Is there a single vitamin, mineral or element that makes “the” difference between staying healthy and catching every annoying bug that comes along?
Probably not. Even so, there are plenty of medical experts, nutritionists and researchers who make a strong argument for zinc being the difference maker for your immune system, among other things.
Zinc is a trace element, which, for humans means we need only small amounts of it daily. However, not getting enough of this trace element may lead to big problems.
Zinc can be found in a variety of foods, yet many people still find themselves deficient of this key micronutrient. Many of those folks may not even realize it, but they’re sure to feel the effects of it.
This shiny little mineral is important to:
- Sleep – Zinc works with vitamin B6 and tryptophan to make melatonin, the “sleep hormone.” So a deficiency can lead to insomnia.
- Eye Health – Zinc helps prevent cataracts, night blindness and even ARMD, or macular degeneration. (1)
- Vitamin B6 Utilization – This vitamin is important for production of several hormones and neurotransmitters, including serotonin.
- Mood – See the note about serotonin production above.
- Insulin regulation – Zinc plays a role in metabolic processes involved with regulating insulin, especially in diabetics. (2)
- Skin Health – Zinc helps prevent and treat acne (with a similar mechanism to that of the drug Tetracycline.(1)) It also does this for eczema and psoriasis.
- Antioxidant Properties – Zinc retards oxidative processes throughout the body. (3)
- Anti-Inflammatory – Zinc appears to reduce both inflammation and the risk of artherosclerosis. (4)
- Normal growth for children – One symptom of zinc deficiency in children is stunted growth.
Many of the important functions of zinc in the human body are directly or indirectly related to the immune system. Certainly, the reduction of oxidative processes and inflammation are vastly beneficial to immune function. These two things can greatly reduce the allostatic load on the body.
What may be even more important is the way in which zinc boosts immunity by effecting the cells that “kill” disease. According to a 2010 study published in the European Journal of Immunology, zinc is a critical factor in the activation of T-cells, lymphocytes that have a variety of subtypes and are important to preventing disease.(5)
One type of T-cell, known as a CD8+ T cell, is called a “Killer Cell.” Killer cells are cytotoxic, meaning they are able to directly kill virus-infected cells, as well as cancer cells. Another type of T-cell, CD4+ cells, are known as “Helper Cells.” These cells indirectly kill cells determined to be foreign, in part by determining if and how other parts of your immune system will respond to a perceived threat.
There are a variety of other T-cells, including those responsible for preventing an autoimmune response. Autoimmune responses occur when the body mistakenly identifies your own cells as foreign cells and attacks healthy cells.
Put simply, T-cells are badasses and you want a bunch of healthy ones. Getting the right amount of zinc in your diet will help you do that.
In fact, a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition put it this way: “zinc-deficient persons experience increased susceptibility to a variety of pathogens.” (6) Also from the same study, ” It is clear that zinc affects multiple aspects of the immune system, from the barrier of the skin to gene regulation within lymphocytes.”
Okay, I get it. You’re a skeptic. How about the study published in PLOS Pathogens on August 22 showing that adequate zinc intake led to vastly better resistance to Streptococcus pneumoniae, the bacteria responsible for pneumonia?
Researcher Dr. Bart Eijkelkamp had this to say: “Dietary zinc is associated with immune function and resistance to bacterial infection, but how it provides protection has remained elusive. Our work shows that zinc is mobilized to sites of infection where it stresses the invading bacteria and helps specific immune cells kill Streptococcus pneumoniae.” (7)
Don’t get the wrong idea here. Staying healthy is not about one nutrient or one anything, for that matter. Staying fit, strong and healthy is about a lifestyle and a series of choices.
What I am saying is that among the healthy lifestyle choices you make, it would be a great idea to ensure you get enough zinc in your diet. How much, you ask? For kids aged 1-8, the recommended intake is 3-5 milligrams (mg) per day. Increase this as the child gets older.
Once girls hit about 8 years old, intake of 8 mg per day should suffice, and doesn’t need to increase over the remainder of life. The exception to that is the period when a girl is 14-18 years old. Here the recommendation goes up to 9 mg per day. During pregnancy and lactation, the requirement is 11-13 mg per day.
For boys and men (as opposed to Boyz II Men,) the period from 9 to 13 years old has a requirement of 8 mg per day. This rises to 11 mg per day after the age of 14. Obviously, pregnancy and lactation don’t really apply here.
What sources of zinc are best? Where can we find zinc in our diets?
Obviously, you could take a supplement with zinc in it. Most good quality multi-vitamin/mineral complexes have zinc in them. I recommend either Melaleuca’s Vitality Pack or JayLab Pro Active Core Complex. (Click the picture of the bottle to get some!) Both have adequate amounts of zinc to keep you going.
In terms of food sources of zinc, there’s no shortage there, either. Everything from beef, pork and lobster to yogurt, spinach and nuts have zinc in them.
Here’s a partial list of foods with fair amounts of zinc in them:
- Raw oysters, 3 ounces, 14.1 mg
- Lima beans, 1 cup, 1.8 mg
- Egg yolks, 1 cup, 5.6 mg
- Beef, lean chuck roast, 3 ounces, 7 mg
- Baked beans, canned, 1/2 cup, 6.9 mg
- Turkey, 4 ounces, 1.95 mg
- Alaskan king crab, 3 ounces, 6.5 mg
- Unsweetened dark chocolate, 100 gram serving, up to 9.6 mg
- Pork loin, cooked, 3 ounces, 2.9 mg
- Chickpeas, 1/2 cup, 1.3 mg
- Spinach, 1 cup cooked, 1.37 mg
- Cashews, 1 ounce, 1.6 mg
- Peanuts, 1 ounce, 1 mg
- Lobster, cooked, 3 ounces, 3.4 mg
- Yogurt, plain, 8 ounces, 1.3 mg
- Wild rice, 1/2 cup, cooked, 2.2 mg
- Peas, green, cooked, 1 cup, 1.2 mg
Is it possible to get too much zinc? Yes. The generally accepted upper limit is 40 mg per day. Get too much and it can interfere with copper and iron absorption and usage. It can also result in symptoms like nausea, vomiting and loss of appetite. Of course, if you’re vomiting, I don’t imagine you’ll feel much like eating anyway.
If you’re taking a supplement to get your zinc, avoid washing it down with caffeinated drinks, since caffeine messes with zinc absorption. If you use a good branch chain amino acid supplement, that may help with zinc absorption, since the amino acids cysteine and methionine aid in zinc absorption.
Clearly, while it may be a trace element that you don’t need a whole lot of, the things you need zinc for are pretty important. To make sure you get what you need, eat a healthy diet full of real, whole foods. If you think you might be lacking zinc (or any other nutrient,) speak to a nutritionist or see your doctor.
I hope this gave you a good primer on a minor, but important nutrient. More like this to come.
Keep the faith and keep after it!