Zinc is one of the seven essential minerals (together with magnesium, iron, calcium, iodine, silica, and selenium) the human body needs to stay healthy. It is the second-most abundant in the body after iron, and is needed for the normal function of over 300 enzymes.
These enzymes are involved in a range of the body's functions, from different aspects of cell metabolism to normal growth, fertility, immune function, and vision.
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Sources of zinc
As the body cannot make (or store) zinc, it must be sourced through our daily diet – although some groups, including vegetarians, vegans, older adults, and people with digestive conditions – may find that zinc supplements are required to meet their recommended daily amount.
Zinc supplements are available in different forms, including zinc tablets or lozenges, sometimes with added vitamins or minerals like vitamin C or magnesium. Multivitamins often also include zinc.
What is zinc?
Zinc is vital for our body to stay healthy. Its functions include:
- Immune health
- Bone health
- Hair, skin, and nail health
- Normal vision
- Normal cognition
- Fertility and hormone levels
To maintain adequate levels of zinc in the body, it's important to ensure a consistent daily intake. The richest sources include red meat, liver and kidney, seafood (especially oysters), eggs, sweet potatoes, nuts, seeds, and pulses like lentils and soy beans.
Unfortunately, processing food can remove a significant amount of its zinc, so following a wholegrain diet is advised to maintain optimal levels.
Who should take zinc supplements?
The EU-recommended intake for zinc is 10mg per day, but despite being available in a variety of food sources, the National Diet and Nutrition Surveys show that many people do not get enough. As an example, the average intake for women aged 19-65 years is only 7.5mg.
Other groups at risk of zinc deficiency include:
- People who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
- Vegans and vegetarians: as well as missing out on animal sources of zinc, those on plant-based diets who consume plant-based sources of zinc such as beans and grains will also consume phytates, which reduce the amount of zinc the body absorbs.
- Older people: the body becomes less efficient at absorbing vitamins and minerals with age.
- People living with digestive disorders, such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease, which can decrease the amount of zinc that the body is able to absorb (and sometimes increase the amount that is lost in urine.)
Those with a compromised immune system might also want to safeguard their levels with a daily zinc supplement.
In children, symptoms of zinc deficiency include diarrhoea, slow growth, and loss of appetite, as well as hair loss and frequent infections.
Zinc deficiency can also cause a loss of taste and smell, and in older adults, delayed wound-healing and problems with memory, thinking and reasoning.
Zinc supplement benefits
Ensuring we have enough zinc is important at every stage of life – from growth and development in childhood, to normal fertility and reproduction in adulthood. In older adults, zinc is important to support normal wound healing and cognition.
Zinc benefits include:
Zinc contributes to the protection of cells from oxidative stress, supports normal wound healing and contributes to the normal function of the immune system.
As health writer Jane Collins explains, "zinc is needed to trigger the activation of infection-fighting T-cells. These control and regulate immune responses and attack infected or unhealthy cells, helping to ward off infection and disease."
Read more about zinc and its role in the immune system.
Zinc contributes to the maintenance of normal bones.
Hair, skin, and nail health
Zinc contributes to the maintenance of normal hair, nails, and skin.
Zinc contributes to the normal metabolism of vitamin A, and the maintenance of normal vision.
Zinc contributes to normal cognitive function.
Fertility and hormone levels
Zinc contributes to normal fertility and reproduction, and contributes to the maintenance of normal testosterone levels in the blood.
Zinc also contributes to normal DNA synthesis, has a role in the process of cell division, and contributes to normal protein synthesis.
Read more in this zinc nutrient guide.
Types of zinc supplements
Zinc supplements are the best way to ensure an adequate daily intake, either as zinc tablets or lozenges. A zinc vitamin can also provide added vitamin C, magnesium or other vitamins and minerals for different benefits.
Zinc with vitamin C is Healthspan's best-selling zinc supplement, providing 15mg zinc and 80mg vitamin C per tablet. The premium zinc citrate form is easily absorbed by the body, helping to maximise benefits, while the full daily nutritional requirement of vitamin C provides further antioxidant and immune system support. Every one-a-day, easy-to-swallow tablet is suitable for vegetarians and vegans.
Another option, Elite Zinc Defence Lozenges, work by coating the membranes of the nose and throat, and should be taken to support immunity at the first sign of cold and flu. With 34mg zinc acetate per lozenge, delivering 10mg of active ionic zinc (the level most widely studied), lozenges can initially be taken every 2-3 hours to support the natural immune response.
Zinc is also found in a number of Healthspan's multivitamins.
Magnesium is often mentioned in conjunction with zinc. In the right dosages, magnesium and zinc can work together, with magnesium helping to regulate the body's zinc levels. However, a high intake of zinc can also be detrimental to magnesium absorption.
As a result, Healthspan offers magnesium and zinc as separate supplements, so they can be taken as separate doses (such as zinc in the morning and magnesium at night).
Taking too much zinc
Like any supplement, it's important to follow the dosage advice when taking zinc supplements. The suggested upper safe level for long-term use from supplements is 25mg per day, although higher amounts can be used short-term (as is the case with lozenges, for treating a sore throat.) However, excess zinc can cause nausea, dizziness, headaches, and an upset stomach – in which case supplements should be stopped.
It's also best to avoid taking zinc tablets at the same time as calcium supplements, as calcium increases zinc excretion from the body, meaning less is available for the body to use.
As ever, always consult your GP before adding a new supplement to your routine, especially if you are on medication or have an existing health issue. Zinc is known to interact with some antibiotics, diuretics and some medication for rheumatoid arthritis, so may need to be taken separately from prescribed medication.