Find out all about zinc, including what it does, how much you need, where to find it, and who might need to supplement their diet
Overview of zinc
What is zinc and what does it do?
Zinc is an essential mineral and powerful antioxidant found in cells throughout the body. It’s crucial for normal cell division and growth.1
It helps support:2
- healthy hair, skin and nails
- brain health
- fertility and reproduction
- immune function
- eye health
- strong bones
- wound healing
Zinc is found in a range of foods, from shellfish to nuts, and most people get enough from their diet.
However, it’s more plentiful in animal foods, which means vegans and vegetarians are more at risk of a deficiency. Symptoms include reduced immunity and poor growth.4
Functions of zinc
What does zinc do in the body?
Zinc, essential for normal growth and development in pregnancy and childhood, is critical for healthy cell functions throughout the body: scientists think zinc plays a role in regenerating damaged DNA, and in curbing cell inflammation and oxidative stress.5
It’s also important for a strong immune system and is needed for the normal functioning of white blood cells.6
Zinc is important for fertility, particularly male fertility – it’s needed for the development of strong, healthy sperm, according to a 2018 study.7
The mineral is key to brain health, too, where it regulates communication between nerve cells and is involved in memory, mood, learning and emotion.8
How much zinc do I need?
The body has limited storage for zinc so we need to make sure we get enough every day, 10mg.
A 50g serving of pumpkin seeds contains 3.3mg of zinc, and 100g of cooked lentils has 1.3mg.9
Breastfeeding women need additional zinc for the baby – so an extra 6mg on top of the RNI for the first four months of the baby’s life. This drops to an extra 2.5mg from four months onwards.10
How much zinc do children need?
- 1-3 years – 5mg a day
- 4-6 years – 6.5mg
- 7-10 years – 7mg
- 11-14 years – 9mg11
Which foods are the best sources of zinc?
Foods that contain zinc include:12
- red meat
Good vegetarian sources of zinc are:
- nuts, including cashews, brazils and almonds
- seeds, particularly hemp, pumpkin and sesame
- fortified breakfast cereals
What are the symptoms of a zinc deficiency?
Most people get enough zinc from their diet, but those at risk of deficiency include breastfeeding women, and vegetarians and vegans. It’s thought that a naturally occurring type of plant compound called phytates – found in wholegrain cereals, beans and legumes – can bind to zinc and prevent it being absorbed properly by the body.
Symptoms of a zinc deficiency include:13
- loss of appetite
- poor immune function
- poor growth in children and pregnancy
- wounds that won’t heal
- decreased sense of smell and taste
What happens if I consume too much zinc?
Excessive intakes of zinc can lead to nausea, vomiting, headaches, diarrhoea and stomach cramps.14
It can also inhibit the absorption of the minerals copper and iron.15 This can lead to anaemia and weak bones. The NHS recommends avoiding taking more than 25mg of zinc a day.16
When should I take zinc supplements?
Eating a healthy, balanced diet 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.17
If you have a cough or cold, taking a zinc supplement within the first 24 hours can boost your infection-fighting white blood cells.18,19
Should women take a zinc supplement in pregnancy?
No, you should be able to get all the zinc you need from a healthy, balanced diet.
What are the benefits of taking a zinc supplement?
Studies have found zinc supplements may:
- shorten the duration of the common cold20
- strengthen immune health21
- improve memory and concentration22
Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies
Written by Nic Hopkirk on November 14, 2018
Reviewed by nutrition consultant Fiona Hunter on November 28, 2018
1. Medline Plus. Zinc in diet. Available from: www.medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002416.htm
2. National Institutes of Health. Zinc. Available from: www.ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/
3. NHS. Others: vitamins and minerals. Available from: www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals/others/
4. Saunders AV, Craig WJ, Baines SK. Zinc and vegetarian diets. Available from: www.mja.com.au/system/files/issues/196_10_040612_supplement/sau11493_fm.pdf
5. Ana Sandoiu. Small increase in dietary zinc stops DNA from deteriorating. Available from: www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/315070.php
6. Prasad AA. Zinc in Human Health: Effect of Zinc on Immune Cells. Available from: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2277319/
7. Fallah A, Mohammed-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. Available from: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6010824/
8. Gower-Winter SD, Levenson CW. Zinc in the central nervous system: From molecules to behaviour. Available from: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3757551/
9. Self Nutrition Data. Lentils, mature seeds, cooked, boiled without salt Nutrition Facts & Calories. Available from: www.nutritiondata.self.com/facts/legumes-and-legume-products/4338/2
10. British Nutrition Foundation. Nutrition Requirements. Available from: www.nutrition.org.uk/attachments/article/234/Nutrition%20Requirements_Revised%20Oct%202016.pdf
11. Public Health England. Government Dietary Recommendations. Available from: www.assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/618167/government_dietary_recommendations.pdf
12. As Source 2
13. As Source 2
14. HSIS. Zinc. Available from: www.hsis.org/a-z-food-supplements/zinc/
15. As Source 2
16. As Source 3
17. As Source 2
18. Singh M, Das RR. Zinc for the common cold. Available from: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23775705
19. ScienceDaily. Zinc supplement boosted serum zinc levels, immunity in older adults, study shows. Available from: www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/01/160127132745.htm
20. Hemilä H, et al. Zinc Acetate Lozenges May Improve the Recovery Rate of Common Cold Patients: An Individual Patient Data Meta-Analysis. Available from: www.academic.oup.com/ofid/article/4/2/ofx059/3098578
21. Roohani N, et al. Zinc and its importance for human health: An integrative review. Available from: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3724376/
22. de Moura JE, et al. Oral zinc supplementation may improve cognitive function in schoolchildren. Available from: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23892699