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What is zinc?

What is zinc?

Are you wondering why your healthcare provider might be talking to you about zinc? You’ve probably heard of it before, but why is it important for good health? Zinc is an essential mineral that plays a role in many biological processes within the body, and having enough of this nutrient can help keep our bodies run smoothly.

In this blog post, we’ll explore what zinc does in your body and how you can make sure your intake of this important micronutrient is adequate. So let’s dive into the world of zinc – read on to learn more.

What Is Zinc?

Zinc is an essential trace mineral, meaning that the body only needs small amounts and yet it is necessary for hundreds of enzymes to carry out vital chemical reactions. It helps to maintain the structure of proteins and DNA and helps regulate the activity of enzymes in cells. Zinc also helps support immune function, wound healing, cell growth, reproduction, vision and taste.

What does zinc do in the body?

Zinc has many important functions in the body, including helping with protein synthesis and cell growth. It also helps to maintain normal testosterone levels in men as well as bone density. Additionally, zinc supports proper nerve conduction, fertility, immune system response, skin health, wound healing, blood clotting ability, cognitive function and energy production.

Wound healing

Zinc plays a vital role in helping your body heal from injuries and wounds. It does this through its involvement in blood clotting, a process that helps to stop bleeding quickly and promote healing. Without zinc, the proteins that drive this process would not function properly. This means that any cuts or scrapes you suffer could take longer to heal and put you at risk of excessive bleeding or infection. People with skin ulcers and low levels of zinc might benefit from oral zinc supplements. Zinc oxide cream, ointment or paste is applied to the skin to prevent conditions such as nappy/diaper rash and sunburn.

Zinc also helps to prevent infection, as it acts as a natural antiseptic that kills bacteria and acts as a barrier at the wound site. Lastly, zinc is helpful for cell growth and tissue regeneration, two processes that are necessary for complete and effective wound healing.

Boost the immune system

One of the main benefits of zinc is its ability to boost the immune system. Studies have shown that when taken in supplement form, zinc can help reduce flu and cold symptoms, by reducing inflammation, by stimulating the production of white blood cells which fight infection. Not all studies agree. Many people believe that taking zinc lozenges or using zinc nasal spray when they first show signs of a cold can reduce the duration and severity of symptoms.

Helps the eyes

Research has shown that the use of zinc can prevent and slow down the progression of age-related macular degeneration (AMD). AMD is a chronic age-related eye disease that affects the light-sensitive cells in the macula located in the centre of the retina. AMD can cause blurred vision and distorted images and eventually lead to central vision loss. Generally, there is no cure for AMD; however, zinc supplements in combination with antioxidant vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene and copper are effective in reducing the further progression of this disease in clinical trials.

By incorporating a supplement regimen with these essential nutrients and maintaining a regular check-up with your eye care professional, you can potentially slow down the damage to your eyes, enabling you to enjoy a better quality of life as you get older.

Reduces diarrhoeal episodes in young children

Research shows that when paired with special rehydration solutions, zinc can make diarrhoeal episodes shorter and less severe for up to three months. The World Health Organization and UNICEF even suggest that children take 20 mg of zinc daily for 10-14 days and babies under six months take 10mg to reduce the impact of diarrhoea and help prevent future episodes.

To ensure we get enough of this powerhouse nutrient, it’s important to know the recommended daily intake:

The NHS guidelines suggest the amount of zinc you need is about:

  • 9.5 mg of zinc a day for men (aged 19 to 64 years)
  • 7 mg of zinc a day for women

Pregnant or breastfeeding women require slightly more.

What causes zinc deficiency?

Zinc deficiency can occur for a variety of reasons, making it important for us to understand its causes to maintain optimal health.

Unbalanced diet

Surprisingly, one of the primary causes of this deficiency is associated with the quality of our nutrition. Consuming a poor diet, such as a diet that is low in nutrient-dense foods or heavily relies on processed and junk foods can lead to an inadequate intake of zinc.

To maintain adequate levels of zinc, it’s vital to consume a diverse and nutritious diet that includes food sources rich in zinc, like lean meats, poultry, seafood, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes. Individuals who follow restrictive diets, such as vegetarians or vegans or those who are pregnant or breastfeeding may be at a higher risk for zinc deficiency.

Gut conditions

Did you know that a healthy gut plays a crucial role in maintaining adequate zinc levels in our body? Zinc deficiency is often linked to certain gut conditions that can hinder our body’s ability to absorb this vital nutrient. Our digestive tract is responsible for breaking down the foods we consume, extracting essential nutrients like zinc and then ensuring they are absorbed into our bloodstream. However, individuals suffering from gastrointestinal disorders, such as Crohn’s disease, celiac disease or irritable bowel syndrome, may experience impaired nutrient absorption leading to zinc deficiency. Furthermore, conditions like leaky gut syndrome and an imbalance in our gut bacteria can also contribute to lower zinc levels. It is essential to address these gut issues and maintain a balanced diet to ensure the body receives enough zinc to support its various essential functions.

Other medical conditions

Low levels of zinc can be the result of various medical conditions. In some cases, chronic kidney and liver diseases can also lead to lower zinc levels by interfering with the body’s natural regulation and distribution of this essential mineral. Other medical conditions, like sickle cell disease, can cause zinc deficiency due to the increased demand for zinc in the body. Additionally, certain genetic disorders, like acrodermatitis enteropathica, make it challenging for the body to absorb and retain zinc.

It’s crucial to understand the connection between these medical conditions and zinc deficiency to properly manage and maintain optimal overall health.

Excessive alcohol consumption

When we consume large amounts of alcohol, our body’s ability to absorb and retain zinc becomes compromised. This is because alcohol can damage our gut lining, where zinc is predominantly absorbed, and increases the rate at which our body expels the mineral through urine. Moreover, alcohol itself can deplete the zinc in our liver and muscles, making it even harder for our bodies to maintain optimal levels. As a result, excessive alcohol consumption can lead to a deficiency, which may weaken our immune system, impair our senses of taste and smell and slow down the healing process. It is essential to be mindful of our alcohol intake to protect our zinc levels and overall health.

Chronic stress

When we experience heightened and prolonged stress, our body responds by releasing a hormone called cortisol, which helps us deal with the emotional and physical demands of stress. However, this cortisol release also has a downside – it can lead to zinc depletion, as our body uses up this valuable mineral to function in high-pressure situations. The effect of chronic stress on zinc levels is often overlooked, yet maintaining a balanced and nutrient-rich diet, along with managing stress levels, is essential for our overall well-being.

What are the symptoms of zinc deficiency?

A slight deficiency might only cause minor symptoms, while a more severe shortage can have a major impact on your health.

If you’re not getting enough zinc, you may experience symptoms such as:

  • Hair loss
  • Low energy levels
  • A weakened immune system results in infections, such as the common cold, coughs and chest infections
  • Slow wound healing
  • Skin changes
  • Loss of appetite
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • A reduced sense of taste or sense of smell
  • Eyesight changes or vision loss

In children and adolescents, there also can be:

  • Slow growth
  • Delayed puberty
  • Development of learning difficulty

It’s crucial to know the signs of zinc deficiency, as it is an essential factor in maintaining your overall health and well-being. Don’t hesitate to consult your healthcare provider if you suspect you might have a deficiency – they can help you assess your zinc levels and provide proper guidance to ensure you’re receiving the right amount of this vital mineral.

What Foods Contain Zinc?

Good sources of food with high zinc content include:

  • Shellfish such as oysters and crabs
  • Nuts like cashews and almonds
  • Red meat such as beef, lamb, liver and kidney
  • Whole grains such as oats or wheat germ
  • Fortified breakfast cereals
  • Eggs
  • Poultry such as chicken or turkey
  • Seafood like salmon or tuna
  • Seeds like pumpkin seeds or sesame seeds

What Foods Can Block Zinc Absorption?

While zinc is an essential nutrient for healthy bodies, certain foods can interfere with the body’s absorption of zinc:

  • Foods high in phytates and oxalates have been found to reduce the amount of zinc absorbed in the body. Phytates are typically found in whole grains, legumes and nuts, while oxalates are commonly present in spinach and rhubarb
  • Plant compounds called tannins have also been found to block zinc absorption. Tea, red wine and coffee all contain tannins, meaning it is important to monitor your consumption of these beverages when trying to optimise your intake of zinc
  • Saturated fats such as butter, lard or even dairy products like milk have also been known to reduce the absorption of this nutrient

Vegetarians are at a higher risk of consuming foods that block zinc absorption, due to high amounts of plant-based food sources in their diets.

Who Needs to Take Zinc Supplements?

Zinc supplements are beneficial for many people, although dietary supplements may not be necessary or recommended for everyone: Groups that may benefit are:

  • Anyone with a zinc deficiency
  • Those with certain medical conditions such as sickle cell disease and diabetes
  • People with a compromised immune system due to chemotherapy, lupus, AIDS or even ageing
  • People with Wilson Disease. A rare inherited disorder that affects the body’s ability to metabolise copper
  • Pregnant women and breastfeeding women
  • Those with poor diets lacking fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Those on a vegan or vegetarian diet
  • Athletes who do strenuous exercise regimens regularly

There are different forms of zinc supplements available. Zinc sulfate can help your body absorb more zinc and can be found in pill form or powder. Another popular form is zinc gluconate, which has been found to have higher levels of absorption by the intestine and stronger effects in some cases. Lastly, zinc citrate boasts a high bioavailability in the body and might also have stronger effects than other forms. Speak to your doctor about which form of zinc supplement may be best suitable for you.

Side effects of supplemental zinc

Supplemental zinc has been known to have some potential side effects, especially when taken in high doses. While it is generally accepted that consuming supplemental zinc can be beneficial to health and can support the immune system, excess zinc can also lead to stomach issues such as nausea and vomiting or interfere with iron or copper levels. In some cases, long-term consumption of supplemental zinc may even lead to anaemia or lower good cholesterol levels.

It’s important to discuss how much supplemental zinc is right for you with your healthcare provider. Regular blood work can help track any possible changes due to increased zinc levels. Keeping a healthy balance is key!

Speak to your healthcare provider for help

We hope this blog post gave you a better understanding of what zinc is and why it’s important for your health. Be sure to include foods rich in zinc into your diet, to ensure that you’re getting enough of this essential mineral each day.

As always consult with your doctor or pharmacist before adding any nutritional supplements to your diet. Zinc supplements can interfere with other medicines such as penicillamine, quinolone or tetracycline antibiotics, iron or calcium supplements and thiazide diuretics medication. Always seek medical advice from a healthcare professional.

Sources

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