When it comes to vitamins and minerals in your diet, you’ve got your big players like vitamins A, B12, C and D, but what about your Zs – or zinc?
Unless you’ve been battling a cold or flu or lathered up with zinc oxide cream before going out in the sun, you might not have given it much thought.
Why you need zinc in your diet
After iron, zinc is the most abundant trace mineral in your body, which means it’s a mineral that we can’t do without but only need in small quantities in order to be healthy. Men and women 19 years and older need 11 milligrams and eight milligrams, respectively.
“You don’t need much zinc, but it has so many benefits and can really affect how your body works,” said Rachel Harrison, a registered dietitian and certified nutrition support clinician at Banner - University Medical Center Phoenix. “It plays an important role in several zinc-dependent enzyme systems such as those involved in digestion, wound healing and DNA and RNA production.”
Read on to learn more about its benefits and whether you could benefit from supplementing your diet.
1. It occurs naturally in many of the foods you eat.
The good news is that zinc is found throughout our food, from meat, fish and poultry to whole grains, nuts, legumes and vegetables.
“When I think of excellent sources of zinc, I also think of foods that are high in protein,” Harrison said. “Animal products offer the highest amount of zinc with seafood (oysters, shrimp, crab) and red meat and poultry (chicken, ground beef, pork) providing the highest amounts. Foods like eggs and dairy products, like milk and cheese, are also great sources of zinc.”
Other zinc-rich foods include fortified breakfast cereals, oatmeal, peas and chickpeas.
2. It helps you maintain a healthy immune system.
While the research is indecisive on whether or not supplementation (including zinc lozenges and nasal sprays) can help treat your common cold symptoms or reduce the duration of sickness, it can help fend off toxins and foreign substances that threaten your health.
“Zinc can boost T-cell production, which is an important component of the immune system responsible for fighting off infections,” Harrison said. “Low levels of zinc are connected with reduced T-cell function, which explains why those who are zinc deficient are more prone to illness.”
3. It is an important nutrient for your skin.
“Among zinc’s plethora of roles, this mineral also aids in wound repair and tissue repair,” Harrison said. “People with skin ulcers and low levels of zinc might benefit from zinc supplements.”
4. It heals your gut.
As long as you don’t overdo it with zinc supplementation, zinc is known as a soothing mineral for the digestive system. It helps repair the cells that line your intestinal tract, keeping them strong and tip-top shape so they can properly absorb nutrients.
5. It may aid in age-related macular degeneration.
Zinc is important to eye health as well. Zinc is naturally found in high levels of your macula, part of the retina, and helps vitamin A produce melanin, a pigment that protects your eyes.
But it may also help with age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of severe, permanent vision loss in people over age 60. Although not conclusive, there has been research that suggests zinc supplementation may slow or possibly prevent the cellular damage in the retina caused by age-related macular degeneration.
Am I getting enough zinc?
A little bit of zinc can go a long way, but it also doesn’t take much to become deficient in it either.
If your zinc levels are too low, you may see signs of deficiency, which can include hair loss, diarrhea, weight loss, brittle nails, difficulty concentrating, decreased sense of smell and taste, acne, among many other issues.
In addition, consuming too much (excess) zinc, especially from supplements, can also have harmful side effects and lead to toxicity.
“Toxicity can occur when taking high levels of elemental zinc (for example 570 milligrams) and can cause nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, metallic taste and headaches,” Harrison said. ”If elemental zinc (greater than 40 mg) is ingested long-term, copper deficiency can also occur.”
Supplementation isn’t required for anyone, but there are certain groups who are at greater risk for deficiency. These include the elderly, vegetarians, those with food insecurities and alcohol use disorder.
Harrison shared the following advice if you plan to take a zinc supplement, like zinc gluconate.
“If you’re supplementing zinc take it without other mineral supplements, such as iron and calcium, to avoid medication interaction,” Harrison said. “Zinc also works best in an acidic environment, so talk to your doctor if you’re taking proton pump inhibitors or antacids as these can increase the pH or make the environment less acidic.”
The bottom line
Zinc is one of the most vital minerals our bodies need for health. The good news is it can be found in many of the foods we eat.
If you have concerns about zinc deficiency and/or are showing signs of having one, talk to your health care provider.