Zinc is an essential mineral that is necessary for your health for many reasons, most notably supporting immune function and wound healing, and helping in DNA and protein synthesis. Recently, it’s stolen the spotlight for its role in helping the body fight off bacteria and viruses.
“Zinc is essential for our body’s production of well-functioning macrophages and cytokines, which help the body fight off stressors,” says dietitian Amanda A. Kostro Miller, R.D., L.D.N., advisor for Fitter Living. In fact, zinc deficiencies can negatively impact these cells and your body’s protective responses.
Given these benefits, you’ve probably wondered if you should add zinc to your supplement regimen—and have a few questions about it. How much should you take? Can it impact your copper levels? When and how should you take it?
Here, dietitians and doctors share everything you need to know about safely incorporating a zinc supplement into your routine.
1. Consider how your diet impacts your zinc intake
The Recommended Dietary Allowance for zinc for adults ages 19 and older is 11 milligrams a day for males, eight milligrams a day for females, 11 milligrams a day for pregnant females, and 12 milligrams a day for lactating females. 40 milligrams daily is considered the upper limit for zinc.
As a first line of defense, you should seek to get zinc from food. “Sources of zinc include oysters, beef, wheat germ or bran, pumpkin seeds, peanuts, sunflower seeds, beans, cheese, and almonds,” shares dietitian Melissa Macher, R.D., L.D. Many ready-to-eat breakfast cereals are also fortified with zinc.
Important to emphasize: ”Adequate intake of zinc is eight-to-12 mg/day, and more isn’t necessarily better when it comes to nutrients,” she adds. For reference, a serving of baked beans provides nearly three milligrams of the nutrient.
Read More: Eat These 6 High-Zinc Foods To Bood Immunity
That said, “the zinc found in grains and legumes is not absorbed as easily as that found in animal foods,” advises Tieraona Low Dog, M.D., author of Fortify Your Life and MegaFood Chief Medical Advisor.
In fact, one 2013 Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture review found that dietary zinc intake and serum zinc concentration were significantly lower in groups that stuck to vegetarian diets. It’s still possible to get enough zinc through diet alone if you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, but you may want to monitor your levels to be safe.
2. Talk to a doctor or nutritionist before starting to supplement
You should always consult with a trusted health professional before adding something new to your routine. “Zinc supplements are best for those with a known deficiency,” says Macher. It’s more common for those with gastrointestinal disorders, kidney disease, and sickle cell anemia—as well as older adults.
“Older adults often do not meet the RDA for zinc, which could put them at higher risk for respiratory infections, poor wound healing, and decrease in sense of taste and smell,” says Low Dog. One 2018 paper published in Nutrients backs this up, identifying zinc deficiency as a notable contributor to age-related changes in immune function.
When you talk to your provider about supplementing with zinc, bring a list of all other supplements, medications, and herbal remedies you’re taking.
In some cases, supplementing may affect your medications or have other unexpected impacts. People who take the drug amiloride (Midamor) for congestive heart failure or high blood pressure, for example, should not take zinc supplements, cautions Low Dog.
In other cases, taking certain medications may necessitate supplementing with zinc. People on diuretics, anticonvulsants, or antiretroviral drugs might be at higher risk for deficiency and require supplements, Low Dog says.
3. Get the timing right
Take zinc supplements one hour before or after a meal to help optimize absorption—especially if your meal contains whole grains, bran, or fiber, says Low Dog. (This is because phytates, found in cereal grains, can interfere with the absorption of zinc and other minerals.)
If you’re advised to get zinc from a multivitamin, though, it’s best to consume it alongside food.
Read More: 5 Signs You Need More Zinc
If you happen to also be taking antibiotics, take zinc at least two hours after them to prevent drug interactions, says Low Dog. (This is especially true of quinolones like Cipro or tetracycline.)
4. Don’t Go Overboard When Supplementing with zinc
Consuming more than 40 milligrams a day of zinc for a prolonged period of time can impact both your iron and copper levels, Low Dog says. Both minerals are essential nutrients for your health and work in tandem to form red blood cells. (For this reason, anyone low in either mineral should avoid zinc supplements.)
As a result, too much zinc can ultimately spell trouble for your immune system, says Macher. It can even impact your HDL or “good” cholesterol levels.
Signs you’re getting too much zinc include not-so-fun symptoms like:
- loss of appetite
- stomach cramps
Typically, restoration of appropriate levels can happen in a matter of days of supplementing with zinc, says Macher. Just how long you should supplement for (and with how much) depends on how deficient you are, which is why it’s important to work closely with your healthcare provider, she adds. (FYI: The National Institutes of Health advises against exceeding an intake of 40 milligrams per day.)
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