Zinc: The Underrated Supplement?

Zinc supplementation has existed for years and has been found to help the body fight viral respiratory infections.

In addition to the annual concerns about the common cold and the flu, the COVID-19 pandemic has added a new layer of anxiety surrounding illnesses. These new fears have people around the world searching for accessible treatments and ways to prevent viral infections such as COVID-19. Zinc supplementation has existed for years and has been found to help the body fight viral respiratory infections.1-3 New studies have emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic suggesting that zinc has the potential to be a promising supplement against not just COVID-19, but other viruses as well.

The importance of zinc was discovered in 1961, when an Iranian farmer whose diet consisted mostly of unrefined bread reported suffering from anemia, hypogonadism, and dwarfism.3,4 The same anomaly was seen in Egyptians with similar diets around the same time period. Zinc is ideally absorbed through the diet, and although the body is good at adapting to changes in zinc levels, it is an essential micronutrient.

Zinc deficiency affects an estimated 40% of the global population and can result in issues such as poor immune function, alopecia, impaired wound healing, and even birth defects.5 It is also associated with skin abnormalities, hypogonadism, cognitive impairment, stunted growth, and imbalanced immune reactions.2

Low zinc levels or inefficient zinc receptors have also been associated with schizophrenia, depression, and multiple sclerosis. There is hardly an organ system in our bodies that zinc does not impact.

Even individuals with balanced diets could benefit from zinc supplementation. Although knowledge about using zinc as a treatment for disease is fragmented, there is increasing support for zinc as a supplemental treatment for a vast list of ailments. Primarily, many studies have shown zinc to be effective against all stages of viral infections.

Zinc protects the body from COVID-19 and rhinovirus entry through improving mucociliar clearance of viruses, preserving tissue barriers, and improving enzymatic function.4,6 In one study, zinc supplementation was shown to increase T helper cell counts and reduce the likelihood of opportunistic infections in patients, including patients with HIV who have a naturally higher risk for infection.4

Another study showed that zinc significantly improved immune function in elderly patients when compared to a control group.7 This finding is important in light of the COVID-19 pandemic because the virus has had a strong impact on the elderly population.

Even after contracting a virus, zinc has been found to reduce the symptoms and shorten the duration of the illness. Zinc can directly inhibit viral replication and therefore shorten the duration of the disease.

It also balances the immune response within the body to aid in the fight against the viruses.1,4,6 When zinc supplementation is started within 24 hours of symptom onset, it can shorten both rhinoviruses (commonly known as the common cold) and coronaviruses. Zinc can also reduce harmful inflammation during disease states, which improves symptoms and discomfort.1

Although zinc should not be used as a replacement for clinical treatment when that is needed, it has shown promise as a supplemental treatment to reduce the severity and duration of viral infections. Healthy individuals may also benefit from zinc, because it can help prevent some viral infections before they happen.

Zinc is also being researched for its potential in diabetes treatment due to its ability to reduce high blood glucose levels in genetically obese mice.2,5 Current research on the benefits of zinc still just skims the surface, but its potential as a “super-supplement” is promising.

References

  • Gammoh, N. and Rink, L., 2017. Zinc in Infection and Inflammation. Nutrients, 9(6), p.624.
  • Wessels, I., Maywald, M. and Rink, L., 2017. Zinc as a Gatekeeper of Immune Function. Nutrients, 9(12), p.1286.
  • Roohani, N., Hurrell, R., Kelishadi, R., Schulin, R., 2013. Zinc and its Importance to Human Health: an Integrative Review. Journal of Research in Medical Sciences, 18(2), p. 144-157.
  • Overbeck, S., Rink, L. and Haase, H., 2008. Modulating the immune response by oral zinc supplementation: a single approach for multiple diseases. Archivum Immunologiae et Therapiae Experimentalis, 56(1), pp.15-30.
  • Maret, W. and Sandstead, H., 2006. Zinc requirements and the risks and benefits of zinc supplementation. Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology, 20(1), pp.3-18.
  • Wessels, I., Rolles, B. and Rink, L., 2020. The Potential Impact of Zinc Supplementation on COVID-19 Pathogenesis. Frontiers in Immunology, 11.
  • Duchateau, J., Delepesse, G., Vrijens, R., Collet, H., 1981. The American Journal of Medicine. Beneficial effects of oral zinc supplementation on the immune response of old people. The American Journal of Medicine, 70(5), p.A29.