The Power of Zinc: How This Essential Mineral Supports Your Immune System

Written by: Brilliant Staff

Fact checked by: Kelsey Butler, RDN

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Your immune system acts as your body's defense. It's a complex network of cells, tissues, and organs that work together to protect you. While getting enough sleep, managing stress, exercising, and eating nutritious foods support immune function, certain nutrients are specialized in keeping your immune system strong. One of those critical nutrients is zinc.

Zinc is a mineral that's essential for immune cell development and communication. Even mild inadequate zinc intake can negatively impact your immunity. Ensuring adequate zinc intake through foods and supplements may help with enhancing skin health, improving cognitive function, and promoting normal immune cell function.

In this article, we'll explore the science-backed benefits of zinc for immunity and provide tips for getting enough from external sources.

Zinc's Role in the Immune System

Zinc is a mineral found in cells throughout your body. It plays many critical roles, including supporting the function of your immune system.

Zinc is needed for the development, differentiation, and maturation of immune cells like T cells, B cells, neutrophils, and natural killer cells. Over 300 enzymes in the body depend on zinc as a cofactor. Many of these enzymes are involved in immune processes like cell growth and replication.

The mineral also helps support the healthy development and function of skin and mucous membranes — your body's first line of defense. Plus, zinc assists with DNA synthesis, cell division, and the activation of vitamin A in the body; these are all factors that provide additional immune protection.

Mechanisms Behind Zinc and Immunity

Researchers have identified several mechanisms behind zinc's immune-supporting effects, including the following:

  • Zinc acts as an antioxidant agent. Oxidative stress can interfere with healthy immune function, and zinc reduces oxidation inside immune cells.
  • Zinc regulates immune cell signaling. It is required for the activity of over 300 enzymes. Many of these enzymes help facilitate communication between immune cells.
  • It supports the development of immune cells. Stem cells in bone marrow require adequate zinc to mature into functional immune cells like lymphocytes.
  • It improves skin barrier function. Zinc contributes to the formation of the outer layer of skin, which acts as a barrier to external threats.

Zinc inadequacy impairs each of these mechanisms.

Zinc Has Antioxidant Properties

Oxidative stress is a normal part of the immune response. As an antioxidant agent, zinc may help control the levels of oxidative stress.

Animal research finds that replenishing zinc levels curbs excessive cytokine activity.

Meeting the RDA for zinc through diet may be sufficient for the general population to minimize these symptoms. Supplementation is an effective solution for filling nutritional gaps if you're not getting enough zinc through food alone.

Zinc Is Essential for Normal Immune Cell Function

Zinc is crucial for developing, differentiating, and the function of the many immune cells that protect you.

T cells are a type of white blood cell that keep you healthy and activate other immune cells. Zinc is needed for T cell maturation and activation. Without adequate zinc, T cell function becomes impaired.

B cells secrete tags that mark external threats. Zinc enables B cells to mature and proliferate efficiently.

Natural killer (NK) cells identify and destroy environmental threats. Zinc is essential for cell-mediated cytotoxicity — the ability of NK cells to destroy abnormal host cells.

Neutrophils are the most abundant white blood cells in circulation. They protect you through phagocytosis, and zinc can support their phagocytic capacity.

Zinc allows each cell type to perform its specialized protective roles optimally. Even mild, insufficient zinc intake can reduce immune cell counts and weaken your body's defenses.

Are You Getting Enough Zinc?

The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for zinc is listed below:

  • Infants under six months – 2 mg/day
  • Infants 7–12 months – 3 mg/day
  • Children 1–3 years – 3 mg/day
  • Children 4–8 years – 5 mg/day
  • Children 9–13 years – 8 mg/day
  • Males age 14 and older – 11 mg/day
  • Females age 14 and older – 8 mg/day
  • Pregnant women – 11–12 mg/day
  • Breastfeeding women – 12–13 mg/day

However, requirements vary based on age, gender, medications, and health status.

Stress, alcohol use, and aging can all increase zinc needs as well.

If you don't meet your individual zinc requirement from food sources alone, a supplement may help. Let’s explore the top dietary zinc sources and scenarios when extra zinc may be beneficial.

Top Dietary Zinc Sources

A varied, whole foods-based diet is the best way to meet daily zinc needs. Include the following zinc-rich foods regularly:

  • Oysters – 74 mg per 3-ounce (85g) serving
  • Beef and lamb – 7 mg per 3 ounces (85g)
  • Pumpkin seeds – 2.2 mg per ounce (28g)
  • Chickpeas – 1.3 mg per 1/2 cup (99g)
  • Cashews – 1.2 mg per ounce (28g)
  • Kefir or yogurt – 1 mg per 6 ounces (170g)
  • Chicken – 0.9 mg per 3 ounces (85g)
  • Cheddar cheese – 0.9 mg per 1.5 ounces (42g)
  • Baked beans – 0.8 mg per 1/2 cup (128g)
  • Mushrooms – 0.7 mg per 1/2 cup, sliced (35g)
  • Spinach – 0.5 mg per 1/2 cup, cooked (90g)
  • Eggs – 0.5 mg per large egg

Seafood, meats, dairy products, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains offer the most concentrated dietary sources. However, zinc is widely distributed in plant and animal-based foods.

People at Risk of Zinc Inadequacy

Specific populations have an increased risk of zinc inadequacy, including the following:

  • Seniors: Age-related changes in absorption and appetite can reduce zinc intake. Up to 25% of older adults don’t meet the RDA.
  • Vegetarians and vegans: Plant foods contain less bioavailable zinc than animal foods. Vegans may require 50% more than the RDA.
  • Chronic alcoholics: Alcoholism impairs zinc absorption and increases losses through urine. Deficiency affects around 30% of alcoholics.
  • Pregnant/lactating women: Requirements increase to support fetal development and breastmilk production.

Those with increased needs may benefit from supplements but talk to your healthcare provider first.

Who May Benefit From Zinc Supplements?

While zinc deficiency is uncommon in the developed world, certain populations may benefit from supplements.

  • Older adults: Supplemental zinc at 25 mg per day may help maintain robust immune function and reduce oxidative stress in older individuals.
  • Blood sugar control: 30-40 mg per day has been shown to help with glycemic control and cholesterol.
  • Wound healing: 30-40 mg daily appears beneficial for speeding recovery from burns, ulcers, and other wounds.
  • Eczema (atopic dermatitis): The evidence on dosage is mixed, but 30-50 mg per day may improve symptoms, especially when combined with topical zinc preparations.
  • Acne: Oral zinc at 30-45 mg daily, along with topical application, can help treat inflammatory acne.
  • Cold symptom relief: 80-92 mg/day of zinc acetate lozenges taken immediately at the onset may shorten the duration of the common cold.
  • COVID-19: Evidence is preliminary, but zinc may potentially inhibit SARS-CoV-2 replication. Trials use 30-50 mg per day.

Of course, the ideal supplemental dose depends on the individual, severity, and baseline nutrient intake. Work with your healthcare provider to determine if zinc supplements are appropriate.

Possible Side Effects of Too Much Zinc

Consuming zinc from varied whole food sources is generally relatively safe. However, excessive supplemental zinc can negatively impact immunity and health.

Potential side effects of too much zinc (more than 40 mg per day) may include the following:

  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach pain
  • Headaches and dizziness
  • Immune dysfunction
  • Copper deficiency
  • Impaired iron and LDL cholesterol metabolism
  • Reduced HDL cholesterol

The maximum safe upper limit for zinc is 40 mg daily for adults unless medically supervised. Less is more when it comes to zinc supplementation.

Key Takeaways: Zinc for Immune Health

  • Zinc is essential for immune cell development and communication. Even mild inadequate zinc intake can affect your immune system.
  • Research shows zinc supports immune cell function.
  • Animal foods like oysters, meat, eggs, and dairy provide the most bioavailable zinc. Nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains also contribute zinc.
  • Older adults, vegetarians, and pregnant women need more zinc. Supplements may help under medical supervision.
  • Excess zinc can impair immunity and metabolism. The upper limit is 40 mg per day unless your healthcare provider directs otherwise.

Adequate zinc intake can't prevent all issues. However, ensuring your daily requirement is met through food and/or supplements lays the foundation for robust immunity. Work with your healthcare practitioner to determine if extra zinc may benefit your health needs.


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