Move Over Magnesium, These Zinc Benefits Will Give It a Run for Its Money

Photo: Getty Images/Eva Katalin Kondoros
If calcium and magnesium are the Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper of the mineral world, think of zinc as their killer backing band in A Star is Born. In other words, although this nutrient isn't usually front-and-center in the spotlight, our bodies' performance wouldn't be nearly as harmonious without it.

See, zinc is one of 16 essential minerals that we need to survive. Yet it's considered a trace mineral, meaning we only need small amounts of it. Perhaps that's why we don't hear as much about it as we do major minerals—including iron, sodium, potassium, and, yes, calcium and magnesium—which our bodies use in larger amounts. But zinc actually plays a mega-important role in skin health, immunity, and more, so it's definitely worth keeping tabs on your intake. Keep reading for everything you need to know about the nutritional superstar:

5 benefits of zinc to know about

  1. Zinc may help boost the immune system: "One of zinc's most-researched benefits is immunity—especially when it comes to decreasing cold length and severity," says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN. For one thing, zinc is critical for the normal development of immune cells, which is why it's important to consistently get enough of the mineral in your diet. But a 2011 meta-analysis of 13 randomized, placebo-controlled trials found that zinc supplements can be used in SOS moments to reduce the duration and severity of a cold. (Just be sure if you do try this to take the lozenge, syrup, or tablet within 24 hours of symptoms appearing, as zinc's impact on a cold lessens over time.)
  2. It can help heal skin—acne included: Jackson Blatner points out that zinc also plays a key role in wound healing—in fact, it's involved with every stage of the process, from blood coagulation and inflammation to tissue renewal and scar formation. So if you find that it takes a while for cuts, scrapes, and burns to heal, you may want to take a look at your zinc intake. Some studies have also found that certain forms of the mineral can soothe breakouts when supplemented orally or as an ingredient in topical acne treatments—however, many of these studies had small sample sizes, so it's best to talk with your dermatologist and see if this option's right for you.
  3. Zinc may help keep your vision healthy as you age: Several studies—including a randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial of 3,597 people—found that supplementing with zinc can help protect against advanced age-related macular degeneration. This is a condition that can lead to vision loss, and it's most common in those over 50. However, it's unclear exactly what dose of zinc is most beneficial, or even if zinc alone has a significant impact, so talk to your doctor if you're thinking about taking zinc for this purpose.
  4. It could also help keep your breath fresher: Jackson Blatner says that dental products containing zinc might help reduce bad breath. One small randomized, controlled trial of 187 people found that a zinc toothpaste was more effective at combatting halitosis than a placebo, while an even smaller study of 10 people determined zinc mouthwash to be highly effective in eliminating the volatile sulfur compounds that cause bad breath. However, more research is required (on larger samples of people) to confirm this benefit.
  5. It could help reduce inflammation: Some researchers believe that low zinc levels are associated with systemic inflammation, a condition that's linked with everything from heart disease to cancer. One recent study showed that mice who received zinc supplementation showed lower levels of inflammation than a control group—however, more research needs to be done on humans before any definitive conclusions can be made.

How much zinc should you get getting, and should you take it every day?

Luckily, it should be easy to get all the zinc you need—eight milligrams per day for women and 11 milligrams per day for men—through your diet, as long as you're eating a variety of whole foods. According to Jackson Blatner, animal protein and dairy are high in zinc, as are plant foods such as cashews, pumpkin seeds, chickpeas, and oatmeal. (Here's a cheat-sheet of the best zinc sources to get you started.)

But there's one caveat. "Plant-based foods [like grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds] contain phytates, which may bind to zinc and make it less absorbable," says Jackson Blatner. So if you're vegan, vegetarian, or just don't eat a ton of meat, you'll just want to ensure you're doubling down on zinc-rich foods, says Jackson Blatner—or take a multivitamin containing zinc if you're concerned that your diet's not doing the job. In which case, it's best to take it every day, or as directed.

How worried should I be about a zinc deficiency?

Zinc is an essential trace mineral...but a deficiency isn't that common in North America. However, there are certain groups of people who are at risk of not getting enough zinc, such as vegetarians and vegans (as Jackson Blatner mentioned), people with gastrointestinal issues like ulcerative colitis, and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.  Those groups should take extra care to get more zinc in their diets, or supplement zinc.

Are there any side effects to taking zinc?

Jackson Blatner always recommends trying to reap zinc benefits (and those of every other vitamin and mineral) through whole-food sources, as opposed to relying on supplements to meet your nutritional needs. But, as mentioned before, there are some cases in which an added boost of the mineral could be helpful. "Someone could take extra zinc at the first sign of a cold to decrease the length of the cold and decrease severity of symptoms," she says. "Plus, the need for zinc goes up during pregnancy to help with healthy cell growth, so that’s why zinc is in prenatal vitamins." Your doctor may also recommend zinc supplements in certain situations, says Blatner—for instance, if you're on blood-pressure medication that causes you to lose more zinc in your urine.

If you do decide to take a zinc supplement, just know that it can interact with certain medications. According to Jackson Blatner, zinc shouldn't be taken at the same time as antibiotics, Penicillamine, or iron supplements—it's best to wait two to three hours in between. It's also worth noting that getting too much zinc can prevent your body from properly absorbing copper, so be sure to stay under 40 mg per day. But if you're getting zinc through your diet, you don't have to worry about any of that. As Jackson Blatner says, "Food first is always the best advice, for all nutrients."

To up your zinc game in the most delicious way possible, whip up this almond butter cashew banana cheesecake and these sweet-and-savory tahini overnight oats

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