Since the pandemic hit, we’ve all been looking for those magic nutrients that can help support our immune systems. The mineral zinc – found at high levels in foods including meat, dairy, shellfish and cereal grains - may not be as well-known for its immunity benefits as vitamin C but it’s a must-have when it comes to winter wellbeing.
Zinc hit the headlines in recent weeks too, after Australian researchers reviewed dozens of studies looking at the nutrient's effect on respiratory tract infections. They concluded there's some evidence zinc may prevent symptoms which can also include a runny nose, high temperature and headaches.
So are you getting enough – and should you be taking a supplement? Our checklist of reasons to take zinc will help you decide…
1. It supports a healthy immune system
Deficiency in zinc has been linked with reduced immunity. The mineral supports your immune system in several different ways. It’s essential for the growth and activity of neutrophils, a type of white blood cell that destroys germs, and natural killer (NK) cells. The mineral is needed for the B cells and T cells that make antibodies to recognise an invader and mount a defence when they come across it. Zinc protects the cells lining the lungs, forming a physical defensive barrier. It’s also an antioxidant, helping to prevent cell damage. One study found even a small increase in zinc intake may significantly improve the health of cells so your body is better able to fight off infection.
It might help you see off colds
Got that tell-tale sore throat and snuffly nose? If you take zinc supplements at the first sign of a cold, you may be able to cut its duration and reduce the severity of symptoms, research has shown. Other studies have found zinc supplements may have a preventative role, too, with results from two studies suggesting daily supplementation may cut cold incidence in children. It’s thought zinc might work by preventing cold-causing viruses from replicating, and possibly from stopping the virus lodging in mucous membranes in the nose and throat. There’s not enough evidence yet to definitively recommend zinc as a cold treatment but if you want to give it a go, lozenges like Manuka Doctor Manuka Middles may be an effective way to take it.
It may have a role in protecting against other viruses
That might include Covid-19, as scientists know zinc’s an important nutrient for supporting immunity in groups who tend to be vulnerable to the virus – but so far, research hasn’t been able to confirm a link. Still, zinc’s known to have anti-viral properties that could make it important against a range of viruses.
It’s needed for overall wellbeing
Zinc isn’t just about immunity and defending you against bugs, though. It’s found in every cell in your body and has important roles in many functions. Zinc is needed for the activity of over 300 enzymes involved in processes including metabolism and digestion, and is also essential for cell growth and division. It’s important for fertility, healthy skin and protecting against various age-related conditions, such as age-related macular degeneration.
You may be missing out
If you’re getting enough zinc in your diet, you probably don’t need to top up. Women should have around 7mg daily and men about 9.5mg, and if your diet’s balanced and varied, it’s likely you’re hitting the target. But it’s not that hard to miss out. Dairy and red meat are rich sources of zinc so if you eat a mainly plant-based diet, you might not be getting enough. The elderly, pregnant women and those with certain conditions, including Crohn’s disease, may also be deficient. You can find zinc along with other immune-boosting nutrients in The Bee’s Sneeze.
 Zyba SJ et al. A moderate increase in dietary zinc reduces DNA strand breaks in leukocytes and alters plasma proteins without changing plasma zinc concentrations. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 105, Issue 2, February 2017, Pages 343–351
 Roa G and Rowland K. Zinc for the common cold: not if but when. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3273967/
 Read SA et al. The role of zinc in antiviral immunity. Advances in Nutrition, Volume 10, Issue 4, July 2019, Pages 696–710