All About Zinc: Immune System, Medicine, and Diet
Page Medically Reviewed and Edited by Cyrus Khambatta, PhD
Zinc is a mineral that plays many important roles in the human body. It aids immune function, helps wounds heal, supports thyroid health, and even helps combat depression and maintain healthy bones.
In this article, we'll explore zinc's role in the human body as well as some of its medicinal properties, especially its use in boosting immunity. Then we'll go into some of the tastiest, healthiest ways to add more zinc to your diet!
Table of Contents
What Is Zinc?
The mineral zinc is an essential trace element found in many body tissues and fluids, including the skin, and is one of key minerals known to be necessary for human health.
However, your body does not naturally synthesize zinc, which is why it's important to get your zinc through dietary and supplementary sources, including a number of different plant products, animal products, and dairy products.
What Does Zinc Typically Do For Your Body?
Zinc plays a number of vitally important roles in your body.
It supports your immune system by protecting cells from oxidative stress and other damage that can lead to infections.
It helps repair DNA damage in cells by replacing damaged cells with new ones, and functions as an antioxidant.
Zinc-containing enzymes also play a role in maintaining healthy skin, hair, and nails as well as fighting off age-related problems like arthritis.
Zinc can help with digestion by regulating the levels of stomach acid, and also supports your cardiovascular health by helping regulate blood pressure.
Zinc aids in the absorption of vitamin A and E, which are themselves important to a strong immune system, and finally, it supports your nervous system by aiding in the production of neurotransmitters that carry messages between nerve cells (which also helps your brain function properly!).
The Medicinal History of Zinc and Zinc Supplements
Zinc's medicinal history is quite fascinating.
In Ancient Times
Zinc has been used for over 2000 years to treat various ailments, and it was one of the first metals known to man. Ancient Egyptians chewed on zinc oxide mixed with honey in order to combat a sore throat or cough. They also crushed up lumps of zinc metal into small tablets that they then used to help with a fever or infection.
In the Middle Ages
Zinc's medical use persisted throughout the ages. The Incas, for example, crushed up zinc ore and mixed it with chili peppers to create an elixir that was used to treat colds.
In 1560 the Spanish physician Soranus of Ephesus recommended using small amounts of powdered zinc oxide as a wound dressing or on ulcers.
In the Industrial Era
In 1789 Dr. Charles Blagden discovered zinc oxide's use in the treatment of smallpox.
In 1846 Dr. Elisha Bartlett published an article for The Medical Times and Gazette about treating cholera patients with zinc sulfate.
In Modern Times
Zinc use continued on through the 1900s, as well, most notably with Dr. Jonas Salk, who found that children in the developing world were dying from diarrhea at an astounding rate, which may have been because of zinc deficiencies.
He was able to cut this death toll by 50% using zinc supplements to increase their levels of zinc to healthy levels, without any side effects.
The Japanese scientist Eiichi Ikeda also began treating hay fever sufferers with a zinc supplement and reported a 60-90% success rate in the 1980s.
In 1993, Harvard University scientists found that zinc may be useful in treating prostate cancer and other malignancies.
And even now, zinc continues to be tested as a powerful medicine for any number of different ailments
The Health Benefits of Zinc
Today, there are a number of different uses for zinc.
Athletes may take zinc supplements to reduce the severity of exercise-induced bronchoconstriction, and athletes with frequent diarrhea have been found to be deficient in zinc.
Those suffering from acne might also find relief if they take zinc supplements, as it appears to reduce the severity and occurrence of acne breakouts.
Zinc may be useful for pregnant women who suffer from morning sickness or have a history of miscarriage. It has also been found that children with developmental delay are low in zinc levels, so supplementation is often recommended.
Zinc oxide is also the active ingredient in most nose strips which are available over-the-counter. The strip removes excess oil and dirt from your pores, while zinc helps tighten up the skin around your nose by killing bacteria that live there.
And these are just a few of the many ways that zinc supplementation can help improve your health!
Zinc and Your Immune System
Zinc is important for your immunity because it is necessary for the production of infection-fighting white blood cells. In addition, zinc helps activate immune cells and aids in their ability to do their jobs more effectively.
This is actually why zinc has a history of being prescribed as an immune booster, dating back to the 19th century. In the 1800s, doctors in Europe used zinc to treat people who had yellow fever.
They knew that patients with this disease often experienced a decline in their appetite and as such were not consuming enough food sources of zinc. This lack of zinc was harming their immune systems and making them feel progressively worse. Doctors figured out that adding more zinc to their diets led to a quicker recovery.
Now, it's actually a fairly common practice for doctors to recommend taking zinc supplements as an immunity booster, either due to an individual having reduced immune function or due to extreme circumstances like a natural disaster or pandemic.
How Much Zinc Should I Have?
Since zinc is an essential mineral to your body, most problems occur when you don’t have enough zinc.
Most experts recommend an intake of 8-15 mg per day, with a higher requirement for pregnant women and the elderly. These requirements can change slightly if you have certain health conditions or are taking any medications.
A Word on Daily Requirements
It's important to remember that this is the minimal amount of zinc you need each day and not a goal; if you don't meet these requirements, you could be zinc deficient, and your body could be deprived of its ability to fight off viruses or infections, leading to a higher risk for the common cold, slower wound healing, and other challenges.
What Happens When You Have a Zinc Deficiency?
A zinc deficiency can have a number of negative effects on your health.
The most common symptom of chronic zinc deficiency is hair loss, but other symptoms include slow wound healing and decreased immunity to infection.
Zinc deficiency might also cause anemia (low red blood cell count), stunted growth in children, or impaired taste and smell reactions. In extreme cases, a zinc deficiency can stop your body's immune defense from working properly, which is what happened with those who had yellow fever back in the 1800s.
Can You Have Too Much Zinc?
Zinc is an essential mineral, but it can be harmful in large quantities. So how much zinc is too much?
The National Institute of Health reports that adults can have up to 40 mg per day without any adverse effects on their health. This means that taking more than this amount doesn't provide a benefit and may actually cause problems with your gut lining or nervous system.
Symptoms of zinc toxicity are also not usually severe and can include nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.
What to Do if You Have Too Much Zinc
If you're experiencing any signs that your body has a high level of zinc – such as extreme weight loss, fatigue, joint pain, muscle aches, or an impaired sense of smell – your doctor will likely recommend lowering the amount of zinc you're taking to a level that is appropriate for you.
However, fortunately, since your body does not store zinc for long, research suggests that zinc excess can be relatively easy to fight by just reducing your zinc intake.
Who Can Benefit Most from Added Zinc?
The two populations most likely to benefit from added zinc are pregnant women and the elderly.
Pregnant women use much more zinc per day to help support the growth of their child, which is often difficult for them to get through food alone; that's where a supplement can come in handy!
Elderly people also need an increased intake of zinc because they tend to not eat or drink as much, meaning they're more likely to have a deficiency.
The Best Ways to Get Enough Zinc
Add it to Your Diet
The best way to get your recommended dose of zinc is through food.
Many foods are high in zinc, including oysters (which contain more than 70 mg per serving), beef, beans, and pumpkin seeds. If you can't eat these for whatever reason – like if you’re a vegetarian or have allergies – then there are other options available that are high in zinc, like red meat or brown rice.
Some of the best plant-based sources of zinc are legumes like chickpeas, as well as seeds such as pumpkin or sunflower, along with whole grains (especially oats) and nuts.
Natural Zinc Supplementation
If you're unable to get enough zinc from your diet alone or if you have an especially high need for this mineral because of proper health conditions like pregnancy or elderly age, then taking a dietary supplement of zinc may be the right choice for you.
There are a number of different zinc supplements, and as long as you're not exceeding the incredibly high threshold of 40mg per day, the added immunity benefits are hard to beat!
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Amla Green has strict guidelines for scientific references in our articles, and we rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, governmental organizations, and reputable medical organizations. We do our best to avoid using non evidence-based references in all articles. The references in this article are listed below.
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Page Medically Reviewed and Edited by
Cyrus Khambatta, PhD
Cyrus Khambatta, PhD, is a cofounder of Mastering Diabetes and Amla Green is an internationally recognized nutrition and fitness coach who has been living with type 1 diabetes since 2002. Using an evidence-based approach to nutrition and fitness, he first reduced his own insulin usage by more than 40%, and has educated thousands of people with all forms of diabetes how to reverse insulin resistance using food as medicine. Cyrus earned a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University in 2003, then earned a PhD in Nutritional Biochemistry from the University of California at Berkeley in 2012. He is the co-host of the annual Mastering Diabetes Online Summit, a featured speaker at the Plant-Based Nutrition and Healthcare Conference (PBNHC), the American College of Lifestyle Medicine (ACLM) Conference, Plant Stock, and has been featured on Forks Over Knives, NPR, PBS, KQED, Fast Company, and is the author of the upcoming book Mastering Diabetes.
- Cyrus Khambatta