January 29, 2023

How Zinc Benefits Your Body — and How Much Zinc You Need

Zinc from meats, nuts and fortified foods helps your immune system, among other benefits

Salmon, liver, avocado, olive oil, asparagus

If you believe the marketing hype, sucking on a zinc lozenge can stop a cold before your first sneeze. Alas, while zinc boosts your immune system, there’s no evidence it has this particular superpower.

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But what zinc is good for is even more impressive. “This important nutrient supports healthy fetal development when you are pregnant,” says registered dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD. “It also plays key roles in fighting germs, healing wounds and more.”

Zumpano walks us through zinc’s benefits and how to ensure you get enough from the foods you eat.

What is zinc?

Zinc is a trace mineral, which means your body only needs small (trace) amounts to stay healthy. It’s also an antioxidant. “Antioxidants help prevent cell damage that contributes to heart disease, cancer and other serious health conditions,” says Zumpano. Zinc exists in cells throughout your body.

What does zinc do for your body?

The many health benefits of zinc include:

1. Shortens a cold

Zinc helps make immune system cells that fight germs. While zinc lozenges or supplements won’t keep you from catching a cold, they may help you get over a cold faster. A 2021 systematic review of 28 studies found that using zinc lozenges, gels or nasal sprays helped people feel better two days sooner than those who didn’t use zinc. But zinc didn’t lessen the severity of cold symptoms. And be on the lookout for side effects, including bad taste and nausea.

If you want to try zinc to feel better faster, Zumpano recommends sticking to lozenges. “In rare instances, people who use zinc nasal sprays lose their sense of smell — sometimes permanently.”

Research is still underway to see if zinc affects COVID-19. Some findings suggest that if your zinc levels are low, it increases your risk of getting COVID-19 and having more severe symptoms. But in one clinical trial, taking zinc, vitamin C or both supplements didn’t shorten the number of days that people had COVID-19 symptoms.

2. Protects eyesight

Studies suggest that taking 80 milligrams (mg) of a zinc supplement, along with other vitamins for eye health, can lower the risk of advanced age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and vision loss by 25%. People with AMD are at risk of losing their eyesight if the disease progresses.

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Your retinas (the part of your eyes that converts light into the signals your brain uses to create images) have a high concentration of zinc. Extra zinc in the form of supplements may help protect your retinas against harmful free radicals that cause cell damage.

3. Lowers blood sugar and cholesterol

For reasons that aren’t clear, people with Type 2 diabetes are often low in zinc. Some experts believe these low zinc levels may make the disease worsen quickly. Different studies suggest that zinc may lower blood sugar and high cholesterol in people with Type 2 diabetes. These conditions increase your risk of life-threatening strokes and heart disease. A 2021 review of research shows that zinc may also improve blood sugar levels in people with gestational diabetes.

4. Promotes wound healing

Research is still underway to see if oral zinc supplements may speed the healing of diabetes-related foot ulcers and other skin ulcers. But zinc oxide that you apply directly to the skin (topical) is a proven diaper rash treatment. It also acts as a barrier to moisture, helping protect your baby’s sore bottom from additional irritation.

5. Improves sperm quality

One small study found that people who were experiencing infertility saw an improvement in sperm quality after taking a supplement with zinc. The supplements contained other vitamins, so researchers aren’t sure exactly what role zinc played.

What are some foods high in zinc?

Certain types of seafood, meats and poultry are naturally high in zinc. There are also zinc-fortified products like breads and cereals. “It’s usually easy to get the recommended amount of zinc without supplements,” says Zumpano.

Foods high in zinc include:

  • Beef.
  • Chicken and turkey.
  • Eggs.
  • Fortified milk and whole-grain cereals, pastas, breads and other products.
  • Nuts, seeds and legumes like beans and lentils.
  • Pork.
  • Shellfish like oysters, crab and lobster.

How much zinc should I get every day?

The amount of zinc (in milligrams) you need each day depends on your age, sex assigned at birth and whether you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.

Age
Birth to 6 months
Recommended daily amount
2 mg
Children 7 months to 36 months (3 years)
Recommended daily amount
3 mg
Children 4 years to 8 years
Recommended daily amount
5 mg
Children 9 years to 13 years
Recommended daily amount
8 mg
Teens 14 to 18 years assigned female at birth (AFAB)
Recommended daily amount
9 mg
Adults women/AFAB
Recommended daily amount
8 mg
Teens 14 to 18 years assigned male at birth (AMAB)
Recommended daily amount
11 mg
Adult men/AMAB
Recommended daily amount
11 mg
Pregnant teens
Recommended daily amount
12 mg
Breastfeeding teens
Recommended daily amount
13 mg
Pregnant adults
Recommended daily amount
11 mg
Breastfeeding adults
Recommended daily amount
12 mg

Source: National Institutes of Health

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Do I need zinc supplements?

Most of us get enough zinc in our diets for good health. But there are some exceptions. Reasons to take zinc supplements include:

  • You had bariatric weight-loss surgery or have inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. These situations affect how much zinc your body absorbs and increase the amount of zinc you lose when you pee.
  • You follow a plant-based vegetarian or vegan diet that doesn’t include meat, the primary source of zinc. While beans and whole-grain products have zinc, they also contain antioxidants called phytates that interfere with how your body absorbs zinc.
  • When you’re pregnant and breastfeeding, zinc supplements support healthy infant development.
  • Your child has sickle cell disease. Medications can affect zinc absorption, so your child may need supplements.
  • You have substance use disorder (SUD), particularly alcohol, which lowers zinc absorption while causing you to lose more zinc in pee.

What are the types of zinc supplements?

“Almost all multivitamins, as well as many calcium and magnesium supplements, contain zinc,” notes Zumpano. “Read the label to know how much zinc you’re getting in a day when factoring in food sources.”

You may see different types of zinc on supplement labels, including zinc sulfate, zinc acetate and zinc gluconate. They’re all zinc. And there’s no evidence (yet) that suggests one form is better for you than the other.

Zinc is also a common ingredient in denture adhesive creams and many all-natural cold products.

What are zinc side effects?

Taking zinc supplements in addition to the zinc you get in your diet could lead to problems. Getting too much zinc can cause side effects like:

  • Copper and magnesium deficiencies.
  • Headaches.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Low HDL (“good cholesterol”) levels.
  • Upset stomach, including nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
  • Worsening immune function that leads to increased infections.

Always check with a healthcare provider before taking any supplement. “Use caution with the use of standalone zinc supplements. You don’t want to risk getting too much and having side effects,” says Zumpano.

But if you’re worried about a zinc deficiency due to dietary choices or health conditions, your provider can order a blood test to check your zinc levels.

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