Exactly How Does Zinc Help The Immune System? Experts Explain
Immunity is a complex process that relies on various nutrients—chief among them being zinc. Research shows that zinc plays a role in multiple aspects of your immune system. But how, exactly, does zinc support your immunity, and how do you know if you're getting enough? Let's dive in.
Zinc: The Nuts & Bolts
Zinc is an essential trace mineral, and the second most abundant mineral in your body, next to iron. The fact that it's "essential" means that your body can't make zinc on its own. To get what you need, you have to consume it daily—for example, through food and supplement sources. "Trace" means that you only need small amounts of it every day, but that doesn't make it any less important.
Zinc plays a role in the activity of more than 100 enzymes in your body. These enzymes are involved in critical functions, like making DNA, protein synthesis, your senses (vision, taste, and smell), immune function, and even cellular growth, division, and metabolism
Zinc & Your Immune System
One of the most well-noted functions of zinc is its role in immune health. The mineral is involved in the creation of antibody molecules, which are one of the important ways the body defends itself against bacterial, viral, and other types of outside offenders, according to board-certified internist Vincent M. Pedre, M.D.
Research shows that a variety of critical immune cells in our innate and adaptive immune systems—monocytes, natural killer cells, neutrophils, B cells, and T cells—rely on access to zinc for their development and protection, and not getting enough of the nutrient can affect immune resilience. On the flip side, zinc supplementation can optimize their function in those who may need more of the mineral.
As Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN concludes, "All in all, zinc is an immune essential micromineral via multiple physiological pathways—from host resistance and resilience to our body's inflammatory response and healing—this powerhouse nutrient is showing up for us."
Of course, tapping into zinc's immune support power and other health benefits is based on the assumption that we're consuming enough each day.
Because your body can't make zinc (or any mineral for that matter), you have to get it through your diet and supplemental nutrition regimen—and as it stands, 15% of U.S. adults aren't consuming enough zinc.
Underscoring this nationally representative zinc intake data, Ferira explains that, "we have about 40 million Americans who need to mind their zinc gap with some real intention, and they don't even know they have a problem."
There's an even higher prevalence of zinc inadequacy in older adults (over the age of 71), and to make matters worse, they also don't absorb zinc as efficiently and therefore need to pay special attention to their immune function and overall health.
Integrative allergist and immunologist Heather Moday, M.D., notes vegetarians and vegans may also have a particularly difficult time getting adequate amounts of zinc. This is partly because seafood and meat are the primary food sources of zinc but also since plant-based sources of zinc are less bioavailable. Ferira explains this phenomenon is thanks to the "intrinsic anti-nutrient compounds, particularly phytates, in plant foods that are known to reduce absorption of zinc and other minerals in the gut."
In its early stages, zinc inadequacy may not be so obvious, but over time (i.e., as it progresses to insufficiency and frank deficiency), you'll start to observe the impacts. Loss of appetite and weakened immune function are often the first signs.
How Much Should You Take?
To support zinc sufficiency (and avoid deficiency over time), women need at least 8 milligrams of zinc per day, while men need a minimum of 11 milligrams daily. If you're pregnant or breastfeeding, your daily needs jump to 11 milligrams and 12 milligrams, respectively.
But Ferira, a nutrition scientist and dietitian, emphasizes that these are baseline levels. For optimal health and targeted support (like if you're focusing on immunity), your body's need for and utilization of zinc might be even higher—closer to 15 to 30 milligrams, she says.
The Side Effects
Zinc supplements from high-quality brands are safe and well-tolerated by most people, but if you take too much, it can lead to gastrointestinal upset. If you and your health care provider decide that zinc supplements make sense for you, stick to the proper dosages to avoid these side effects.
For most people, zinc consumption shouldn't exceed 40 milligrams per day (i.e., the tolerable upper intake level) over a prolonged period of time. If you take more than this regularly, it can interfere with your body's absorption of other important minerals, such as copper, iron, and magnesium, compromising their status in the body.
Zinc supplements can also potentially interact with certain medications, so always speak with your health care provider before starting a supplement routine.
Zinc is essential for the optimal functioning of your immune system, underscoring its daily significance. The mineral is involved in the creation of antibodies and various innate and adaptive immune system cells, like natural killer cells and T cells. Zinc also promotes healing and helps keeps your skin barrier—aka your body's first line of defense—intact. But those aren't the only health benefits of zinc. Since your body can't make zinc, you need to make sure you're getting enough of it daily through your diet and quality supplements.