A flatlay of some of the best food sources of zinc on a round wooden serving board against a grey background. Zinc food sources of animal origin products such as meat, fish, cheese and eggs are laid out alongside vegan and plant-based sources such as pumpkin seeds, legumes, mushrooms and a variety of nuts.

Zinc: everything you need to know about this vital mineral

Zinc is the second most abundant mineral in the body after iron, with over 300 enzymes and 1000 transcription factors dependant on this essential micronutrient. It is involved in many cellular processes such as cell proliferation and differentiation, protein synthesis, gene transcription, nucleic acid metabolism and DNA synthesis.1

Zinc deficiency is common, with an estimated one quarter of the world’s population being deficient, often caused by poor dietary intake, low absorption and increased zinc loss.1 The best food sources of zinc can be found in meat, eggs and fish alongside plant-based options such as pumpkin seeds, legumes, cashew nuts, mushrooms and spinach.

In this article we take a closer look at zinc and explore its many benefits to health, including research findings, supplement forms and how to improve absorption.

What are the benefits of zinc to health?

Immune function

Zinc affects multiple aspects of the immune system, from maintaining macrophage and neutrophil function, to supporting natural killer cell activity. As zinc is required for protein synthesis, it is needed for the production of immune antibodies. 2,3

Sufficient zinc levels are needed for adequate functioning of the immune system due to its role in regulating intracellular signalling pathways of the innate and adaptive immune cells,2 alongside it’s influence on inflammatory signalling and antibody production.1

Zinc is a cofactor for over 200 enzymes involved in the bodies antioxidant defence system. It is involved in maintaining macrophage and neutrophil function, supporting NK cell activity, modulating cytokine release, cell growth and differentiation of immune cells and developing and activating T-lymphocytes.3 Zinc deficiency has been linked to low T-cell and B-cell function and the dampening down of other immune markers, alongside increasing the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines, such as IL-1ϐ, IL-6 and TNF-a, highlighting the importance of zinc intake and supporting the reputation of zinc as an antiviral mineral.2 

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Histamine and the allergic response

Zinc can inhibit the release of histamine from basophils and mast cells, which can help reduce symptoms caused by histamine excess, such as itchy eyes and a runny nose.4

Research has discussed the involvement of zinc in the development of allergic disease, noting its deficiency as a risk factor for allergic eosinophilic inflammation such as asthma, which is associated with a Th2 mediated eosinophilic airway inflammation. Research has also found lower zinc levels in those with atopic asthma compared to controls, with supplementation being found in some studies to provide a benefit.5

Zinc and skin health

The skin is the third most zinc abundant tissue in the body, so it is not surprising then that suboptimal zinc concentrations have been indicated in a number of common skin disorders such as acne, rosacea, psoriasis and eczema.8

In one study, patients suffering with acne had significantly lower zinc levels than those in the control group, with zinc treatment leading to significant improvements in inflammatory papules.9

Zinc inhibits the activation of integrins by keratinocytes, the cells that produce keratin, an overproduction of which can cause the walls of a skin pore to clog together, leading to acne. This inhibition also modulates the production of TNF-a and IL-6 and reduces the production of inflammatory mediators such as nitric oxide.8 As an antibacterial agent, zinc has been found to kill cutibacterium acnes; the bacteria associated with acne. The common medical treatment prescribed for acne is often antibiotics, due to the potential of bacteria becoming antibiotic resistant; zinc may offer a natural alternative.6

Studies also report lower levels of zinc in those with atopic dermatitis in serum, erythrocyte and hair testing, alongside decreased zinc transporter and zinc dependent enzymes in atopic lesions.7

Furthermore, zinc has demonstrated a clear ability to prevent UV-induced damage, thus reducing the incidence of malignancies. For this reason, zinc oxide is still widely used as a topical sunscreen.8


Zinc supports the hair follicle cycle by reducing follicle regression and supporting follicle recovery.  Studies have found that supplementing zinc had a clinically therapeutic effect in those with alopecia areata.10,11

Digestive health

The intestinal tract is protected by a layer of specialised epithelial cells held together by proteins called tight junctions that control what can pass between the bloodstream and the digestive system. If these proteins fail, intestinal permeability or ‘leaky gut’ is increased, which has been indicated in many gastrointestinal disorders.

Zinc homeostasis is vital for the intestinal mucosal barrier and deficiency can lead to alterations, hyperpermeability and reduced tight junction barrier function. A recent meta-analysis highlighted the link between low zinc levels from increased excretion and reduced absorption in Crohn’s disease; a key characteristic of this disease is damaged intestinal mucosa.15  Overall, zinc is often a prominent nutrient in gut healing and repair programmes due to its ability to support the repair and regeneration of the mucosa.16

Zinc and sleep

Evidence suggests that zinc may play a role in sleep regulation due to its central role in the production and regulation of the hormone melatonin, higher serum concentrations of zinc were found in those who slept over 7 hours a night, compared to those who slept fewer than 7. Other research found that zinc supplementation improved sleep onset latency and sleep efficiency compared to controls.12,13

Hormonal health and fertility

Zinc plays a crucial role in hormonal and reproductive health and without adequate zinc the ability to convert cholesterol and lipid precursors into sex hormones is impaired. Zinc plays a role in epithelial barrier integrity and is also needed to support the healthy lining of the reproductive organs.17 A deficiency has been noted to cause abnormal or failed development of germ cells in both males and females which can result in infertility.18,19

  • Males:  Zinc has been found to positively correlate with testosterone levels20 and play a significant role in the male reproductive system, with lower levels of zinc being found in infertility cases and higher levels being found in fertile males. Deficiency has been linked with changes in testis volume and testicular weight, alongside spermatogenesis failure and low sperm count and quality. Furthermore, zinc is needed in adequate concentration in the seminal plasma for normal sperm function and fertilization, however, excessive levels of zinc can also negatively affect sperm quality.21
  • Females:  Zinc plays a role in a number of processes that regulate fertility and pregnancy. Deficiency during pregnancy can increase the risk of miscarriage, impaired growth and development and placental dysfunction and insufficient levels have been linked to the risk of pre-eclampsia.22 

Child growth and development

Zinc has become well-recognised as an essential micronutrient for infant growth and development and is a standard component of parenteral nutrition for infants with gastrointestinal dysfunction or low birth weight. Zinc is a vital nutrient to support healthy growth and development and supplementation has been found to improve growth outcomes in children.20,23 


Zinc plays a role in brain and central nervous system development, with deficiency increasing the risks of pathological conditions, cognitive impairment and ageing.24 Zinc is required for the proliferation, differentiation and death of neurons throughout human life.25 Zinc is abundant in the brain, accumulating in the synaptic vesicles, where it plays a role in memory and learning.26

Zinc may play an important role in the progression of Alzheimer’s disease (AD), with research finding those with AD have lower serum zinc levels. Supplementation has been associated with slowing cognitive decline.27

Zinc and attention disorders

Zinc is very important for healthy neurological function and studies have found zinc deficiency in those with hyperactivity. One systematic review of randomized clinical trials found that low zinc (and iron) levels were linked to increased ADHD severity, while supplementation led to significantly better outcomes compared to controls.14 

Mood and emotional health

Dysregulation of zinc in the amygdala, hippocampus and cerebral cortex may be linked to the pathophysiology of depression. Research has found that patients with depression appear to have lower levels of circulating zinc28, while supporting research found that supplementation significantly lowered depressive symptom scores.29

MRI research looking at depression has found reduced hippocampal volume, while studies have found an association between zinc and decreased hippocampal neurogenesis. Other studies have found reduced levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in those with depression, with zinc being studied in its ability to increase BDNF gene expression in the hippocampus or cortex.30

Signs of zinc deficiency

Mild Severe
·         Diminished smell or taste
·         Poor vision and/or night blindness
·         Slow wound healing
·         Loss of appetite
·         Weight loss
·         White spots of finger nails
·         Apathy or low mood
·         Hair loss
·         Behavioural changes
·         Skin lesions
·         Delayed sexual and bone maturation
·         Increased susceptibility to infections

Who is most at risk for zinc deficiency?

There are certain factors which may lead to an increased risk of deficiency:

  • Dietary insufficiency can quickly lead to low circulating zinc.
  • Alcoholism is linked to poor absorption of zinc in the body.31
  • Elderly individuals may have lower levels of serum zinc.
  • Diabetic have been found to have lower levels of zinc. Poor glycaemic control is also linked to zinc deficiency. 32
  • Pregnant and breastfeeding women have increased zinc requirements.
  • Vegetarians/vegans or any group who have a high intake of foods rich in phytic acid such as grains and legumes and low zinc intake.
  • Increased sweating can reduce zinc levels i.e. athletes or menopausal women experiencing night sweats

Common forms of supplemental zinc

There are many forms of zinc compounds available:

  • Zinc carbonate
  • Zinc chloride
  • Zinc citrate
  • Zinc bisglycinate
  • Zinc sulphate
  • Zinc picolinate
  • Zinc ascorbate
  • Zinc gluconate

Research regarding the efficacy of one form of zinc over another is limited and may be subject to many individual variables. Absorption of zinc citrate and gluconate has been found to be significantly better than zinc oxide, with authors concluding that zinc citrate is well absorbed by healthy adults.33 Research has looked the bioavailability of zinc in the bisglycinate form being better than gluconate by up to 43%.34

Dietary factors that influence zinc absorption

As with certain nutrients, fractional absorption of zinc appears to decrease with increasing total amounts in food. Other factors such as phytic acid and protein content also appear to impact absorption and so should be considered when designing meals for boosting zinc levels:

  • Phytic acid: phytate or phytic acid found in many plant foods such as corn, rice, legumes and spinach can have an inhibitory effect on zinc absorption. Phytic acid can bind to minerals such as zinc and form insoluble complexes. As the human gastrointestinal tract has limited phytase activity (the enzyme which breaks down phytic acid), this can have a significant impact on absorption. Fermentation, soaking and/or sprouting and cooking of foods prior to consumption can lower the levels of phytic acid present.35
  • Chlorogenic acid: is mostly found in caffeine and may decrease the absorption of zinc. This is why we would recommend that to take zinc supplements away from caffeinated beverages.35

How much zinc should I supplement?

Researchers have recommended that women get 17mg and men 20mg of zinc daily for optimal health; however, the UK Recommended Nutrient Intake (RNI) is 9.5mg per day for men and 7mg for women. The National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) found that in the UK population the average zinc intake fell between 4.18 mg a day to 10.56 mg a day, meaning people are often falling short of not just the RNI intakes proposed, but may not be having adequate zinc to support optimal health.36 

Nutrient-nutrient interactions

  • Iron: Zinc deficiency may induce iron deficiency by mechanisms that block either mobilization of iron from tissues or reduced intestinal absorption. It is theorised that low zinc status leads to reduces pancreatic zinc which then reduces iron absorption in the intestines via a decrease in divalent metal transporter (DMT1) and Ferroportin 1 (FPN1) expression. Therefore, supplemental iron causes a dose-dependent decrease in zinc absorption, while zinc supplementation also has an inhibitory effect on iron absorption.37
  • Copper: Copper and zinc homeostasis is tightly controlled by a system of transporters and transport proteins and a ratio between the two is important in many areas of health. An excess of zinc can affect the bioavailability of copper as it competes with copper to bind to the protein metallothionein, which transports these minerals to the intestinal cells.38 The ratio between zinc and copper may have a greater impact on health outcomes than copper concentration itself.39
  • Calcium: intake of calcium also appears to affect the absorption of zinc. Doses of calcium between 600-1200mg reduced zinc absorption by as much as 50%.40

Precautions when taking zinc

  • Diabetics: zinc has beneficial effects on glycaemic control.32 Therefore, high dose zinc-containing products should be used with caution in people taking medication for diabetes.
  • Drug interactions: zinc may reduce the efficacy of certain antibiotics and medications. Those who are currently receiving drug therapy should speak with a qualified practitioner before taking zinc at levels higher than in a multivitamin and mineral supplement.

Key takeaways

  • Zinc is the second most prevalent mineral in the body and is required for the proper functioning of almost every cell in the body.
  • It is a crucial component of over 300 enzymes which are required for metabolic activity.
  • Research has revealed the central role of zinc in DNA protection, reproduction, hormone synthesis, immunity, gastrointestinal and cognitive function to name but a few.
  • The best food sources of zinc generally come from animal origin such as meat, fish and eggs, however plant-based options include pumpkin seeds, legumes, mushrooms and spinach.
  • Certain nutrients such as iron, magnesium and calcium can affect the absorption of zinc, while high zinc intake can impact copper levels within the body.
  • Dietary factors such as protein and phytic acid content in food may affect the body’s ability to absorb zinc.
  • Certain demographics are at a greater risk of zinc deficiency such as the elderly, pregnant or breastfeeding women, athletes or people who sweat frequently, as well as vegans and vegetarians.
  • Check for contraindications before supplementing high dose zinc and be aware that zinc supplementation can reduce levels of other trace minerals in the body, such as copper and iron. We would usually recommend a good multivitamin/mineral supplement as a foundation. Supplementing with additional zinc is usually only recommended on a short- or medium-term basis.


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  11. Kil MS, Kim CW, Kim SS. Analysis of serum zinc and copper concentrations in hair loss. Ann Dermatol. 2013;25(4):405-409. doi:10.5021/ad.2013.25.4.405
  12. Cherasse Y, Urade Y. Dietary Zinc Acts as a Sleep Modulator. Int J Mol Sci. 2017;18(11):2334. Published 2017 Nov 5. doi:10.3390/ijms18112334
  13. Baltaci AK, Mogulkoc R, Baltaci SB. Review: The role of zinc in the endocrine system. Pak J Pharm Sci. 2019;32(1):231-239.
  14. Granero R, Pardo-Garrido A, Carpio-Toro IL, Ramírez-Coronel AA, Martínez-Suárez PC, Reivan-Ortiz GG. The Role of Iron and Zinc in the Treatment of ADHD among Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review of Randomized Clinical Trials. Nutrients. 2021;13(11):4059. Published 2021 Nov 13. doi:10.3390/nu13114059
  15. Wan Y, Zhang B. The Impact of Zinc and Zinc Homeostasis on the Intestinal Mucosal Barrier and Intestinal Diseases. Biomolecules. 2022;12(7):900. Published 2022 Jun 27. doi:10.3390/biom12070900
  16. Camilleri M. What is the leaky gut? Clinical considerations in humans. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2021;24(5):473-482. doi:10.1097/MCO.0000000000000778
  17. Fallah A, Mohammad-Hasani A, Colagar AH. Zinc is an Essential Element for Male Fertility: A Review of Zn Roles in Men’s Health, Germination, Sperm Quality, and Fertilization. J Reprod Infertil. 2018;19(2):69-81.
  18. Garner TB, Hester JM, Carothers A, Diaz FJ. Role of zinc in female reproduction. Biol Reprod. 2021;104(5):976-994. doi:10.1093/biolre/ioab023
  19. Baltaci AK, Mogulkoc R, Baltaci SB. Review: The role of zinc in the endocrine system. Pak J Pharm Sci. 2019;32(1):231-239.
  20. Te L, Liu J, Ma J, Wang S. Correlation between serum zinc and testosterone: A systematic review. Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology. 2023;76:127124. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jtemb.2022.127124
  21. Allouche-Fitoussi D, Breitbart H. The Role of Zinc in Male Fertility. Int J Mol Sci. 2020;21(20):7796. Published 2020 Oct 21. doi:10.3390/ijms21207796
  22. Lassi ZS, Kurji J, Oliveira CS, Moin A, Bhutta ZA. Zinc supplementation for the promotion of growth and prevention of infections in infants less than six months of age. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2020;4(4):CD010205. Published 2020 Apr 8. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD010205.pub2
  23. Liu E, Pimpin L, Shulkin M, et al. Effect of Zinc Supplementation on Growth Outcomes in Children under 5 Years of Age. Nutrients. 2018;10(3):377. Published 2018 Mar 20. doi:10.3390/nu10030377
  24. Sun R, Wang J, Feng J, Cao B. Zinc in Cognitive Impairment and Aging. Biomolecules. 2022;12(7):1000. Published 2022 Jul 18. doi:10.3390/biom12071000
  25. Li Z, Liu Y, Wei R, Yong VW, Xue M. The Important Role of Zinc in Neurological Diseases. Biomolecules. 2022;13(1):28. Published 2022 Dec 23. doi:10.3390/biom13010028
  26. Kawahara M, Tanaka KI, Kato-Negishi M. Zinc, Carnosine, and Neurodegenerative Diseases. Nutrients. 2018;10(2):147. Published 2018 Jan 29. doi:10.3390/nu10020147
  27. Rivers-Auty J, Tapia VS, White CS, et al. Zinc Status Alters Alzheimer’s Disease Progression through NLRP3-Dependent Inflammation. J Neurosci. 2021;41(13):3025-3038. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1980-20.2020
  28. Mlyniec K. Interaction between Zinc, GPR39, BDNF and Neuropeptides in Depression. Curr Neuropharmacol. 2021;19(11):2012-2019. doi:10.2174/1570159X19666210225153404
  29. Yosaee S, Clark CCT, Keshtkaran Z, Ashourpour M, Keshani P, Soltani S. Zinc in depression: From development to treatment: A comparative/ dose response meta-analysis of observational studies and randomized controlled trials. General Hospital Psychiatry. 2022;74:110-117. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.genhosppsych.2020.08.001
  30. Lai J, Moxey A, Nowak G, Vashum K, Bailey K, McEvoy M. The efficacy of zinc supplementation in depression: systematic review of randomised controlled trials. J Affect Disord. 2012;136(1-2):e31-e39. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2011.06.022
  31. Zhong W, Sun Q, Zhou Z. Chapter 12 – Role of Zinc in Alcoholic Liver Disease. ScienceDirect. Published January 1, 2016. Accessed March 28, 2024. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/B9780128007730000124#:~:text=Zinc%20deficiency%20is%20one%20of%20the%20most%20consistent
  32. Farooq DM, Alamri AF, Alwhahabi BK, Metwally AM, Kareem KA. The status of zinc in type 2 diabetic patients and its association with glycemic control. J Family Community Med. 2020;27(1):29-36. doi:10.4103/jfcm.JFCM_113_19
  33. Wegmüller R, Tay F, Zeder C, Brnic M, Hurrell RF. Zinc absorption by young adults from supplemental zinc citrate is comparable with that from zinc gluconate and higher than from zinc oxide. J Nutr. 2014;144(2):132-136. doi:10.3945/jn.113.181487
  34. Gandia P, Bour D, Maurette JM, et al. A bioavailability study comparing two oral formulations containing zinc (Zn bis-glycinate vs. Zn gluconate) after a single administration to twelve healthy female volunteers. Int J Vitam Nutr Res. 2007;77(4):243-248. doi:10.1024/0300-9831.77.4.243
  35. Are anti-nutrients harmful? The Nutrition Source. Published January 24, 2019. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/anti-nutrients/
  36. Amirabdollahian F. Zinc adequacy in the UK population. repository.londonmet.ac.uk. Published October 1, 2008. Accessed April 2, 2024. https://repository.londonmet.ac.uk/8320/
  37. Kondaiah P, Yaduvanshi PS, Sharp PA, Pullakhandam R. Iron and Zinc Homeostasis and Interactions: Does Enteric Zinc Excretion Cross-Talk with Intestinal Iron Absorption?. Nutrients. 2019;11(8):1885. Published 2019 Aug 13. doi:10.3390/nu11081885
  38. Serum copper to zinc ratio: Relationship with aging and health status. Mechanisms of Ageing and Development. 2015;151:93-100. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mad.2015.01.004
  39. Kerkadi A, Alkudsi DS, Hamad S, Alkeldi HM, Salih R, Agouni A. The Association between Zinc and Copper Circulating Levels and Cardiometabolic Risk Factors in Adults: A Study of Qatar Biobank Data. Nutrients. 2021;13(8):2729. Published 2021 Aug 9. doi:10.3390/nu13082729
  40. Wood RJ, Zheng JJ. High dietary calcium intakes reduce zinc absorption and balance in humans. Am J Clin Nutr. 1997;65(6):1803-1809. doi:10.1093/ajcn/65.6.1803

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Last updated on 9th May 2024 by cytoffice


14 thoughts on “Zinc: everything you need to know about this vital mineral

    1. Very informative clear information. Many people know about taking extra Vit C when got an umpleasant cold but many don’t know how important to up amount of zink at the same time if taking more Vit C. Or this is the way I was told a long time ago. You may want to say more about that now. Of course your clear, factual article, makes very clear about the help to the imune system! Thanks so much. Carol

  1. Thankyou for this information, always very interesting. I have a question: a granddaughter, aged 10, with special needs, glucose intolerant, who takes your recommended product for children of her age (the step after nutribears) as well as kids’ immunovite when illness is about. She has great problems with constipation. The family eats organically but the children have school dinners every day, with second helpings of dessert whenever possible! I’ve often wondered about probiotics …

    1. Hi Grethe,

      Thank you for your comment. Yes I would suggest trying a probiotic for your grand-daughter – Acidophilus Plus – one per day at the end of a meal or at bedtime.

      Perhaps after school she could have a smoothie with some nuts/seeds added for extra fibre. Berries are good option for sweetness and lower in sugar than some fruit. Make the smoothie with a non-dairy milk rather than fruit juice so that it is not too high in sugar.

      Many thanks,

  2. Interesting article but left me rather puzzled about supplementing my zinc intake. It seems that if I do I risk compromising my other mineral levels; you point this out without offering a solution.
    How do I achieve good zinc levels with out losing copper, iron, magnesium and calcium?

    1. Hi Clare,

      Thanks for your question on our blog. It is if zinc is taken at high dose, long-term that there would be a concern as it can ‘compete’ with iron and copper. So if taking eg 30mg of zinc as a supplement then this would be recommended on a short to medium term basis eg a few weeks, months or intermittently (depending on the reason for taking it). Or if taking a lower dose eg 15mg then this could be taken long-term.

      It is also a good idea to take an all-round multivitamin and mineral that includes some zinc and copper – eg 1mg dose of copper (which is needed in smaller amounts). A multi will also provide some zinc. Men and post-menopausal women do not need to supplement with appreciable amounts of iron so the multi should either be without iron or include iron at a low dose (eg our CoQ10 Multi has 2mg or iron per two capsule dose).

      If you would like more specific advice on an appropriate level of supplementation for you please email me with details of your health concerns and any medications or supplements you are taking and I will advise further. My email is clare@cytoplan.co.uk

      Best wishes

  3. I’m diabetic, hypertension And I also have Glacoma. Reading your article about zinc I felt very much interesting. I would rather ask which Zinc supplement I should take and also the dosage. I also take Vitamins B 500 multivitamins, I’m doing the right thing.

    1. Hi Vallery – thank you for your comment on our blog. It would be best for you to contact our in-house NT Helen (helen@cytoplan.co.uk) so she can understand any medication your are on to help put a safe and effective regime into place. Thanks, Jo

  4. Thank you for that article. I thought I knew a lot about minerals and vitamins but learnt a lot through that article. I do supplement with your Zinc and copper sometimes. However, I have osteoporosis and have to take calcium supplements. I eat fish but no meat and not a lot of fish, eggs, cheese or animal products. I take Cytoplan multimineral and many other of your supplements. Should I take more zinc or none please?

    1. Thank you for your kind comments. Glad to hear you are getting on well with our supplements! If you are taking a multivitamin and mineral then you will be getting good levels of zinc and copper in the preferred ratio. However, you could always take extra if you felt that you needed additional support, for example you came down with a cold. If you would like more individual advice please contact nutrition@cytoplan.co.uk.

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