Zinc is a key micronutrient and powerful mineral which is also known as an essential trace element that can improve and assist in immune system function.
It is also extremely important to many bodily processes and plays a role in skin health, vision, testosterone metabolism and production, and bone health. Many processes and reactions in the body depend on this trace mineral.
When there is not enough zinc obtained through dietary sources, it can make a person more vulnerable to disease, viral infection, and illness.
This is likely a result of zinc’s role in modulating the body’s inflammatory response in times of stress or illness. Zinc is essential for the functioning and production of cells related to your immune response, as well as playing a role in ‘activating’ your T-cell response. T-cells are important white blood cells that regulate the body’s ‘adaptive’ immune response – this can be from pathogenic stressors on the body, to more specific and serious things like a viral infection.
It is important that your body’s immune system can adapt to these pathogens so you can naturally fight the infection and recover from illness. Unlike the ‘innate’ immune system in your body (which animals, insects, plants, etc. have) that generates things like inflammation, the ‘adaptive’ immune system is tailored to deal with the specific pathogen it is encountering. This is also what helps you to build lasting immunity against the same virus.
In those with T-cell immunodeficiencies (or those with weakened or suppressed immune systems), pathogens like the herpes simplex virus can be more severe, or symptomatic for a longer duration. A notable zinc deficiency will affect how each cell in the human body can respond to infection and help control inflammation. There are many zinc functions that are a component of various enzymes in the regulation of gene expression along with the maintenance of the structural integrity of proteins in the body.
Zinc is known to be an important mineral for plants, animals, and microorganisms too!
There is no way for our bodies to naturally produce zinc on their own, as it is a trace mineral. It must come through the form of food via dietary sources, or via supplements.
Zinc deficiency can present with many symptoms, especially if someone has a poor diet or poor nutritional habits. These can include: hair loss, impaired growth, decreased immunity and immune system dysfunction, erectile dysfunction, lower testosterone levels, lethargy and lack of appetite. Zinc deficiency is also implicated in chronic disease and illnesses, such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.
While zinc deficiency is fairly rare in those with a healthy diet, in those with poor eating habits or absorption issues it is much more common. Those who have undergone gastrointestinal surgery or experience digestive disorders (including inflammatory bowel disease) should get their levels checked.
The Recommend Dietary Allowance (RDA) is 11mg a day for men and 8mg for women. However, there has been maximum daily intake for the Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL) that has been established for safety. It is recommended for the Tolerable Upper Intake Level for zinc not to exceed 40 mg daily for all men and women 19 and older.
Taking more than 100 mg of zinc daily (or high doses of 40mg or more daily for longer durations) can conflict with copper absorption, which will lead to a copper deficiency.
While your body requires very little copper, a copper deficiency can lead to neurological problems, weakness, and problems with a lower white blood cell count. Excessive zinc intake can also cause nausea, vomiting, cramps, and digestive upset – mimicking flu-like symptoms. Zinc poisoning can be quite serious if the dosage is continued.
Natural dietary sources of zinc are foods like oysters, lean red meats, seafood, beans, peas, and lentils. Additionally, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and dairy products do contain some zinc that can contribute to your RDA. If someone is vegan or vegetarian and does not consume meat or dairy, they should try to implement more whole grains, legumes, and nuts into the diet. Conversely, seafood, grass-fed red meat, and dairy are good animal-based sources.
When it comes to dietary supplements, there are many different ‘forms’ of zinc commercially available.
These include zinc sulfate, zinc gluconate, zinc glycinate, zinc picolinate, zinc citrate, and zinc acetate.
You will notice these are ‘chelated’ forms, which means the mineral (in this case, zinc) is bound to an amino acid or organic compound to help with absorption. This is because minerals are often very difficult for the body to absorb, especially when isolated and not from whole food or nutritional source.
Various types may have various benefits, depending on what they are bound to. For instance, zinc ‘citrate’ is zinc and citric acid – this makes it more dissolvable and provides a less bitter taste. It is as well absorbed as other forms.
On the other hand, there are also ‘inorganic’ forms. These are zinc ‘oxide’ and zinc ‘sulfate’ and are made through chemical processes from zinc materials. While still safe, they are more optimal for use in skincare items like sunscreen and are known to have more common unpleasant reactions like digestive upset. They also have poorer levels of absorption and much less bioavailability when compared to the other chelated/organic forms like citrate, glycinate, and gluconate.
Zinc is also available in many different methods of delivery, such as lozenges, tablets, liquids and pills. Sublingual lozenges tend to have slightly better absorption and effectiveness compared to capsules and tablets.
A good quality lozenge, capsule, or liquid is recommended as the optimal way to supplement for deficiency or infection. If planning to take a high dose for a prolonged period of time, it is also recommended to ensure you supplement with copper at the same time. Many companies make products that contain both zinc and copper together in a balanced formulation.
To go back to the importance of zinc and the role it has on our health and vitality: zinc activates enzymes that can break down proteins in pathogenic bacteria and viruses, making them less capable to spread and proliferate. Zinc helps increase T-cell function and white blood cell count, as well as decrease oxidative stress and decrease the generation of inflammatory cytokines. These ‘cytokines’ are often what are responsible for negative outcomes from an overactive immune response, which can lead to negative outcomes in illnesses such as SARS-CoV-2 with damage to organs.