What Really Happens to Your Body When You Take Zinc?

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Getting enough zinc may help improve your immunity and skin health.
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You may reach for a zinc supplement to prevent or treat a nutritional deficiency or to promote a certain health effect. But with so much out there on the benefits of zinc, it can be hard to understand what the nutrient actually has to offer you, and the effects it can have on your health.

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Zinc is a mineral that's mainly associated with boosting immunity and fighting colds, but there are other reasons people supplement with zinc. Here, we take a deep dive into what happens when you take zinc supplements or get zinc through food.

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Adults require between 8 and 11 milligrams of zinc per day.

What Is Zinc?

Zinc is a trace mineral. This means the human body only needs a small amount of it in order to function. Because it's not produced or stored by the body, it's considered an essential mineral — you must get it on a regular basis through food or supplementation to support zinc-dependent processes in the body.

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Adults require between 8 and 11 milligrams of zinc per day, according to the Office of Dietary Supplements. You may need more or less depending on your age and sex at birth, and if you're pregnant or breastfeeding.

Though you only need a small amount of zinc, zinc deficiency is quite common. An estimated 17 percent of the world's population is at risk of zinc deficiency, according to November 2012 research in PLOS One. About 12 percent of the U.S. population is at risk of zinc deficiency, according to Oregon State University. The risk is even higher among older adults, as they tend not to get enough zinc from their diets and may have trouble absorbing it.

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Sources of Zinc

According to the USDA, you can get this important nutrient by eating more of these foods high in zinc:

  • Oysters
  • Beef
  • Chicken
  • Tofu
  • Pork chops
  • Lentils
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Oats
  • Shiitake mushrooms
  • Low-fat yogurt

In a perfect world, you would meet 100 percent of your nutritional needs through a balanced diet. But when it's hard to get nutrients from food alone, supplements can help.

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Animal products have the highest amounts of dietary zinc. Not only that, but zinc from animal foods is more easily absorbed by the body than zinc from plant sources, according to Mount Sinai.

Vegans and vegetarians can get zinc from some plant-based foods and supplements. Mount Sinai advises eating foods with zinc along with a source of protein to improve absorption.

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You should not take zinc supplements at the same time as copper, iron or phosphorus supplements, according to the Mayo Clinic. If you take these vitamins, space your doses 2 hours apart.

5 Zinc Benefits to Know

If you're wondering what zinc can do for your body and whether or not you need more of it, here are a few of the benefits to consider.

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1. It Supports Immune Function

The increased popularity of zinc supplements and over-the-counter products can be attributed to the mineral's role in immunity. There's a reason why you'll find zinc syrups, nasal sprays and lozenges in the cold and flu aisle.

"Zinc supplements can help to stimulate certain immune cells and reduce oxidative stress, which contributes to a healthy functioning immune system," says registered dietitian Andrea Mathis, RD. "They also help to reduce the risk of infections."

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The link between zinc and immune function has been thoroughly established through scientific research. Zinc deficiency has been shown to impair immune cell function and increase inflammation, according to April 2015 research in Autoimmunity Reviews. So, taking zinc can help prevent a compromised or weak immune system in someone whose immune system is functioning normally.

And if you're already sick, zinc can still help. When you take zinc supplements within 24 hours of cold symptoms appearing, the symptoms may be less severe, according to the National Library of Medicine. Zinc may also reduce the length of a cold by up to one day, according to the Mayo Clinic. All that said, more research is needed to determine exactly how zinc affects cold symptoms.

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2. It Aids in Wound Healing

Zinc deficiency delays wound healing while having enough zinc in the body helps accelerate it.

Zinc has been shown to play a major role in every phase of the wound healing process, according to January 2018 research in Nutrients. It helps with repairing oxidative stress, reducing inflammation, regulating scar formation and more.

"Zinc is commonly used in healthcare facilities to help treat skin injuries," Mathis says. "Zinc plays a role in the inflammatory response and collagen synthesis needed to improve skin integrity. If you have a zinc deficiency, this can slow down the wound healing process significantly."

3. It Helps With Growth and Development

Zinc helps cells to grow and multiply, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, making it essential for development during childhood, adolescence and pregnancy. Pregnant and breastfeeding people and teens require more zinc.

There is mixed research on zinc deficiency and birth risks. Maternal zinc deficiency was linked to low birth weight in a June 2015 study in Nature.

Supplementing with zinc didn't reduce the risk of adverse birth outcomes such as low birth weight in another March 2021 review in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. But, the researchers did find that taking zinc during pregnancy slightly reduced the risk of preterm birth.

They also point out that mild to moderate zinc deficiency is common in pregnant people, and low levels may cause preterm birth or even prolong labor.

Though zinc plays an important role in pregnancy, it's not often found in prenatal vitamins. Getting enough zinc during pregnancy is important, but talk to your doctor to see if supplementing is right for you.

4. It May Lower Inflammation and Disease Risk

Inflammation is a normal immune response in the body. But, inflammation can become chronic when the body is constantly exposed to stressors, and this can lead to a myriad of health problems.

Zinc is an antioxidant, which means that it helps fight oxidative damage to cells in the body, according to a May 2008 review in Experimental Gerontology. Oxidative stress is a major factor in inflammation, aging and chronic disease risk, according to a July 2011 review in Molecular Nutrition and Food Research.

The researchers emphasize that getting enough zinc is especially important for adults 65 and older to help prevent age-related health conditions.

Always talk to your doctor before taking a new supplement.

Once you have the OK, check out our suggestions for the best zinc supplements currently on the market.

5. It Could Benefit Your Skin

Many skin conditions are characterized by inflammation. Because zinc works to combat it, there's a chance it could benefit your skin. In fact, skin conditions like dermatitis, acne, dandruff and diaper rash are often treated with oral or topical zinc, according to a July 2010 review in ​Dermatologic Clinics​.

Zinc may be helpful for healing inflammatory acne, which affects millions of people. Topical zinc has been shown to be an effective treatment for mild to moderate acne while oral zinc can help treat moderate to severe acne, according to July 2014 research in Dermatology Research and Practice.

On top of that, lower blood levels of zinc were associated with more severe acne in a July 2014 study in Biomedical Research International.

It's important to note, though, that zinc shouldn't be used as a first-line treatment for skin problems. The researchers from the ​Dermatologic Clinics​ review suggest that more research is needed to determine exactly how zinc affects the skin, how much is needed to see benefits and which method of administration (oral or topical) is most effective for specific skin issues. Talk to your doctor before you use zinc for a skin problem.

Is Zinc Safe?

The zinc you get from food is considered safe. Zinc supplements are generally well-tolerated, but taking too much zinc can have adverse effects.

"Zinc has so many great health benefits but taking too much can result in zinc toxicity," Mathis says. Symptoms of zinc toxicity can include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Stomach pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Copper deficiency

If you're sick, you might not want to load up on zinc syrups and lozenges just yet. These products — especially lozenges and nasal sprays — may have side effects such as nausea, bad taste in the mouth and temporary or permanent loss of smell, per the Mayo Clinic.

Zinc supplements can also interact with other medications, such as antibiotics. If you currently take any medication or have a health condition, be sure to check with your doctor before taking a zinc supplement.

Zinc supplements may also interact with other supplements you are taking. Always talk to your doctor or dietitian about all the supplements you take and ones you want to add. This can help you avoid negative health effects.

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