc in regards to your health, you probably think of it as one of the many effective natural cold remedies. In other words, only really necessary once in a great while. However, zinc is needed in small amounts every day in order to maintain health and perform important functions.
What are the health benefits of taking zinc or consuming foods high in zinc? Well, zinc benefits the body in many ways — it helps with hormone production, proper growth and repair, improved immunity and promoting normal digestion. It’s needed by the body and zinc deficiency can lead to major health issues.
Zinc benefits also include its ability to act as an anti-inflammatory agent, which means that zinc may have significant therapeutic benefits for several common, chronic diseases like cancer or heart disease.
Are you getting enough zinc in your diet? Maybe low zinc levels are to blame for your chronic fatigue, digestive issues or hormonal problems. There’s no denying that zinc benefits are vast and you actually depend on them to thrive.
What Is Zinc?
Zinc is a type of metal and an essential trace element. It’s present within all bodily tissue and needed for healthy cell division. It acts like an antioxidant within the body, fighting free-radical damage and slowing the aging process.
Zinc also has a major impact on hormonal balance, so for this reason, even a small zinc deficiency can result in an increased risk for infertility or diabetes.
According to researchers at the Department of Dermatology at the University of California,
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.
Without enough zinc present in your diet, it’s possible to experience negative reactions like frequently getting sick, feeling like you’re always tired and run down, and experiencing poor concentration, stunted growth and the inability to heal wounds.
Symptoms of Zinc Deficiency
Zinc deficiency is common around the world, including in the U.S. It occurs when someone doesn’t eat enough foods that contain zinc or has trouble absorbing and using zinc from foods due to digestive disorders or very poor gut health.
Who is most at risk for zinc deficiency? 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.
People who suffer from severe stomach-acid issues, 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.
The most common signs and symptoms associated with zinc deficiency include:
- Changes in appetite, including food cravings for salty or sweet foods
- Changes in ability to taste and smell
- Weight gain or loss
- Hair loss
- Digestive problems, including diarrhea
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Hormonal problems, including worsened PMS or menopause symptoms
- Low immunity
- Poor concentration and memory
- Slowed ability to heal wounds, skin infections or irritation
- Nerve dysfunction
Top Zinc Benefits
1. Increases Immunity and Fights Colds
Zinc is often taken as a natural over-the-counter remedy for fighting colds and symptoms of illnesses. When taken for at least five months, zinc may reduce your risk of becoming sick with the common cold, plus supplementing once you already feel sick can speed up the healing process.
Research shows that zinc can 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.
Research conducted by the Medical Education Center of Chandigarh India found that when zinc was administered within 24 hours of onset of cold-related symptoms, the duration of symptoms was significantly reduced compared to the control group that didn’t supplement with zinc. Fewer patients in the zinc group had cold-related symptoms five and seven days after experiencing the first symptoms compared to those who did not take zinc.
2. Acts as a Powerful Antioxidant that May Help Fight Cancer
Zinc is an effective anti-inflammatory and antioxidant agent, helping fight oxidative stress and decrease the chance for disease development, including as a natural cancer treatment. Especially in elderly patients, zinc benefits include its ability to support support healthy cell division, preventing cancerous cell mutation and stunting tumor growth.
When researchers from the School of Medicine at the University of Michigan studied potential zinc benefits from zinc supplementation on 50 adults, they found that levels of oxidative stress markers were significantly lower in the zinc-supplemented group than in the placebo group. Those with lower zinc levels who didn’t take supplements had higher levels of inflammatory cytokines, higher plasma oxidative stress markers and endothelial cell adhesion molecules. After zinc supplementation, the incidence of illness-related side effects and infections was also significantly lower in the zinc-supplemented group, another example of zinc’s immune-boosting abilities.
3. Balances Hormones
Zinc benefits hormonal health and fertility because it plays an important role in hormone production, including increasing testosterone naturally, which has very widespread roles in both men and women. Zinc also impacts female sex hormones and is even involved in the creation and release of eggs within and from the ovaries.
Zinc is needed for the production of estrogen and progesterone in women, which both support reproductive health. Either too high or too low levels of estrogens can cause problems with menstruation, mood swings, early menopause, infertility and possibly even increase the risk for certain cancers.
4. Fights Diabetes
Zinc is needed to balance most hormones, including insulin, the main hormone involved in the regulation of blood sugar and as a diabetes natural treatment. Zinc benefits 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 so glucose is used as fuel for the body, instead of stored as fat.
5. Maintains 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 zinc. Zinc benefits heart health by supporting healthy circulation, since it helps as a natural remedy for high blood pressure and cholesterol levels from clogged or damaged arteries.
6. Prevents Diarrhea
Zinc deficiency is related to chronic digestive problems and diarrheal diseases, which has been shown in several studies. Researchers have found that zinc supplementation can be effective in both prophylaxis and as an acute diarrhea remedy.
7. Increases Fertility
Studies show that zinc plays an important role in fertility, especially modulating serum testosterone levels in men. Dietary zinc restriction and deficiency in normal young men is associated with a significant decrease in serum testosterone concentrations, which can negatively impact fertility and lower libido. What does zinc do for you sexually? It can potentially improve low sex drive by increasing testosterone levels.
In one study by the Department of Internal Medicine at Wayne University, after 20 weeks of zinc restriction, giving patients zinc supplementation effectively increased serum testosterone in the majority of men.
Zinc also impacts women’s fertility since adequate levels of zinc are needed during the growth process of the female’s eggs, otherwise eggs cannot properly mature and ovulation suffer.
8. Aids in Nutrient Absorption and Digestion
Zinc 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, deficiency in zinc can cause low energy levels and contribute to adrenal or chronic fatigue, whereas consuming enough zinc benefits ongoing energy and a healthy metabolism.
9. Supports Liver Health
Supplementing with zinc is shown to reduce the incidence of infection and correlated with lower levels of liver damage. Zinc can help with a liver cleanse to reduce inflammation in the liver, reduces free radical damage, helps with nutrient absorption and allows for proper waste elimination.
10. Helps with Muscle Growth and Repair
Zinc plays a crucial role in cell division and cell growth, so zinc benefits muscle repair and growth by making it possible for the body to heal itself and maintain strength in the muscular and skeletal systems.
Zinc 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.
Zinc benefits 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 — because it enhances the conversion rate of androstenedione to testosterone.
According to the USDA, 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
Zinc is usually available in various forms, including lozenges, syrups, gels and capsules. Zinc is also found in most multivitamin and mineral supplements. These supplements can contain zinc in the form of zinc gluconate, zinc sulfate or 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.
Top Food Sources
High-protein foods contain the highest amounts of naturally occurring zinc. Here are the top 12 food sources of zinc, although keep in mind the absorption rate of zinc is best from foods that don’t contain any nutrients, which are usually animal-based as opposed to plant-based (percentages below are based on the average adult women’s RDI of 8 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:
Sometimes, zinc supplements are used to prevent or treat a zinc deficiency. People who are unable to get enough zinc through their diet or who can’t properly absorb zinc may benefit from supplements.
Typically, prescribed zinc supplements (like zinc sulfate) are taken by mouth, but sometimes patients receive zinc injections under the care of a healthcare professional. Orally zinc supplements are available in both tablet and capsule forms. You can also find zinc lozenges.
Zinc supplements are most effective when they are taken 1–2 hours after meals. For people that experience stomach pain or digestive issues after taking zinc, it may be helpful to take the supplements with meals instead.
Keep in mind that it is possible to take too much zinc. The tolerable upper limit for zinc for adults is 40 milligrams per day. Anything above that amount may lead to zinc overdose side effects, so speak to your healthcare professional before increasing your dosage.
Eating foods high in zinc is still the best way to maintain proper zinc levels, so supplements should only be used as a back up if you are unable to consume enough zinc regularly.
Risks, Side Effects and Interactions
Taking high doses of zinc for a prolonged period can interfere with the body’s absorption of other important minerals, including copper. For this reason, zinc acetate capsules are sometimes used to treat a liver disease that causes the liver to hold onto too much copper, causing damage. But for people without this condition, taking too much zinc has the potential to do the opposite of what’s zinc 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 also experience changes in the ability to smell or taste foods, which can impact appetite.
Some signs of a zinc overdose include nausea and indigestion, and possibly diarrhea, abdominal cramps and vomiting. This usually occurs within three to 10 hours of swallowing the supplements but goes away within a short period of time after the 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 healthcare professional before using zinc supplements.
- Zinc is an essential trace element that’s needed in small amounts every day in order to maintain health and perform important body functions.
- How does zinc help your body? Zinc benefits include regulating hormone production, promoting growth and repair, reducing inflammation and fighting free-radical damage.
- What are the signs of a zinc deficiency? People who aren’t getting enough zinc may experience changes in appetite, chronic fatigue, weight gain or loss, hair loss, poor concentration, low immunity, slowed wound healing and hormonal problems — just to name a few.
- The best way to avoid zinc deficiency is to eat foods high in zinc, especially animal meats, fish, cashews, pumpkin seeds and yogurt. Zinc supplements are also available for people who aren’t getting enough zinc in their diet or have issues absorbing the essential mineral.
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