You may be familiar with the role of zinc in supporting immunity, so this link might ask you if you should take a zinc supplement. Dietitians recommend that you take zinc from food, not from a bottle, and there are important reasons for this advice. Here’s what you need to know about zinc supplements – with some added benefits of zinc and top food sources you can rely on.
Health benefits of zinc
In addition to its role in supporting the immune system, zinc is required for the activity of more than 300 enzymes that aid healthy digestion, nerve function and metabolism.
Zinc also supports brain health. Compared to other organs in the body, the concentration of zinc is highest in the brain. A 2017 study, published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, concluded that although there are many unknowns, changes in the zinc balance in the brain can affect conditions involving cognitive decline, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Another major role of zinc is helping the body to heal. Zinc is needed to regenerate cell membranes, grow cells and maintain healthy skin. Zinc-dependent proteins play a fundamental role within cells, including in DNA repair. For these reasons, zinc deficiency can lead to skin problems and impaired wound healing.
Too little zinc can negatively affect your senses and appetite. According to a recent study, 35% to 45% of adults over the age of 60 had zinc intake below the estimated average requirement. One set of side effects associated with zinc deficiency includes decreased taste and odor, plus poor appetite. If you have ever lost these senses due to illness, you are aware of how much they affect the attractiveness of food. In healthy adults, zinc plays a role in maintaining these functions.
Finally, several studies have shown that zinc deficiency increases oxidative stress, which is basically an imbalance between the formation of free radicals that damage cells and the body’s ability to counteract their harmful effects. Zinc has also been shown to reduce blood markers of inflammation, a known trigger for premature aging and chronic diseases.
The best food sources for zinc
Unlike some nutrients that are harder to get from food alone, such as vitamin D, zinc is easily found in animal and plant foods. Top animal sources include oysters (which are classified as the number one source), beef, crabs, lobster, pork, and yogurt. Plant sources include vegetarian roasted beans, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, Indian noodles, chickpeas, lentils, quinoa, oatmeal, and zinc-enriched plant foods, such as cereals.
The amount you need per day can easily be obtained with a normal, balanced diet. For example, the recommended dietary supplements for zinc are 11 mg daily for men 19 and older and 8 mg for women 19 and older. Requirements for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding 11 mg and 12 mg, respectively. Three ounce beef pate gives 5.3 mg. One cup of vegetarian baked beans gives 5.8 mg.
In other words, even vegetarians can eat enough zinc. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, studies show that adult vegetarians (compared to non-vegetarians) have a zinc intake that is within the normal range. In addition, the adult body can adapt to a vegetarian diet in ways that help optimize zinc status, including increased zinc absorption and retention.
Getting zinc through food expands your overall nutrient intake, as zinc-containing foods also offer other important nutrients, which can include protein, fiber, other vitamins and minerals, and health protective antioxidants. It also negates the potential risks associated with taking too much zinc in the supplement.
Zinc supplements: what you need to know
There are a number of types of zinc supplements, including zinc gluconate, piccolatin, acetate, and citrate, and various forms, such as lozenges, capsules, and drops.
According to the National Institutes of Health, routine zinc supplementation is not recommended without the advice of a health professional. In addition to choosing the best form and dosage (more on this below), zinc can interact with certain medications, medical conditions, other supplements, and foods.
For example, zinc should not be inhaled through the nose, as this can cause permanent loss of odor. Zinc can reduce how many antibiotics the body absorbs from the gut. Zinc supplementation can lower blood sugar in type 2 diabetes, which can affect medication needs and blood sugar control. High-dose calcium supplements can reduce zinc absorption, and taking zinc sulfate with black coffee has been shown to reduce mineral absorption by half.
Risks of too much zinc
Too much zinc in the form of a dietary supplement can cause adverse effects that include nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and headache. Excess zinc can also change the state of copper in the body and iron function, reduce immunity and reduce the level of “good” HDL cholesterol in the blood. The permissible upper zinc (UL) intake for zinc, which includes both food and supplements combined, is 40 mg daily for all adults over 19 years of age. Prolonged intake above UL increases the risk of adverse health effects unless prescribed by a physician and supervised by a physician for a particular medical condition.
In other words, more zinc is not better, and as noted, some of the risks associated with excess zinc are similar to those of zinc deficiency. If your doctor or registered dietitian has recommended a zinc supplement for any reason, ask about the dose, form, frequency and length of use, and when and how to take it.
Zinc tablets for colds
Due to the effects of zinc on immunity, many people turn to minerals for a short time to fight colds. One recent study found that patients with the common cold who were given zinc lozenges recover faster. After five days, 70% of zinc patients recovered compared with 27% of placebo patients.
However, a 2020 study published in the British Medical Journal found that zinc acetate lozenges had no effect on the recovery rate from the common cold compared to placebo if applied five days after the onset of the first symptoms. And documented side effects include bad taste in the mouth and nausea. If you decide to try zinc when you feel a cold, seek professional guidance on the form, dose, and length of use.
Finding a healthy zinc balance
To make the best use of zinc without overdoing it, focus on food sources. If you are an omnivore, look for a variety of plant and animal foods. If you are on plants, include them in top plant sources and be sure to include them often. If you are concerned that you are not getting enough zinc from your regular diet due to disagreements or dietary restrictions, talk to your doctor or dietitian for instructions and if zinc supplements may work for you. Zinc is one of the most important nutrients for optimal health, but achieving the right balance is vital to reaping its benefits.