Zinc has received much attention in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Although the mineral is not a cure for covid, numerous research studies show that it possesses strong antiviral properties. Let’s take a closer look at why zinc is important for your health, how it maay prevent viruses, the best sources from food, and how much of it you need.
Why Is Zinc Important For Health?
Zinc is a trace mineral, which means you don’t need a lot of it. But because your body doesn’t store zinc as it does the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K), you need to obtain it everyday from food, and perhaps, supplements (more on this below).
Enzymes help break down food into nutrients. An optimal levels of zinc is required in order to perform this function and a myriad of other critical processes in the body.
In addition, zinc provides functional structure to proteins, regulates gene expression and repairs bodily tissues.
But in 2020 and 2021, perhaps the focus of zinc health benefits is that it supports a balanced immune system.
Does Zinc Prevent Coronavirus?
A quick disclaimer: no random clinical trial has concluded that zinc prevents or cures COVID-19. However, several research studies have shown that at least in vitro (on cells, not people), the mineral has strong antiviral capabilities.
For example, a paper titled “Zinc as nutritional intervention and prevention measure for COVID-19 disease,” published in the British Medical Journal: Nutrition, Prevention & Health from June of 2020 concluded “zinc is a critical factor for antiviral immunity.”
When there is more zinc in the cells, there’s a better chance that RNA viruses such as SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 will have less of an opportunity to replicate.
For a more scientific explanation: Intracellular zinc impairs replication of a number of RNA viruses by interfering with the correct proteolytic processing of viral polyproteins, says a study in PLoS Pathology. “In vitro studies have reported that coronavirus replication can be inhibited by increased zinc concentration,” says the study.
Zinc For Gut Health & GI Symptoms Caused By Coronaviruses
The organ system most associated with COVID is the lungs. However, people who have contracted the virus have reported several gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms—
which is true of any infectious coronavirus.
While there is still no official protocol or specific treatment for GI symptoms for COVID-19 infected patients, zinc may be an effective supportive remedy.
Research published in the Autumn 2020 edition of a gastroenterology journal explains how zinc may prevent or alleviate GI distress. The GI tract, the strength of which is vital for digestion and immunity, contains a scant, single, thin layer of cells (epithelial cells). This layer contains the protective barrier called the mucosa, which is held together by tight junctions.
If you eat lots of processed food or have taken lots of antibiotic drugs, it may cause a weak mucosal barrier. This condition is what is known in natural health as “leaky gut” or intestinal permeability in more official medical jargon.
Having tight junctions in your mucosal barrier is arguably the key component for overall health. In a nutshell, the barrier prevents undigested food particles out of the bloodstream, as well as toxins.
So what does zinc have to do with gut health? The study says zinc is a key factor in the preservation of the structural integrity of the intestinal barrier.
“Every mechanism, every stress that breaches the integrity of the GI barrier, may modify the state of health of the GI mucosa and have biological and clinical consequences,” the co-authors write.
Researchers also speculate that zinc prevents GI symptoms or even disease from progressing by scavenging free radicals and keeping inflammation in check.
Are People Getting Enough Zinc?
Clearly, zinc may be critical for staying healthy or preventing symptoms from getting worse.
Considering that meat is one of the best sources of zinc, it would stand to reason that most Americans are getting plenty of zinc in the diet. After all, most people in North America eat more meat than is necessary.
Zinc is the fourth most prevalent metal on Earth. Thus, by logical extension one would assume the mineral is prevalent in many other foods. And as a result, zinc deficiency is rare.
Indeed, many foods contain zinc. The best sources besides meat include shellfish, beans, lentils, chickpeas, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, cashews, and last but not least in terms of enjoyment: dark chocolate.
An important note about lentils, beans and certain grains that contain zinc: these sources contain anti-nutrients called phytates. Phytates interfere with mineral absorption, meaning even though you may be consuming rich sources of zinc, your body is unable to process it. One easy way to reduce anti-nutrient compounds in legumes is soaking them overnight in pure water.
But phytates aren’t the only reason why many people may actually be zinc deficient.
“Zinc deficiency is a subject of health concern in both developing and developed countries, particularly among infants and the elderly,” says a study published in Clinical Nutrition.
The study suggests that it’s difficult to obtain a therapeutic dose of zinc from food alone. Despite the fact that zinc is so abundant in nature and by extension in food, zinc depletion may be one cause of compromised immune function.
The British Medical Journal article referenced above says, “Major risk groups for COVID-19, the elderly, men more than women, obese individuals and patients with diabetes are all at risk of zinc deficiency.”
The paper also says that blood-pressure-lowering drugs and cholesterol-lowering statin drugs may negatively influence zinc levels.
“Therefore,” suggest the researchers, “dietary preventive measures and prompt implementation of zinc supplementation for risk groups should be considered.”
How Much Zinc Do You Need?
It depends who you ask. If you’re just going off the Food & Drug Administration’s recommendations, men should consume 11 mg per day; women need 8 mg (pregnancy boosts the requirement to 11 mg per day; breastfeeding requires 12 mg.)
If you love hot yoga and other forms of exercise that make you shvitz, consider getting even more zinc in your diet. That’s because sweating causes the body to leach out the mineral.
Should You Take A Zinc Supplement?
Based on the evidence above, you may need more. And therefore, a zinc supplement may be the best way to get enough of this critical trace mineral.
In fact, WWO doctors treating COVID patients in Imperial Valley, CA—an area east of San Diego that has been one of the hardest hit by the pandemic—recommend taking 25 mg of zinc every day to help prevent viral infection.
The doctors’ recommendation to take 25 mg of zinc (as well as vitamin C, and quercetin or EGCG, the antioxidant in Miracle Matcha tea) is based on a study published in Frontiers in Immunology, titled, “The Potential Impact of Zinc Supplementation on COVID-19 Pathogenesis.”
If you want to dive deep in the research on how zinc may prevent viral infection, read the study, which concludes, “Due to its direct antiviral properties, it can be assumed that zinc administration is beneficial for most of the population, especially those with suboptimal zinc status.”
What kind of zinc is best?
Zinc sulfate. Zinc gluconate. Zinc picolinate. Zinc citrate. Triple zinc. So many different kinds of zinc to choose from. Either way, zinc needs to make its way into the cells of the small intestine in order to be utilized by the body. Opinions vary, but RXLIST.com claims that zinc gluconate contains the least amount of cadmium, a toxic heavy metal.
There’s strong supporting evidence for zinc, especially supplementation. Having enough zinc supports the mucosal barrier of the gut, decreases viral replication, preserves antiviral immunity, reduces the chance of a hyper-inflammatory response that causes lung damage, acts like an antioxidant, and may lessen the severity of infections.
Seniors and those with co-morbidity factors should talk to their doctor about supplementing with zinc.