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A guide to zinc and your immune system

24 Jan 2024 • 5 min read

As a key micronutrient, zinc plays multifaceted roles, ranging from boosting growth and supporting the immune system to keeping your brain healthy.1 Join us on a journey through the profound importance of zinc, exploring its diverse roles, benefits, and the delicate balance required for good health.

What is zinc?

Zinc (Zn) is a key micronutrient that our body needs for several roles, from supporting growth and development to helping neurological functions. It is also essential for our immune system, as it affects how our cells respond to infections, and can help keep inflammation under control.1

As it is an element , our bodies cannot make zinc, so it needs to come from our food – you can find it in beans, shellfish, whole grains and dairy.1

If you are low in zinc, you may find cuts and scrapes take longer to heal. Symptoms may include diarrhoea and being more prone to getting ill.2 It’s important to speak to your GP if you think you have a deficiency in zinc, or experience any of these symptoms.

Why do we need zinc?

Zinc is an essential nutrient that plays many vital roles in the human body. Zinc can help support:
  • DNA synthesis, supporting cell repair, growth, and development 
  • Carbohydrate metabolism, helping to break down carbohydrates for energy 
  • Normal cognitive function, improving memory, learning, and communication between brain cells 
  • Fertility and reproduction, contributing to healthy sperm in men and supporting female reproduction processes  Bone health, contributing to strength and mobility 
  • Eye health, maintaining ocular tissue structure and supporting vision 
  • Immune function, supporting the body’s defence mechanisms against infections and disease 
  • Healthy hair, skin, and nails by contributing to collagen synthesis

5 Benefits of Zinc

There are many reasons why zinc is so key to our health and wellbeing, but these are some of our favourites – read on for five top zinc benefits:

1. Zinc could help support your immune system

There are a number of ways zinc contributes to the normal functioning of the immune system, but primarily it activates enzymes that break down proteins in viruses and bacteria so they are less able to spread.3  Zinc also increases the activation of cells responsible for fighting infection.4

A 2017 US study carried out over six weeks found that taking just 4mg extra of zinc a day made a major difference to the health of cells, which in turn makes your body better able to fight infections and diseases.4 The team concluded that zinc reduces ‘oxidative stress and damage to DNA’ that helps protect against chronic diseases.

2. Zinc could reduce inflammation

 A growing area of research is looking at how zinc might be able to reduce inflammation in the body.

Inflammation has been linked to conditions such as heart disease, depression, and dementia. A 2013 study by Ohio State University conducted a study on mouse models and found that zinc is ‘lured’ into cells that fight infection, to help stop the immune system spiralling out of control.5  The scientists concluded that if there wasn’t enough zinc to support this response, then excess inflammation is triggered – potentially damaging cells and the body.

A study by Jagiellonian University Medical College in Poland in 2017 discovered that zinc ‘exhibits antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity’ which can potentially deter ill-health.6

3. Zinc might cut the length of a cold

A meta-analysis of research published in Open Forum Infectious Diseases in 2017, conducted on 199 patients with the common cold found that zinc acetate lozenges sped up recovery from colds. On the fifth day of the cold, 70% of sufferers who took zinc had recovered compared with 27% of those who took a placebo.7

In 2015, an Australian meta-analysis also found that high-dose zinc lozenges (80mg a day) cut the duration of nasal discharge by 34%, nasal congestion by 37%, scratchy throat by 33%, and cough by 46%.8

4. Zinc could be good for fertility

Zinc has long been associated with a positive impact on male fertility and contributes to maintaining normal levels of testosterone in the blood.9,10

Meanwhile, for women, zinc is thought to help eggs grow properly and stay healthy until they’re ready to mature. When sperm fuses to the egg, it’s a quick release of zinc (called the ‘zinc spark’) that helps to start the fertilisation process.11

5. Zinc might promote faster wound healing

Zinc is thought to be involved in the process of wound healing and tissue repair by helping to stop bleeding, fight infections, help new cells grow, and repair damaged areas.12 Also, as zinc may be good at controlling swelling and inflammation, which is especially important when healing, it’s been found in emerging studies to be particularly helpful after surgeries.13 More research is needed to understand the role zinc plays in would healing.

As a result, if you don’t have enough zinc, your body might struggle to heal wounds properly. It’s needed right from the start to the end of the healing process, working at the tiny cell level.14

In a 2017 study of 60 people who had foot ulcers because of diabetes, taking zinc not only helped them to heal faster, but it also improved their overall health.15

How much zinc do you need?

The recommended daily amount of zinc is 8mg for women and 11mg for men.16

There’s currently no reliable way of testing your zinc levels, but a deficiency is relatively rare in the West, where we tend to eat a varied and balanced diet.17 However, it has been found to be more common in old people – who may be eating less – while vegetarians and vegans can also be at risk, as one of the richest sources of zinc is meat and shellfish.1

The good news is plenty of plant sources are also rich in zinc: lentils contain around 1.3mg per 100g, and firm tofu contains 2mg per 170g.18,19

How much zinc do children need?

The right zinc intake is crucial for the healthy development of children. 20
  • Birth to 6 months – 2mg a day 
  • 7-12 months – 3mg a day 
  • 1-3 years – 3mg a day 
  • 4-8 years – 5mg a day 
  • 9-13 years – 8mg a day 
  • 14-18 years – 9mg for females and 11mg for males15

What are the symptoms of a zinc deficiency?

Most people get enough zinc from their diet, but those who may be at more of a risk of deficiency include breastfeeding women, vegetarians, and vegans.21,22

Symptoms of a zinc deficiency include:1 
  • Loss of appetite – zinc is essential for the proper function of tastebuds, so a deficiency can lead to a reduction in appetite.23  Plus, a zinc deficiency can disrupt the digestive system, leading to a feeling of less hunger.22 
  • Poor immune function – zinc is vital for the normal development and function of immune cells, meaning a deficiency can impair their function and lead to a weakened immune system.24
  • Poor growth in children and pregnancy – zinc is critical in the process of cell growth, differentiation, and metabolism.1 For children, a deficiency can restrict growth and decrease resistance to infections, while for pregnant women a deficiency can lead to poor foetal growth.25
  • Impotence – zinc plays a key role in the maintaining normal levels of testosterone in the blood, meaning that a deficiency can lead to hypogonadism which can result in impotence.26 
  • Wounds that won’t heal – zinc is involved in wound healing, from coagulation and inflammation to tissue repair, and a deficiency can slow down these processes.27

What happens if I consume too much zinc?

While it’s important to make sure you’re getting enough zinc through food or supplementation, consistently consuming too much can lead to a risk of zinc toxicity.28  This excessive intake of zinc can result in nausea, vomiting, headaches, diarrhoea, and stomach cramps, and can also inhibit the absorption of the minerals copper and iron.29  As a result, this can lead to anaemia and weak bones.

The NHS recommends avoiding taking more than 25mg of zinc a day.30

Which foods are high in zinc?

Most foods that are high in zinc tend to come from animals, including:1,30,31
  • Shellfish – oysters contain high amounts of zinc, but other types like crab, shrimp and mussels are also good sources 
  • Dairy products – cheese and milk are two particularly notable sources of zinc 
  • Meat – red meat is a great zinc source, but zinc is contained in all kinds of meat, including beef, lamb, turkey, and pork 
  • Legumes – chickpeas, lentils, and beans all contain substantial amounts of zinc 
  • Nuts and seeds – for example, peanuts, cashews, hemp seeds, and pumpkin seeds are good sources of zinc 
  • Tofu – depending on the type and brand, a serving of firm tofu can contain anywhere from 10% to 22% of your daily zinc intake

Zinc-packed meal ideas

If you’re looking for inspiration for zinc-packed breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack ideas you can include in your meal plans to boost your intake, try some of the suggestions below. Remember that not all brands will contain the same levels of zinc.

Breakfast

  • Fortified breakfast cereals 
  • Glass of milk 
  • Breakfast sprinkles

Snacks

  • A handful of cashews 
  • Yogurt with a sprinkle of seeds 
  • Energy protein balls 
  • Dark chocolate 
  • Hummus

Lunch 

  • Baked beans with wholegrain toast 
  • Quinoa and chickpea salad 
  • Falafel buddha bowl

Dinner 

  • Thai tofu laksa 
  • Black bean and quinoa burgers 
  • Tofu and shitake mushroom pad Thai

When should I take zinc supplements?

Eating a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of zinc-rich foods should help you get all the zinc your body needs, but vegetarians, breastfeeding women, and those with digestive disorders, like Crohn’s disease, who have trouble absorbing nutrients could consider a supplement.32,33

Zinc supplements can be taken at any time of the day – some prefer taking it on an empty stomach, although others find this can lead to queasiness. It’s worth taking supplements at a time that works best for you and paying attention to how it makes you feel. Make sure to read the instructions on the label and check with your doctor before trying any new supplements.

Should women take a zinc supplement in pregnancy?

It’s extremely unlikely that anyone should need to take zinc supplements during pregnancy - you should be able to get all the zinc you need from a healthy, balanced diet.34

The National Institutes of Health suggests that pregnant people need 11mg of zinc per day (3mg more than non-pregnant individuals), which should be easily achieved through consuming foods like legumes, nuts, seeds, meats, dairy, and tofu.35

Again, please always check with your doctor before taking any supplements.

What are the benefits of taking a zinc supplement?

If you have a zinc deficiency or find that your dietary restrictions limit the amount of zinc you’re able to consume each day, you may find that supplementation is a simple way to boost your levels. 

Here are some of the main advantages of taking zinc supplements: 
  • Correcting deficiency – zinc supplements can quickly correct a zinc deficiency, improving symptoms like diarrhoea and skin lesions. 
  • Convenience – taking a zinc supplement can be quicker and easier than consuming from food, especially for people with certain health conditions or dietary restrictions.
  • Improved absorption – conditions like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis can make it difficult for the body to absorb zinc from food, and supplements are a good way to maintain your zinc levels.36
  • Vegetarian or vegan diets – with meat and dairy being some of the best sources of zinc, veggies and vegans may struggle to get enough from their food.

The Final Say

So, there you have it - the lowdown on zinc, our unsung hero. It's not just some random nutrient; it's a VIP nutrient that keeps us ticking.

From possibly kicking colds to boosting fertility, zinc has got our back. Whether you get it from consuming zinc-packed food or from popping a supplement, making sure you get your daily zinc fix is like giving your body a high-five.

Disclaimer

 

Sources

1. Office of Dietary Supplements - Zinc [Internet]. Nih.gov. 2016 [cited 2023 Dec 13]. Available from: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/
2. Roohani N, Hurrell R, Kelishadi R, Schulin R. Zinc and its importance for human health: An integrative review. J Res Med Sci. 2013. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3724376/
3. Prasad AS. Zinc in human health: effect of zinc on immune cells. Mol Med. 2008 Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2277319/
4. Zyba SJ, Swapna Shenvi, Killilea DW, Holland T, Kim E, Moy A, et al. A moderate increase in dietary zinc reduces DNA strand breaks in leukocytes and alters plasma proteins without changing plasma zinc concentrations. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition [Internet]. 2017 Feb 1 [cited 2024 Jan 18];105(2):343–51. Available from: https://ajcn.nutrition.org/article/S0002-9165(22)04765-7/fulltext
5. Ming Jie Liu, Bao S, Gálvez-Peralta M, Pyle CJ, Rudawsky AC, Pavlovicz RE, et al. ZIP8 Regulates Host Defense through Zinc-Mediated Inhibition of NF-κB. Cell Reports [Internet]. 2013 Feb 1 [cited 2024 Jan 18];3(2):386–400. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23403290/
6. Jarosz M, Olbert M, Wyszogrodzka G, Młyniec K, Librowski T. Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of zinc. Zinc-dependent NF-κB signaling. Inflammopharmacology. 2017. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5306179/
7. Harri Hemilä, James T. Fitzgerald, Edward J. Petrus, Ananda Prasad, Zinc Acetate Lozenges May Improve the Recovery Rate of Common Cold Patients: An Individual Patient Data Meta-Analysis, Open Forum Infectious Diseases, 2017. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1093/ofid/ofx059
8. Hemilä H, Chalker E. The effectiveness of high dose zinc acetate lozenges on various common cold symptoms: a meta-analysis. BMC Fam Pract. 2015. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4359576/
9. Fallah A, Mohammad-Hasani A, Colagar AH. Zinc is an Essential Element for Male Fertility: A Review of Zn Roles in Men’s Health, Germination, Sperm Quality, and Fertilization. Journal of reproduction & infertility [Internet]. 2018 [cited 2023 Dec 13];19(2):69–81. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6010824/
10. Liu Y, Zhang M, Tong G, Sun S, Zhu Y, Cao Y, et al. The effectiveness of zinc supplementation in men with isolated hypogonadotropic hypogonadism. Asian Journal of Andrology [Internet]. 2017 Jan 1 [cited 2023 Dec 13];19(3):280–0. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5427781/
11. Tyler Bruce Garner, James Malcolm Hester, Allison Carothers, Francisco J Diaz, Role of zinc in female reproduction, Biology of Reproduction 2021, Available from: https://doi.org/10.1093/biolre/ioab023
12. Lin PH, Sermersheim M, Li H, Lee PHU, Steinberg SM, Ma J. Zinc in Wound Healing Modulation. Nutrients. 2018 Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5793244/
13. Gupta K, Panda SS. The Effect of Zinc on Post-neurosurgical Wound Healing: A Review. Cureus. 2020 Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7039353/
14. Lansdown ABG. The Role of Zinc in Wound Healing. Wounds Canada. 2016. Available from: https://www.woundscanada.ca/docman/public/wound-care-canada-magazine/2016-14-no3/126-the-role-of-zinc-in-wound-healing
15. Razzaghi R, Momen-Heravi M, Ebrahimi-Mameghani M, Azadbakht L. The effects of zinc supplementation on wound healing and metabolic status in patients with diabetic foot ulcer: A randomized, double-blind, placebo- controlled trial. Wound Repair Regen. 2017. Available from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/wrr.12537
16. Office of Dietary Supplements. Zinc - Health Professional Fact Sheet [Internet]. National Institutes of Health. [cited 2023 Dec 11]. Available from: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/zinc-healthprofessional/#h2
17. Ho E, Wong CP, Rinaldi NA. Zinc deficiency linked to immune system response, particularly in older adults [Internet]. ScienceDaily. 2015 [cited 2023 Dec 11]. Available from: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150323142839.htm
18. FoodData Central. Food Details. Available from: https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/172421/nutrients [Accessed December 2023]
19. FoodData Central. Food Details. Available from: https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/172475/nutrients [Accessed December 2023]
20. Black RE, Williams SM, Jones IE, Goulding A. The relationship between zinc intake and growth in children aged 1-8 years: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2015 Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25335444/
21. Roohani N;Hurrell R;Kelishadi R;Schulin R. Zinc and its importance for human health: An integrative review. Journal of research in medical sciences : the official journal of Isfahan University of Medical Sciences [Internet]. 2013 [cited 2023 Dec 13];18(2). Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23914218/
22. Gupta S, Brazier A, Lowe NM. Zinc deficiency in low‐ and middle‐income countries: prevalence and approaches for mitigation. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics [Internet]. 2020 Jul 6 [cited 2023 Dec 13];33(5):624–43. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32627912/
23. Mozaffar B, Ardavani A, Muzafar H, Idris I. The Effectiveness of Zinc Supplementation in Taste Disorder Treatment: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. J Nutr Metab. 2023. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10017214
24. Prasad, A.S. Zinc in Human Health: Effect of Zinc on Immune Cells. (2008). Available from: https://doi.org/10.2119/2008-00033
25. World Health Organization. Zinc supplementation and stunting. Available from: https://www.who.int/tools/elena/interventions/zinc-stunting [Accessed 12 December 2023].
26. Prasad AS, Mantzoros CS, Beck FW, Hess JW, Brewer GJ. Zinc status and serum testosterone levels of healthy adults. Nutrition. 1996. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8875519/
27. Lin PH, Sermersheim M, Li H, Lee PHU, Steinberg SM, Ma J. Zinc in Wound Healing Modulation. Nutrients. 2017. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5793244/
28. Fosmire GJ. Zinc toxicity. Am J Clin Nutr. 1990. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2407097
29. Office of Dietary Supplements. Zinc - Health Professional Fact Sheet [Internet]. National Institutes of Health. [cited 2023 Dec 11]. Available from: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/
30. NHS. Vitamins and minerals - Others [Internet]. NHS. [cited 2023 Dec 11]. Available from: www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals/others/
31. NHS Choices. Others - Vitamins and minerals [Internet]. 2023 [cited 2023 Dec 13]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals/others/
32. Office of Dietary Supplements. Zinc - Health Professional Fact Sheet [Internet]. National Institutes of Health. [cited 2023 Dec 11]. Available from: www.ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/
33. Tufts University, Health Sciences Campus. Zinc supplement boosted serum zinc levels, immunity in older adults, study shows [Internet]. ScienceDaily. 2016 [cited 2023 Dec 11]. Available from: www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/01/160127132745.htm
34. World Health Organization. World health statistics 2020: monitoring health for the SDGs, sustainable development goals. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2020. Available from: https://iris.who.int/bitstream/handle/10665/344010/9789240030466-eng.pdf?sequence=1
35. Office of Dietary Supplements. Zinc - Health Professional Fact Sheet [Internet]. National Institutes of Health. [cited 2023 Dec 11]. Available from: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/
36. Zupo R, Sila A, Castellana F, Bringiotti R, Curlo M, De Pergola G, De Nucci S, Giannelli G, Mastronardi M, Sardone R. Prevalence of Zinc Deficiency in Inflammatory Bowel Disease: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Nutrients. 2022. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36235709/
 
bhupesh-panchal

Bhupesh Panchal

Author

Senior Regulatory Affairs Associate

Joined Holland & Barrett: April 2019

Masters Degree in Toxicology and BSc Hons in Medical Biochemistry

Bhupesh started his career as a Clinical Toxicologist for Public Health England, advising healthcare professionals all around the country on how to manage clinical cases of adverse exposure to supplements, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, industrial chemicals and agricultural products.

After 7 years in this role and a further year working as a drug safety officer in the pharmaceutical industry, Bhupesh joined Holland & Barrett as a Senior Regulatory Affairs Associate in 2019.
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