Most of us know that we need to get enough of certain vitamins and minerals like vitamin C and iron to keep our bodies healthy. But there are plenty of other essential nutrients that are often overlooked, such as zinc.

Almost all the cells in our body contain zinc and, among many other things, it plays a key role in immune system function, eyesight, wound healing, and normal growth and development.

And because zinc levels tend to reduce with age, making sure we’re getting enough becomes even more important later in life.

Here, we’ll take a closer look at what zinc is, why we need it, and what the best food sources are.

What is zinc?

What is zinc

Zinc is a ‘trace mineral’, which means that the body only needs it in small amounts.

However, this doesn’t make it any less important. Zinc is still an essential mineral and is required for more than 300 different enzymes to carry out chemical reactions throughout the body.

Because our bodies don’t make zinc naturally (or store it), we need a constant supply through our diet – or in some cases where this isn’t possible, through supplements.

What are the health benefits of zinc?

What are the health benefits of zinc

After iron, zinc is the second-most abundant trace mineral in our bodies. It’s found in nearly every cell and has a number of health benefits. For example…

1. Zinc can help wounds heal faster

Because zinc is needed to help cells grow and repair, it plays an important role in the wound-healing process. This includes everything from membrane repair and coagulation to inflammation and immune defence.

2. Zinc promotes healthy eyesight

Zinc works together with vitamin A to help our eyes sense light and keep our retinas (the light-sensitive layers of nerve tissue at the back of the eye) healthy.

Healthy levels of zinc have also been linked to a reduction of age-related eye conditions, such as macular degeneration.

For example, this randomised, placebo-controlled clinical study of 3,640 older adults looked at the effect of taking zinc and antioxidant supplements (vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene). It found that those who took zinc and antioxidants were significantly less likely to develop age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Visual acuity (the eye’s ability to distinguish shapes and details at a distance) loss was also reduced.

However, it’s still important to note that while zinc supplementation alone was enough to reduce the risk of AMD, it wasn’t enough to affect visual acuity loss.

3. Zinc can reduce inflammation

Research suggests that zinc can influence how the body responds to inflammation.

For example, in this study of mature adults, zinc was found to decrease oxidative stress (an imbalance of harmful molecules known as free radicals) and reduce levels of inflammatory proteins in adults who took 45mg of zinc every day for six months.

Oxidative stress, if uncontrolled, can damage cells and tissues and cause chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation is associated with a number of health conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, allergies, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

4. Zinc can boost immune function

Zinc is a key player in immune health for a number of reasons, but the main one is that it activates the enzymes responsible for breaking down the proteins in viruses and bacteria. As a result, health experts have suggested that consuming more zinc as we age could contribute to healthier ageing.

This is after studies have shown that zinc levels naturally decrease with age; partly because we absorb less, but also due to dietary changes. Even a small drop in zinc levels can affect immune system function and make us more susceptible to infectious diseases, autoimmunity, and cancer.

This study suggests that increasing our zinc intake can improve T cell-mediated function (the destruction of infected cells and organisms that cause disease) and reduce infections by nearly 66%.

Research into the effect of zinc on the common cold is also ongoing, with many studies claiming that zinc may help to shorten the length of a cold by up to 33% and ease symptoms. However, science in this area remains limited – and controversially, zinc nasal sprays have been linked to a loss of smell over the years, while zinc lozenges have been linked to nausea.

5. Zinc plays a role in brain health

The importance of zinc’s role in a healthy, functioning nervous system is becoming increasingly understood.

Zinc is responsible for creating new neurons and pathways within the brain’s hippocampus (the part of the brain which regulates learning and memory). And research suggests it may also help to prevent neurological conditions like depression, anxiety, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Other studies have found positive links between increased zinc intake and improved cognitive performance in older adults – though more research is needed in this area before any specific guidance can be given.

6. Zinc may help to heal acne

The impact of zinc on acne has been widely studied. Many experts believe that zinc’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties can help to fight acne-causing bacteria, suppress oily gland activity, and reduce skin redness and irritation.

There’s still much debate about what form of zinc is most helpful for acne (for example, topical zinc or oral supplementation). Plus, it’s always important to speak to your doctor or dermatologist before deciding to take anything as supplements aren’t suitable for everyone.

7. Zinc is important for prostate health

According to research, zinc concentration is much higher in the prostate than in any other soft tissue in the body. It’s required for cells to work at their optimum and may also help to support normal testosterone levels.

In addition, mounting evidence suggests that reduced zinc levels may contribute to the development of prostate cancer.

How much zinc do we need?

The NHS says that men aged 19-64 need 9.5mg of zinc per day, while women need 7mg. Most of us should be able to get all the zinc we need from our daily diet.

However, if taking supplements, it’s important not to take more than 25mg of zinc per day, unless advised to by a doctor.

Taking zinc supplements in high doses can be harmful and lead to symptoms such as nausea and vomiting, changes in taste, and headaches. It may also lead to a deficiency of copper. Copper, like zinc, is an essential trace mineral needed to carry out lots of important functions such as making blood vessels, connective tissues, and energy.

People living with haemochromatosis may absorb higher amounts of zinc, so should be especially careful if taking zinc supplements.

For this reason, it’s important to always speak with your doctor before introducing any new supplements to your diet.

How can I make sure I’m getting enough zinc in my diet?

How can I make sure I’m getting enough zinc in my diet

As previously mentioned, it’s usually possible to get all the zinc you need from food. Animal foods tend to be richer sources of zinc than plant-based foods, but if you’re veggie or vegan you’ll still have plenty of options.

Animal products that are good sources of zinc include…

  • Oysters, crab, and mussels
  • Beef and lamb
  • Milk and cheese
  • Eggs

Good vegan sources of zinc include…

  • Chickpeas, lentils, and beans
  • Chia, squash, pumpkin, and sesame seeds
  • Cashew nuts
  • Dark chocolate
  • Mushrooms, kale, and spinach
  • Whole grains like oats and quinoa
  • Fortified breakfast cereals

To get going in the kitchen, why not try one of these 15 zinc-rich recipes from One Green Planet? Or check out these high-zinc recipes from Eat This Much for more inspiration.

What are the symptoms of zinc deficiency?

What are the symptoms of zinc deficiency

There are an estimated two billion people worldwide with some form of zinc deficiency. However, it’s more common in developing countries where getting enough zinc through diet alone isn’t always possible.

Because zinc is involved in so many different chemical reactions throughout the body, symptoms of deficiency can be wide-ranging – sometimes making it difficult to identify.

But, according to Patient UK, some of the more common symptoms include…

  • Loss of appetite
  • Hair loss
  • Weight loss
  • Lack of energy
  • Being more prone to infections, such as coughs, colds, and chest infections
  • Skin rashes
  • Problems with smell, taste, or eyesight
  • Impotence

If you’re concerned about your zinc intake, it’s worth making an appointment with your GP who may do a blood test to check your levels.

It’s also worth noting that levels of zinc in the blood don’t always match up with levels of zinc in the cells of the body. This means that a blood test for zinc could return a normal result even if levels are low.

For this reason (and especially if you have symptoms of zinc deficiency,) your GP may do additional blood tests for related elements such as iron, copper, and calcium because zinc deficiency can affect the absorption of these.

Final thoughts...

Because our bodies don’t need much zinc, it’s easy to overlook its importance. But zinc is essential for health due to its role in immune system function, wound healing, and eyesight.

And because research suggests that we absorb less zinc as we age, making sure that we get enough later in life becomes even more important.

To find out more about other essential vitamins and minerals that our bodies need, head over to the diet and nutrition section of our website.