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Zinc Benefits, Uses, and Side Effects

By Sasha de Beausset Aparicio, MSc

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Zinc is an essential trace mineral, able to support a large number of basic body functions and processes. Together with Iron, Zinc is one of the most abundant minerals found inside the body, being present in most human cells.

The mineral is most commonly known for its abilities to boost the immune function; however, its applications extend to a large number of other health areas. For instance, it is particularly important in maintaining proper hormone levels and the health of the endocrine system, as well as essential to cardiovascular health and maintaining brain health and performance. We will detail the complete range of functions in the following sections.

Nutrition specialists all around the world emphasize the importance of this mineral in human diets, and boosting Zinc absorption is a permanent concern. Roughly, 15 to 35% of Zinc is absorbed from the food we eat, hence ensuring proper absorption is key to maintaining healthy levels of this mineral. Deficiencies of this mineral are rare in industrialized countries, as food can provide people with the right amounts. Where it does not suffice, supplementation is always available and can compensate for any shortcomings.

Zinc Functions & Benefits

This mineral is essential for proper body functioning. Its benefits have long been recognized, even in the incipient stages of humanity, when it was used to fasten wound healing. Today, the most common benefits are supported by strong scientific evidence. The main benefits apply to the immune system health, reproductive function of both male and female, vision, brain, and heart health, and thyroid function to mention only a few. In the following paragraphs, we will detail the most common medicinal applications of Zinc.

Zinc deficiencies have an almost immediate and direct impact on the production of T-Cells, a type of immune system cells which work to attack cells that carry viruses or certain types of cancerous cells. This is why this mineral is essential to the immune function. It is instrumental to the proliferation and generation of healthy cells. Recent research has linked it to the development of several types of cancer including ovarian, breast, and colon and skin cancer. Requirements of this mineral increase with age, to support a declining immune system function. Older people are particularly exposed to the risk of developing a Zinc deficiency. Hence caution is recommended.

This mineral is essential to the physiology of cells, but also seems to positively influence the development and evolution of cardiovascular disease (coronary heart disease for instance), as recent research seems to put it. Zinc intakes in people who suffered from a heart condition may prevent future damage. Another important role of zinc is exerted through its role in maintaining endothelium health. The endothelium is part of blood vessel cell structure. By preserving endothelium, Zinc prevents cholesterol buildup and, to some extent, heart disease from occurring.

Another very famous and recognized role of this mineral is promoting the reproductive health and fertility of both men and women. It is an essential part of testosterone building processes and various cells found in the male prostate. Normal testosterone levels are directly linked to fertility. Recent research seems to suggest that proper amounts of this mineral may prevent prostate cancer development, as well as other forms of cancer.

In women, the mineral works to promote egg production processes, hence ensuring healthy ovulation and reproductive function altogether. Similarly to what happens to men, a deficiency of Zinc may lead to breast cancer development. Further research is needed to study the cause-effect relation between Zinc and breast cancer, though.

No less attractive are the antioxidant properties of the mineral. Because it helps fight oxidative stress and free radical damage, its range of benefits significantly extends to basically all human processes affected by oxidation. Research conducted so far shows it is efficient in detoxifying heavy metals from the body, and prevent development and progression of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. Further studies of its potential impacts as related to its anti-oxidation benefits are needed.

Zinc deficiencies have on numerous occasions been associated with depression, mood swings, and other similar symptoms. Although an explicit connection is yet to be established, it seems that low Zing impairs neurotransmitter secretion that further affects areas of the brain that regulate mood. Zinc-based treatment schemes are currently being tested on people suffering from depression.


Although a deficiency of this mineral is unlikely, there are certain groups of people more exposed than others to such a risk. Because the mineral is particularly rich in meats, dairy, and seafood, there are certain people such as vegetarians, vegans, and those unable to consume meats which should be cautious and discuss alternative sources with their healthcare provider. Also, highly susceptible to a deficiency are alcoholics and people with stomach acid problems and digestive diseases, because most of the Zinc is absorbed in the gastrointestinal system. Women who are on the birth-control pill or certain hormone treatments must also discuss their options with a professional.

Symptoms of deficiency should be recognized and addressed with supreme importance. These symptoms include cravings for sweet or salty food, fatigue, impaired memory, lack of focus capacity, slow wound healing, lack of energy, diarrhea, nervousness dysfunction, and sometimes ringing in the ears.

Equally damaging may be high Zinc intakes, as they may impair the immune function instead of boosting it. There is also evidence that when taken in high doses, this mineral may elevate levels of bad cholesterol, which may trigger a whole set of complications.

Best Zinc Sources

Fortunately, Zinc is naturally found in a variety of foods. The daily value recommended for adults is 15 mg. Some of the richest foods containing Zinc are oysters (in some cases they may provide as much as 182mg per 100 grams serving), veal liver, roasted beef, pumpkin seeds, watermelon seeds (dried), dark chocolate, mutton or lamb meat, peanuts, and crab. Pumpkin seeds, for instance, may provide 70% from the daily serving for every 100 grams consumed. 100 grams serving of lamb, on the other hand, may provide roughly 4.2-8.7mg of Zinc meaning 28% – 58% of the daily recommended allowance. Still, where food alone is not enough to ensure optimum intakes, supplementation may come in handy. A healthcare provider’s opinion should be sought before starting using any dietary supplement.