Zinc is an essential trace mineral that is found in many high-protein foods. It is the second most common mineral found in our bodies after iron, and is present in several systems and biological reactions. Despite being an essential component of our genetic material, however, we only require small amounts of zinc to function properly.
Zinc is a classic example of an element that everyone knows is important, but who don’t really understand its precise biological roles in our bodies. This article contains a list of zinc’s biggest biological roles, complete with information on how much of it we need daily.
The Roles of Zinc in the Body
Promotes growth – Zinc promotes the activity of more than 300 enzymes that our bodies use to metabolize nutrients and aid cell division, which in turn promotes growth. This is why pregnant women, whose growing fetuses are comprised of rapidly-dividing cells, must always ensure that they obtain enough zinc. Zinc is also vital in activating growth (height, weight, and bone development) in infants, children, and teenagers.
Maintains immune function – Our bodies require zinc to manufacture T-lymphocytes (T-cells), a type of white blood cell that helps to break down foreign invaders in our bloodstream. Low zinc levels will result in reduced or weakened T-cells that are unable to recognize and attack these invaders, making us susceptible to disease. This is why zinc is well-known for treating the common cold – it strengthens the very cells our bloodstreams need to neutralize the virus.
Boosts fertility – Zinc is the most widely-studied nutrient regarding human fertility, and its fertility-boosting properties are perhaps its best-known role. In women, zinc is needed for the body to efficiently utilize the reproductive hormones estrogen and progesterone. In men, zinc is needed to manufacture the outer layer and tail of the sperm. In fact, studies have shown that reduced zinc in a man’s diet also reduces his sperm count.
Antioxidant properties – Like copper and selenium, zinc is a mineral with antioxidant properties. Antioxidants protect us from the cell damaging effects of free radicals, which can lead to degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. Consequently, getting enough zinc in our diet is essential if we want to remain disease-free.
Skin care – Zinc is known to accelerate the renewal of skin cells, which is why zinc creams are often used to heal cuts and wounds and treat skin conditions like acne, eczema, and psoriasis. Moreover, being an anti-inflammatory agent, zinc can treat inflamed skin conditions like sunburn, poison ivy rashes, and blisters.
How Much Zinc Do We Need?
According to the National Institutes of Health, the recommended daily intake of zinc is 11 milligrams for adult men and 8 milligrams for adult women (increasing to 11 milligrams if pregnant). Zinc deficiencies, which are characterized by poor appetite, compromised immunity, and cognitive impairment, are uncommon in the developed world since many whole foods contain zinc in small amounts. That said, especially good sources of zinc include meat (especially oysters, beef, and lamb), wheatgrass, wheat germ, and most seeds, nuts, and beans.
About the Author
Michael Ravensthorpe is an independent writer whose research interests include nutrition, alternative medicine, and bushcraft. He is the creator of the website, Spiritfoods, through which he promotes the world’s healthiest foods.