Common knowledge says that chugging a glass of vitamin C–packed orange juice is the best thing to do when you’re sick. But in reality, treating yourself to a lobster dinner might be a better option—at least for keeping a cold from rearing its sniffling head. The reason: It’s zinc (which lobster is full of), not vitamin C, that prevents the common cold and shortens the lifespan of illness.
Mind-blowing, right? Zinc does a lot more than most give it credit for, from clearing up pimples to boosting your mood. Read on for other science-backed reasons to make zinc a priority in your diet or supplement routine.
What does zinc do?
Zinc is one of the 24 micronutrients that’s necessary for survival. And though it’s most famous for keeping the common cold at bay, it’s actually key for overall wellness—zinc’s primary role is to aid in cell growth and development, but it also helps with immune defense, neurological function, and hormone regulation.
Because zinc deficiencies are pretty rare in the United States, it sort of flies under the radar. Most people get enough following the Standard American diet, through meat, poultry, and dairy products. Unfortunately, in developing countries, a dietary zinc deficiency is more common; symptoms include slow or stunted growth, skin rashes, chronic digestive issues, a weakened immune system, and behavioral changes, among other symptoms.
Potential benefits of zinc
If you want to look and feel better, zinc is your go-to supplement. Because it’s involved in so many important bodily functions, researchers have closely studied how it heals and benefits the body.
Vitamin C has indeed been riding zinc’s coattails when it comes to fighting off cold and flu symptoms—zinc is actually the compound that does the heavy lifting. In a study of 50 middle-aged people who supplemented with zinc or a placebo for 12 months, those who did not take zinc regularly were 59 percent more likely to catch a cold or flu.
No need to take it daily for the benefits—if you feel a tickle in your throat coming on, pop a few zinc lozenges. Taking a high dose right when you start to feel sick seems to effectively reduce the length and severity of certain infections.
Depression and mood
Naturally abundant in a healthy brain, zinc regulates communications between neurons and the hippocampus. On the flip side, research has found the brains of depressed people are often marginally deficient—leading many experts to view zinc supplementation as a potential treatment for depression. Happily, the studies completed up to this point on the topic are promising.
In one clinical trial of 45 patients with depression, those who took a daily 25 milligram zinc supplement in addition to SSR inhibitors (a popular form of antidepressant drugs) noticed a significant decrease in symptoms compared to a placebo group. Another study of 60 people who were previously unresponsive to antidepressant medication found that those who took 25 mg a day of zinc greatly improved the efficacy of the drugs.
Finally, taking an even smaller amount of zinc—just 7 grams every day over ten weeks— diminished feelings of anger, hostility, depression, and dejection in young women in one small pilot study.
Acne and skin issues
Because it helps repair and grow skin cells on a structural level, zinc has been found to be pretty helpful for treating a range of skin conditions. Daily use of a topical zinc solution can improve the look and feel of psoriasis by up to 75 percent, and taking a 10 milligram supplement daily cleared viral warts in over 50 percent of cases. There’s even some evidence that taking a high dosage three times a day can ease the side effects of rosacea.
For all those teens who dream, pray, and wish for a magic little pill to finally clear up acne, zinc might be the answer. Researchers have found that serum zinc levels are significantly lower in patients with serious acne, and taking zinc regularly can make a huge impact on the frequency of breakouts. How? Zinc helps transport vitamin A in the blood, in turn speeding up the growth of new skin cells and stopping acne in its tracks.
The presence of C-reactive proteins in the blood is one way to measure inflammation—the more C-reactive proteins, the higher the inflammation. Supplementing with zinc actually lowers these levels, and therefore overall inflammation.
Forms of zinc
Adults need an average of 8 to 11 mg of zinc daily—and for omnivores (aka someone who eats meat, dairy, and veggies) it’s relatively easy to get the required amount through regular meals. Here are some of the foods you can eat for dietary zinc:
- Garbanzo beans
- Pumpkin seeds
- Sesame seeds
But for anyone with food restrictions, especially for those who avoid animal products, it can be trickier. And because fetal development requires so much zinc, sometimes pregnant and nursing mothers can be deficient.
Do you need to supplement?
Unless you’re deficient, you don’t need to supplement with zinc. But you might want to try it if your skin is acting up, you want to stay super-healthy year round, or when you feel a little angsty. Of course, before you start any supplement regimen check with an M.D.—a doctor can test your vitamin and nutrient levels, determine whether a daily supplement might be necessary.
Better skin and better mood? Zinc, we’re sold on you!
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Illustration by Foley Wu