Even though it’s been 70 degrees this month, it’s still February — which means we have not escaped cold and flu season (and I’m still paranoid about coming down with the virus all my friends seem to have). I know that echinacea can help boost my immune system and thereby potentially protect me from it, but I’d really like to cover all my bases. I asked friends for additional recommendations, and several said I should take some zinc (and also chill out). So I consulted with some experts to find out if zinc really helps stave off cold and flu.
First off, what exactly is zinc? As someone who has taken middle-school science classes before, I’m well aware that zinc is an element that appears as “Zn” on the periodic table (okay actually, I was reminded of that after a quick Google search). But beyond that, Dr. Albert Ahn, a clinical instructor of internal medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center, explained to me that zinc is actually a “trace essential element.” That means that our body doesn’t make it naturally, even though we basically need it to survive.
So what does it even do? Zinc, it turns out, has a lot of different functions in the body. Registered dietitian and nutritionist Amy Shapiro of Real Nutrition NYC told me that it’s probably best known as an immune booster (more on that later), but zinc can also help with digestion and help regulate hormone production. In fact, Shapiro says its role in balancing our hormones means that it’s important for fertility and diabetes (as in, if you don’t get enough, it can cause infertility or diabetes). But on top of that, zinc also helps with muscle growth and repair, helps to prevent aging (since it functions like an antioxidant in the body), and also has anti-inflammatory properties, which can help prevent certain diseases.
But how can it help with a cold? According to Dr. Ahn, a number of studies have shown that zinc has been shown to help decrease the duration of a person’s cold. So in other words, if you take zinc at the first sign of a cold, you shouldn’t be sick as long as you otherwise would. And in general, it can help boost your immune response, which helps people fight off colds in the first place. If you come down with a cold, the Mayo Clinic recommends taking zinc lozenges every one to three hours for three to 14 days.
How much zinc does a person need per day? Well, as with all things, the amount of zinc a person needs can change on a case-by-case basis, but in general, adult men need 11 milligrams of zinc per day and adult women need 8 milligrams. However, if a woman is pregnant, she needs 11 milligrams and if she’s breastfeeding, she needs 12 milligrams. The National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements has a handy guide covering the recommended amounts for different age and health groups.
Can I get zinc from foods? Yes! Actually, Dr. Ahn told me that most people (who have balanced diets) actually get enough zinc from their food. Shapiro noted that the most “bioavailable” forms of zinc — the type that our bodies absorb the most readily — are found in animal products. By that she means good sources of meat, seafood, and dairy. But of course, if you’re following a plant-based diet, you can also find zinc in other foods as well, including grains, greens, nuts, and beans.
And what happens if I don’t get enough of it? According to Dr. Ahn, zinc deficiencies are fairly rare in Western countries — they’re seen more frequently in developing regions. But still, zinc deficiencies can happen. And when they do, Shaprio says you’ll generally notice that you’re prone to getting sick and constantly feeling tired, and you may also have a hormone imbalance. More severe symptoms, Dr. Ahn added, hair loss, depression, diarrhea, and rashes. “But those are things that I do not see commonly at all,” he said.
What should I look for when buying a zinc supplement? Dr. Ahn recommends that anyone getting zinc supplements stick with fairly low doses — remember, we only need 8 to 12 milligrams per day. Also, Shapiro told me that most multivitamins typically contain zinc, so check your labels to see if you’re getting enough. But when it comes to taking zinc, Dr. Ahn warned that people should steer clear of zinc nasal sprays and instead stick with oral tablets. “There are multiple zinc sprays that are available that have been linked to causing permanent taste and smell abnormalities in people who use them,” he said.