You likely learned about zinc – a type of metal – in chemistry class when you memorized the periodic table. Or maybe you have slathered on some thick, white sunscreen with zinc oxide in it? (Zinka sunscreen was all the rage in my middle school!) Perhaps you reach for a zinc supplement when you feel a cold or flu coming on?
It’s absolutely true that zinc helps to boost immunity and fight colds once you are sick, but the trace element of zinc is necessary for all body functions, all the time. While popping a zinc capsule while you’re sick can certainly benefit your recovery, taking zinc as a preventative measure can decrease your risk of getting the common cold in the first place. Zinc also aids in hormone production and healthy digestion, aids growth and healing by healthy cell division, increases immunity and decreases inflammation, and helps to fight cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and infertility, to name a few.
Zinc deficiency is either a result of a diet that lacks enough zinc-rich foods or is the consequence of digestive disorders that make it difficult for the body to absorb zinc from zinc-rich foods consumed. Zinc deficiency is common around the world, and those who are most susceptible to zinc deficiency are:
Vegans and vegetarians, who maybe don’t consume enough high protein foods.
People with digestive disorders, who may struggle with stomach acid or leaky gut, and whose bodies can’t as easily absorb zinc.
Alcoholics, who may develop digestive disorders as a result or who likely consume proportionately more carbohydrates as compared to high-protein foods.
Those taking oral contraceptives, which alter one’s hormonal balance and may conflict with zinc’s role in doing the same in the body.
People who consume excessive phytates, which are present in fiber-rich foods like legumes and whole grains and inhibit the body’s absorption of zinc.
It is, however, possible to have too much zinc in one’s diet, although this is not common. Too much zinc can actually decrease immunity and inhibit the body’s absorption of copper, potentially leading to anemia. Taking too much zinc or taking a zinc supplement under the wrong conditions may cause upset stomach/vomiting, nausea, headaches, and lethargy. If you choose to take a zinc supplement, be sure you understand how much is appropriate, and also consider how it affects other supplements you may be taking, like copper, iron, and calcium. Medications like diuretics, antibiotics, or birth control pills can also affect zinc absorption.
If you’re looking to increase your zinc intake, the best way to do so naturally is to incorporate more zinc-rich foods in your diet. It is, however, important to remember that it is not possible for some people to consume adequate levels of zinc, as the body may not be able to absorb the trace mineral depending on the balance of other vitamins, minerals, and medications in the system. The Food and Nutrition Board at The Institute of Medicine outlines the following recommended daily allowances (RDA) for children and adolescents/adults, noting that the best way to get the daily requirement is to eat a balanced diet. (For details on adequate intakes for infants, go here.)
Children (RDA, mg/day)
- 7-12 months: 3
- 1-3 years: 3
- 4-8 years: 5
- 9-13 years: 8
Adolescents and Adults (RDA, mg/day)
- Males, age 14+ : 11
- Females, age 14-18: 9
- Females, age 19+: 8
- Pregnant females : 11
- Lactating females: 12
Before you choose to take a zinc supplement, though, consider whether or not you may be able to add some of the following zinc-rich/high-protein foods to your diet:
- Meat: beef, beef liver, pork, turkey, lamb, chicken
- Seafood and shellfish: salmon, lobster, crab, shrimp, oysters
- Legumes: kidney beans, lima beans, peas, chickpeas
- Nuts and seeds such as: peanuts, cashews, pumpkin, sesame, flax and watermelon seeds
- Eggs (egg yolk, specifically)
- Dark chocolate
- Yogurt or kefir
See this comprehensive list featuring milligrams of zinc per serving size of the foods listed above. Remember that soaking beans and grains increases the likelihood that your body will absorb zinc.
So, if you have any of the following symptoms, you may benefit from increasing your zinc intake:
- changes in or loss of appetite
- difficulty tasting or smelling
- weight gain or loss
- growth and development problems, like hair loss
- wounds that are slow to heal
- gastrointenstinal difficulties, like diarrhea or leaky gut syndrome
- impotence or infertility
- hormonal problems/imbalance, like worsened PMS or menopause symptoms
- eye or skin conditions, like degenerative eye diseases or skin infections/irritation
- mental slowness or difficulty concentrating
- exhaustion and chronic sickness
Of course, always consult your personal health care professional for an opinion that is specific to how your body works. Everyone reacts differently to certain mineral supplements, and your health history may provide some insight as to why you may want to take zinc. My naturopath, upon learning that macular degeneration (for which zinc is a proven preventative) runs in the maternal side of my family, suggested that I take zinc for the purpose of supporting healthy cell growth and repair. (Definitely learn about your family's health history and your body first, before taking any supplement.)
If you’d like to order a Liquid Zinc Assay test kit to learn more about your body’s zinc supply, check out The Radiant Life blog, where RN Kayla describes how to use the test kit available from Premier Research Labs. Either way, the zinc-rich foods listed above also have numerous other health benefits in the form of vitamins and minerals, so gobble them up anyways! And, if taking a zinc supplement is not necessary for you, try making your own sunscreen with zinc oxide!
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