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Known for its contributions to a healthy immune system, zinc has a starring or supporting role in dozens of clinical trials studying ways to prevent COVID-19 infection and improve outcomes. But zinc is far more than an immune booster. This mineral, which comprises a measly 0.0036% of the body mass of a 150-pound human, is critical for many aspects of your health.

So how does zinc work in your body? How can you make sure you get what you need? Can you get it from food alone, or do you need to supplement? Is there such a thing as too much zinc? And can sucking on a zinc lozenge prevent or shorten the duration of a common cold? This article explores the ins and outs of zinc so you can get the right amount of this important mineral.\

The Protective Power of Zinc

Before we get into the ins and outs of zinc, a story:

One day, early in the 19th century, the Royal Navy came to the chemist and inventor Sir Humphrey Davy with a big problem. To protect their ships from a kind of mollusk that bored into wood, ship makers had been lining the bottoms of these vessels with copper. Unfortunately, the saltwater quickly corroded the copper, which led to costly and highly inconvenient repairs. Could Davy come up with a solution?

Davy suggested attaching a “sacrificial metal” to the copper. His element of choice was zinc. The zinc would protect the copper by being degraded by the saltwater, a process termed “galvanization” that later protected iron, steel, and other industrial metals from corrosion.

The story ends sadly for Davy and the Navy (which kind of sounds like a TV sitcom band from the 1970s!). While the zinc stopped the deterioration of the copper, it also made it far more susceptible to weeds and barnacles by providing them with nutrients that they found appealing. But it highlights the power of zinc, which can protect not only copper and iron but us as well.

What Is Zinc?

Zinc is a naturally occurring trace mineral that your body needs to fight off bacteria and viruses. The adult body contains about two to three grams of zinc — approximately the weight of a penny — which is stored mainly in fluid, bones, tissues, and organs.

Zinc is essential for growth in humans, animals, and even plants. (If your pecan tree isn’t producing nuts on a regular basis, make sure you fertilize with zinc in late winter.) Zinc is used in the process of cell division to create your unique DNA and plays a significant role in promoting wound healing. And it’s crucial for fertility to maintain levels of the reproductive hormones testosterone and estrogen. Zinc also comes into play with the metabolism of fats and sugars, helping to regulate and express insulin. And, zinc is largely linked to your sense of smell and taste, although the exact way this occurs is unknown.

Health Benefits of Zinc

1. It keeps your immune system healthy.

It appears that every immunological event relates in some way to zinc. There’s a strong connection between zinc deficiency and susceptibility to disease. A Cochrane Library meta-analysis of six studies that included a total of over 5,000 children between two months old and five years of age found that zinc supplementation reduced the incidence of pneumonia. And according to findings from a 2011 Cochrane review, zinc effectively shortens the duration and severity of the common cold (by approximately one day, so don’t get too excited).

People who are infected by Covid 19 and are zinc-deficient develop more complications, are more likely to require hospitalization, have longer hospital stays, and are more likely to die. While there’s not yet enough evidence to officially recommend zinc for the prevention or treatment of COVID-19, especially in amounts that exceed the RDA, research is ongoing for its potential use, and some initial studies have been promising.

2. It may improve pregnancy outcomes for mothers and infants.

The World Health Organization estimated in 2013 that a majority of pregnant women worldwide were at least somewhat deficient in zinc. This may contribute to the likelihood of poor birth outcomes and stunted infant development. The WHO recommends micronutrient supplementation (including zinc) for pregnant women who may be at risk of zinc deficiency.

3. It may help protect against neurodegenerative disorders.

No, zinc is not the fictional brain-enhancing drug NZT-48 from the movie Limitless. Taking it won’t make you smarter, or (spoiler alert) make you rich and powerful (or even look like Bradley Cooper).

Now the good news. Many people can prevent age-related neurodegenerative disorders, like Alzheimer’s, with diet and lifestyle habits. Getting enough zinc is a key part of this prevention strategy; it acts as an antioxidant, preventing oxidative stress in the brain that could otherwise increase your risk for neurodegeneration. In fact, an imbalance of iron and zinc ions (too much iron and not enough zinc) has been shown to lead to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease symptoms.

4. It helps regulate hormones.

Zinc plays a huge role in regulating your hormones, including growth hormone, insulin, leptin, thyroid hormone, melatonin, and sex hormones. Getting enough zinc is important for the functioning of your endocrine system. When it isn’t, your various organs and systems can’t communicate well, which can wreak havoc on your health, your energy, and your mood.

5. It helps improve blood sugar regulation.

According to a 2015 review of both test tube and human studies, zinc has many beneficial effects on both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Specifically, zinc appears to play an important role in pancreatic β-cell (that funny-looking thing that looks like a capital B is a symbol for beta) function, the activity of insulin, modulation of glucose, and the process by which diabetes develops and has complications.

So if you’re trying to prevent, reverse, or manage diabetes, in addition to watching your weight and eating a largely plant-based diet, make sure you get enough zinc to keep your pancreas firing on all cylinders (or whatever metaphor you want to apply to your pancreas).