What is Zinc?

Zinc is an essential mineral that your body does not make on its own so must be obtained from the diet or supplements.

Zinc is well known for playing an important role in immune function1 and skin health2. But how can you make sure you are getting the right amount, and what exactly does it do in the body?

This article tells you everything you need to know about this very important mineral:

What is zinc?

Zinc is an essential mineral that is known particularly for its important role in growth3, immune function1, and wound healing2. Zinc also supports skin4 and eyes5 and is involved in our sense of smell and taste.

Zinc is a trace mineral, meaning we only need it in small amounts, yet because zinc functions in more enzymatic reactions than any other mineral it is one of the most important nutrients for all-round health. As already mentioned, zinc is not synthesised by our body which means that we need to consume it regularly. It is thought that many individuals have marginal zinc deficiency, particularly in the elderly population6.

When it comes to supplements there are several different forms of zinc, which have different amounts of elemental zinc; meaning the amount absorbed by the body. For example, approximately 23% of zinc sulfate consists of elemental zinc; thus, 220 mg of zinc sulfate contains 50 mg of elemental zinc. Other forms of zinc include zinc citrate, zinc gluconate and zinc picolinate.

Benefits of zinc

The benefits of zinc are far reaching from playing an important role in fertility and conception7 through to supporting good skin health including moderation of acne symptoms and other skin disorders8. Since zinc is a necessary mineral for protein synthesis and cell growth, a deficiency of zinc is thought to lead to prolonged healing of wounds.

Zinc is critical for the maintenance of taste, smell and vision, common complaints in the elderly population. It seems that zinc supplementation may be beneficial in slowing down the progression of age-related macular degeneration (AMD)9.

One of the most well-known benefits of zinc is the maintenance of the normal function of the immune system. Nowadays, when colds and bugs seem to be ever-present, knowing how to obtain zinc through diet and supplementation is important. Vitamin D and Vitamin C also contribute to the normal functioning of the immune system.

Sources of zinc

Now we know how important zinc is for our bodies, which foods are the best sources of zinc?

A wide variety of foods, suitable for all allergies and dietary preferences, contain zinc. Oysters are the richest food source of zinc, closely followed by beef and crab, with poultry also containing good quantities.

Non-meat sources of foods high in zinc are plentiful, including nuts and seeds, particularly pumpkin seeds, pecan nuts and Brazil nuts, as well as seaweed, lentils and most types of beans. There is also some zinc present in wholegrain foods such as oats, pasta and bread, so as you can see there are a wide variety of foods that provide sources of zinc.

beans

One thing to note, however, is the presence of phytates in wholegrains and legumes which bind to zinc and can inhibit absorption10. This means that although plant-based foods are good sources of zinc, their bioavailability of zinc is lower than that from animal-based foods. However, by soaking nuts and seeds, or sprouting grains and legumes, the impact of phytates is significantly reduced.

Taking a supplement can be an easy way to get your daily dose of zinc. Optibac offers a product that contains added zinc - Adult Gummies. This supplement is vegan, suitable from 12 years and comes in fully compostable packaging.

Should I take a zinc supplement?

If you follow a varied, balanced diet then consuming sufficient zinc every day can certainly be achievable. However, when the demands of daily life take over it is not always possible to obtain enough zinc through diet alone. Unlike some other nutrients, such as vitamin D, we cannot synthesise zinc in our body ourselves, so for some groups of people supplementation is a definite advantage.

Overall, zinc intakes from vegetarian diets are either similar to or lower than non-vegetarian diets11. Vegetarian diets have a lower bioavailability of zinc than non-vegetarian diets due to lack of meat, which is high in bioavailable zinc, and because vegetarians typically eat higher levels of legumes and whole grains, which contain phytates that bind zinc and inhibit its absorption. It is thought that vegetarians may require as much as 50% more of the RDA for zinc than non-vegetarians12.

During periods of growth, such as adolescence and pregnancy, requirements for zinc increase. Other situations, including during stressful periods, when trying to conceive, or when undertaking more intense or long-duration exercise13, our bodies need more zinc.

Zinc supplements have become popular in more recent years for the common cold. Research has found that zinc lozenges may reduce the duration of cold symptoms by a day or two14, especially when taken as soon as symptoms start. 

When should I not take zinc?

Although zinc is an essential mineral, there are some situations when it is not advisable to supplement with zinc, due to interactions with certain medications or medical conditions.

Additionally, zinc competes with another essential mineral, copper, for absorption. So, if tests have indicated that you have low levels of copper, taking a zinc supplement could reduce your copper levels further.

If you are not sure if taking a zinc supplement is right for you, we would always advise that you speak with a doctor or healthcare professional for personalised advice.

What are the signs of zinc deficiency?

Zinc deficiency can show up in many different forms, often subtly at first. Being more prone to coughs and colds is one of the most common indicators that the body is low in zinc. Other signs of zinc deficiency include:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Loose stools
  • Persistent low energy
  • Hair loss
  • Skin rashes
  • Problems with eyesight, taste or smell

In children and adolescents zinc deficiency may also present as lack of growth and delayed puberty.

How much zinc do I need?

To support your body’s zinc requirements and avoid deficiency, how much zinc do you need to take each day?

The NHS advises that male adults (aged 19 to 64 years) get 9.5mg a day, and female adults get 7mg a day of zinc15:

You may see supplements containing much more than these amounts; these are the minimum recommended daily allowances.

The NHS advises that adults do not take more than 25mg of zinc supplements a day unless advised to by a doctor.

Can I take zinc every day?

You are perhaps wondering if zinc supplements are safe to take every day.

It’s safe to take zinc supplements daily, especially if you’re in one of the higher risk categories outlined above. However, it is advisable to ensure that your combined daily supplement intake falls within the recommended guidelines and is well under the safe upper limits.  Both the recommended daily amount and the safe upper limits vary from country to country and are age dependant.

This FAQ was answered by Helen Morton, Nutritional Therapist DipION

Hopefully this article has answered some of your questions about this essential mineral. Check out the other articles in this series: Added Nutrients

You might also enjoy the following article:

Immune-Boosting Breakfast Recipes

7 little steps to improve your health

References

  1. Maares M, Haase H, (2016) Zinc and immunity: An essential interrelation. Archives of Biochemistry & Biophysics, 1;611:58-65.
  2. Pei-Hui Lin et al., (2018) Zinc in Wound Healing Modulation. Nutrients, 10(1): 16.
  3. Stammers AL et al., (2015) The relationship between zinc intake and growth in children aged 1-8 years: a systematic review and meta-analysis. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 69(2):147-53.
  4. Ogawa Y et al., (2015) Zinc and skin disorders. Nutrients, 10(2): 199.
  5. Rasmussen H & Johnson E (2013) Nutrients for the Aging Eye. Clin Interv Aging, 8: 741–748.
  6. Hiroshi Yasudaa and Toyoharu Tsutsui (2016) Infants and elderlies are susceptible to zinc deficiency. Scientific Reports, 6: 21850.
  7. Fallah A et al., (2018) Zinc is an Essential Element for Male Fertility: A Review of Zn Roles in Men’s Health, Germination, Sperm Quality, and Fertilization. Journal of Reproduction and Infertility, 19(2): 69–81.
  8. Mogaddam MR et al., (2014) Correlation between the Severity and Type of Acne Lesions with Serum Zinc Levels in Patients with Acne Vulgaris. Biomed Res Int, 474108.
  9. Vishwanathan R et al., (2013) A systematic review on zinc for the prevention and treatment of age-related macular degeneration. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci, 54(6):3985-98.
  10. Gupta RK et al., (2015) Reduction of phytic acid and enhancement of bioavailable micronutrients in food grains. Journal of Food Science and Technology, 52(2): 676–684.
  11. Angela V Saunders, Winston J Craig and Surinder K Baines (2013) Zinc and vegetarian diets. Medical Journal of Australia, (4): S17-S21.
  12. NIH, Zinc. Retrieved 6th April 2022. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/
  13. Chu A et al., (2016) Immediate Effects of Aerobic Exercise on Plasma/Serum Zinc Levels: A Meta-analysis. Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise, 48(4):726-33.
  14. Harri Hemilä (2011) Zinc lozenges may shorten the duration of colds: a systematic review. The Open Respiratory Medicine Journal, 5:51-8.
  15. Vitamins and Minerals, NHS. Accessed 11th April 2022. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals/others/

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