Zinc is both a metal and an essential trace mineral that occurs naturally in soil, plants, and water. Although you can find zinc in roofing materials, brass instruments, and ancient Roman coins, your body also needs this chemical element for *super* important processes that keep your body ticking.
How does zinc help your body? The 411
Zinc is a trace mineral that you need for a sh*t-ton of bodily processes. Its many benefits include:
- supporting immune function
- accelerating wound healing
- supporting correct enzyme function
- stabilizing blood sugar
- helping digestion
- clearing up acne
- slowing macular degeneration
Since your body can’t make or store zinc, you need to make sure you get enough from food sources like seafood, meat, poultry, whole grains, beans, and nuts.
Zinc doesn’t only help keep you alive and functioning, but you even need it for your sense of taste and smell.
Thankfully, getting enough zinc in your diet is pretty straightforward (without having to eat Roman coins), so you don’t need to overzinc it. Food choices from oysters to nuts can help boost your intake, so most people don’t have to worry about zinc deficiencies unless they have underlying health problems.
We break down the reasons why this mineral is an MVP.
Zinc is a mineral or trace element that your body cannot store or produce by itself. Yet, it pops up in your eyes, brain, kidneys, liver, pancreas, and adrenal glands. It even helps with the exchange of carbon dioxide between your lungs and bloodstream.
You also need zinc to make proteins and DNA (your genetic material). You can find zinc in the nuclei of your cells, happily supporting and stabilizing the structure of chromosomes and DNA. It helps your cells reproduce, which is why zinc is essential for growth, development, and preventing congenital anomalies.
Tons of enzymes in your body need zinc to function and carry out vital chemical reactions. More than 300 of these protein catalysts rely on zinc to support your metabolism, excrete toxins, help nerve cells chat to each other, digest food, and many more processes. Phew. Zinc is carrying the whole team right now.
Strangely enough, zinc also contributes to your sense of taste and smell. One of the enzymes you need for these senses relies on zinc. So eating oysters is good for getting zinc in ya, and having enough zinc in your system helps them taste like oysters. #TheCircleOfLife🦁
Zinc also plays a crucial role in the synthesis, storage, and secretion of insulin. If your insulin is out of whack, your blood sugar crashes and spikes with it. In your pancreas, zinc binds to six insulin molecules, creating an insulin hexamer suitable for storage.
Essentially, zinc is the Dolly Parton of your bod. Is there anything it can’t do?
Because of these essential functions, the benefits of zinc are far-reaching. Let’s check out a few!
1. Supports immune function
One of the most important functions of zinc is supporting the immune system. Your body needs zinc to grow and activate T-lymphocytes (T-cells).
These cells are major players in the adaptive immune system — their job is to destroy invading microbial nasties and any toxic rubbish they leave behind. They directly attack infected cells in your body, stimulate other immune cells, and produce proteins that help them communicate.
Without enough zinc, your immune system is screwed, TBH. It simply cannot function without zinc to keep it primed for battle with harmful pathogens. The immune system relies on its cells being able to communicate efficiently. If the cells don’t talk to each other like they should, you can’t mount a robust immune response against infections.
Peeps have supplemented zinc to prevent the common cold for ages, and with good reason. In a 2017 review involving 575 participants, researchers found that daily doses of 80 to 92 milligrams (mg) of zinc could reduce the length of colds by about a third. And who doesn’t want to feel better sooner?
2. Decreases inflammation
Immunity and inflammation are closely connected. Inflammation is a complex process that’s essential for healing, but you can have too much of a good thing. When inflammation gets out of hand, it can cause problems throughout the body.
In a 2020 meta-analysis of 21 studies, zinc supplements reduced oxidative stress and the circulation of some inflammatory markers. Long-term oxidative stress can contribute to chronic conditions like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, so it’s important to keep that sh*t in check.
Oxidative stress means there’s an imbalance of free radicals (harmful molecules your cells produce) and the antioxidants that clear them up.
If there are too many free radicals, they rampage around the body, causing a whole bunch of damage. Zinc helps reign in free radicals by contributing to the creation of antioxidant enzymes.
3. Promotes wound healing
Wound healing is a complex process that involves inflammation, the immune system, and collagen synthesis. These processes all rely on zinc, which is why it’s a common ingredient in medicated creams for burns and skin abrasions. That boo-boo ain’t about to heal itself.
In a study from 2018, the authors noted that zinc is critical for every stage of wound repair. However, scientists are still a little fuzzy on exactly *how* zinc achieves its wound-healing powers. Once they understand the function of zinc in this process more clearly, it may help improve the clinical management of wound healing.
Researchers also noted that people with chronic leg ulcers often have abnormal zinc metabolism and zinc deficiencies. These peeps might benefit from zinc supplementation and its effects on wound healing.
4. Protects your eyesight
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a disease that affects the retina at the back of the eyeball and can lead to vision problems as you move through the years. Zinc helps prevent retinal damage and may even slow the progression of vision loss.
Research from 2020 found that people with zinc deficiency may be more likely to develop AMD. The authors suggested that further research may help docs develop new treatment strategies.
5. May help with acne — but the jury’s still out
Although acne is common, it doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable, stressful, and sometimes downright painful. This uncomfortable skin condition happens when oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria clog your hair follicles. This jump-starts an inflammatory process.
Some dermatology research suggests that oral and topical zinc supplements may help treat acne. However, the results were mixed in a 2017 review of studies that used over 2,300 participants with acne. Some studies found that zinc was effective. Others, not so much.
Additionally, people with acne often have lower zinc levels or deficiencies. So, if your acne is giving you grief, ask your doctor or healthcare pro about trying zinc. But they may steer you toward more proven medications first.
6. Improves blood sugar control
Low zinc status has possible links to diabetes and blood sugar control. Case in point: in a 2013 study of peeps with prediabetes, researchers noted they were more likely to be zinc deficient at any given body mass index (BMI).
Insulin is the main hormone involved in blood sugar control. The pancreas produces insulin in its islet cells, which happen to have high concentrations of zinc. Zinc helps the body store insulin and allows it to do its ace job balancing your blood sugar.
In a 2019 review of 32 placebo-controlled studies, researchers found that zinc supplementation could improve blood sugar control and help people manage diabetes.
7. May help prevent cancer
Zinc may even play a role in protecting the body from cancer. Recent research in mice and cell lines suggests that substantial doses of zinc may preserve the p53 gene, which helps suppress tumor growth and stops cancer from developing.
Scientists have more work to do to understand these mechanisms and extend their research into human studies, but it’s an exciting prospect.
8. Benefits for pregnant people
Zinc can decrease the risk of preterm births in people who are pregnant. Because zinc helps make proteins and DNA, it’s a key building block in fetal growth and development.
In a 2015 review, researchers found that there was a 14 percent drop in the number of preterm births when pregnant peeps took a zinc supplement.
But the authors cautioned that the studies involved folks on a low income who potentially had zinc deficiencies due to their less-than-ideal diet. As a result, the supplementation could have corrected deficiencies, rather than providing additional benefits.
Pregnant people are at risk of zinc deficiency because the fetus requires high levels of zinc (nom nom nom). Lactation also requires zinc, so the recommended daily amount (RDA) for zinc increases for pregnant and lactating people.
During pregnancy, the RDA for zinc is 11 mg for folks aged over 19 years. This hikes up to 12 mg during lactation. Make sure you get your fix so that you and Baby are in zync.
Zinc deficiency symptoms vary from person to person and may depend on just how little zinc you have in your body.
They may be easy to mistake for other health issues in mild cases, as the symptoms are rather vague. Low zinc levels can stop your immune system from working as it should, meaning you have a high risk of infections and getting sick.
There’s compelling evidence that zinc deficiency can increase your risk of getting serious infectious diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, HIV, or pneumonia.
If you continue eating a diet low in zinc, then you could have trouble with the following:
- appetite loss
- hair loss
- weight loss
- eye and skin issues
- wounds that won’t heal
If you own testicles, look out for gonad deficiency (or hypogonadism to its pals). Your balls might produce less or no testosterone, which can affect your sex drive.
Children with zinc deficiencies might experience delayed growth and problems with their cognitive development.
If you’re concerned about your zinc intake or feel you have any zinc deficiency symptoms, it’s best to chat with your doc or a healthcare pro. Many cases of zinc deficiency happen because people don’t eat enough zinc-rich foods, but it can also be due to problems with how you absorb zinc or an underlying health condition.
You can get your daily dose of zinc from animal or plant food sources. If you’re super keen, then oysters contain more zinc per serving than any other food, but most people get their daily dose from red meat and poultry.
For reference, oysters provide 74 mg of zinc per 3-ounce serving. Beef, the next most awesome source of zinc, dishes out 7 mg of zinc per 3-ounce serving.
Other plentiful sources of zinc include:
- beans, lentils, chickpeas, and other legumes
- nuts and seeds
- eggs from chickens or ducks
- seafood like crab and lobster (and, yes, oysters)
- fish like sardines and salmon
- whole grains like brown rice and quinoa
- dairy products like milk and yogurt
Folks looking to boost their zinc intake through the diet might want to choose animal sources. Your body can find it challenging to absorb the zinc in whole grains, legumes, and other plant sources because of compounds called phytates (grr, gosh-darned phytates).
Some manufacturers fortify other types of foods with zinc, like breakfast cereals, baking flours, and snack products.
Although zinc is essential, don’t overdo it. Zinc toxicity is a thing. You could experience acute side effects, including:
Chronic toxicity can happen if you consume too much zinc long-term. Effects like low copper and reduced immune function can occur. Zinc toxicity can also affect how iron works in your body.
The RDA for zinc is 11 mg for men aged 18 years and up and 8 mg for women in the same age group. The upper limit for zinc intake is around 40 mg per day, so if oysters are your favorite, you may need to limit yourself.
Zinc is an essential mineral that you need for synthesizing DNA, keeping your immune system strong, and supporting growth. It can also help your body heal wounds, reduce the risk of eye problems later in life, balance blood sugar levels, and a whole host of other stuff.
You’re unlikely to need a zinc supplement, as you can find zinc in animal and plant sources like seafood, meat and poultry, whole grains, and nuts.
Although you need zinc for many important bodily processes, going overboard can lead to some unpleasant side effects. It’s best to stick to the RDA of 11 mg for men aged 18 years and up and 8 mg for women in the same age group.