THE LAST TIME You probably thought of zinc in high school chemistry class when you studied the periodic table. This mineral is more than just a chemical in a textbook, though it plays a vital role in a handful of our bodily functions. But it often feels stuck on since you don’t need much of it to reap the benefits.
“Even though you only need a small amount, it’s involved in many important reactions in the body,” says Perri Halperin, MS, RD, clinical nutrition coordinator at Mount Sinai Health System. The mineral plays a role in cell growth, healing damaged tissue, and supporting a healthy immune system. It also plays a role in the senses of taste and smell, says Erin Kenney, MS, RD, founder of Nutrition Rewired.
Without it, we’d be in serious trouble. Below, a comprehensive summary of everything you need to know about zinc.
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What is Zinc?
Zinc is an essential mineral that our bodies use to support our immune system and cellular function. Here, the word “essential” “means the body can’t make it, you need to get it from an outside source like food or supplements,” says Halperin.
While zinc plays an important role in several life-supporting bodily functions, you don’t actually need it. According to the Mayo Clinic, for men, about 11 milligrams will do. However, the need also depends on what is happening in your life. Zinc plays a crucial role in cell multiplication, so it is needed in times of rapid cell growth, such as adolescence, pregnancy and wound healing.
What are some benefits of zinc?
The two most notable benefits of zinc include supporting the immune system and aiding in the healing of damaged cells. “Zinc’s biggest benefit appears to be in people who are deficient and also have severe injuries (a form of damaged cells), so they have very high needs,” says Halperin.
It has also been shown to aid in immune system health. In fact, zinc lozenges have been found to actually shorten the duration of a cold when taken within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms. Halperin says the severity of the cold has been shown to stay the same, but the length of time the cold persists is shorter.
What foods contain zinc?
If you’re someone who eats shellfish, chances are you’re getting enough zinc in your diet. Which sea creature contains the most? Oysters, with a staggering 291 percent of the recommended daily value of zinc in one serving. Crabs, shrimp and sardines round out the list of fish friends which provide a decent amount of zinc. Some land neighbors, including beef, pork, and turkey, are all good sources.
Non-meat sources of zinc include fortified breakfast cereals, oats, pumpkin seeds, cheese, and lentils.
How do I know if I’m low on zinc?
In the United States, about 15 percent of the population is zinc deficient, according to a 2020 study published in the journal Nutrients. This can happen due to inadequate dietary intake, malabsorption problems that result from diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel disease, or other medical conditions. Those who have recently had bariatric surgery, such as gastric bypass, may also be at risk for zinc deficiency.
Since the foods with the highest amounts of zinc include several meats, vegans and vegetarians are likely to get low on it. “Signs of deficiency include loss of taste or smell, poor appetite, depressed mood, immunity, delayed wound healing, hair loss and diarrhea,” says Halperin.
Are the supplements safe?
“It’s generally recommended to get nutrients from a balanced diet,” says Kenney. “However, some individuals may benefit from zinc supplementation, particularly those with diagnosed zinc deficiency or those at risk, such as vegetarians, vegans, and individuals with certain medical conditions.”
Be careful when completing, though. Zinc toxicity can occur and has been shown to come “almost exclusively” from supplements as opposed to food, says Halperin. That said, eating more than 40 milligrams a day is not recommended (for reference, a three-ounce serving of oysters contains about 30 milligrams). Having too much zinc can cause vomiting, poor appetite, stomach pain, headache and diarrhea. Zinc also interferes with the body’s ability to absorb other essential minerals and nutrients such as copper and iron. Similar symptoms can appear with copper and iron deficiency.
It’s also important to talk to a doctor about what medications you’re taking before starting a zinc supplement. “Zinc can interfere with the absorption of antibiotics like tetracyclines, so it’s generally recommended to separate doses by a few hours,” says Kenney. “Zinc supplements may also interact with medications used to manage rheumatoid arthritis or Wilson’s disease.”
Cori Ritchey, NASM-CPT is Associate Health & Fitness Editor at Men’s Health and Certified Personal Trainer and Group Fitness Instructor. You can find more of her work at HealthCentral, Livestrong, Self and others.
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