Spotlight on zinc

The coronavirus crisis has put a new focus on zinc. Already known to be an important immune system nutrient, researchers have been rushing to work out whether the mineral may play a role in protecting against Covid-19. Here’s the lowdown on zinc, what it does in the body - and how to get the benefits.

What exactly is zinc?

It’s a mineral that helps with a number of important functions in the body. Zinc helps with wound healing, making new cells and enzymes and processing the carbohydrates, protein and fats in food. Women need around 7mg daily, men around 9.5mg. Rich sources of zinc include meat and dairy products, shellfish, bread and cereals.

What role does it play in immunity?

Experts have known for a while zinc is important for immune health. Deficiency in the mineral has been linked to lowered immunity, and some research has suggested taking zinc supplements can help reduce the severity and duration of a cold, if you start it at the first tell-tale sign1.

Zinc is thought to help by playing a number of important roles in the immune system. It’s needed for the development and function of key cells that mediate innate immunity: neutrophils, a type of white blood cell that gobbles up pathogens, and natural killer cells, which swoop in on virus-infected cells. Zinc is also an antioxidant, helping to prevent cell damage2. And it’s needed for the growth and function of the B cells and T cells that are involved in acquired immunity. These cells ‘remember’ infections and make antibodies to fight them. Zinc’s been shown to help prevent viruses replicating. It also plays a role in maintaining the health and integrity of the cells that line the lungs and create a barrier against pathogens – physically preventing viruses entering3.

So, could it really help with coronavirus?

The short answer is we still don’t know. But for all the reasons listed above, zinc’s one of the nutrients scientists have been researching during the coronavirus pandemic. As zinc is known to play a role in so many aspects of immunity, researchers have wondered whether it might be important in the fight against Covid-19. One paper has pointed out the fact that the groups most vulnerable to coronavirus are also those who tend to be deficient in zinc, including the elderly and those with cardiovascular issues, although the connection isn’t well-understood yet.

As well as potentially helping to protect the body against viruses like Covid-19, adequate levels of the mineral seem to support a balanced immune response. This may help avoid the cytokine storm response, where the immune system goes into dangerous overdrive as it tries to fight off a virus4. It’s early days for research into zinc and coronavirus, and the jury’s still out. But researchers who’ve studied it believe supplementing may be especially helpful for vulnerable groups, and for anyone likely to be deficient in the mineral. Meanwhile, there’s no doubt it’s needed for overall wellbeing and to support the normal functioning of the immune system.

How can I get enough zinc?

If you eat a healthy, balanced diet, you should be getting an adequate amount. But some groups may be missing out. Good bioavailable sources include meat, shellfish and dairy, so if you avoid these foods, you may not be getting enough. And some people have an increased need for zinc at certain times. So it can be a good idea to top up with a supplement. Lozenges can be a handy way to take zinc – try our Manuka Middles, containing zinc to support immunity, and Manuka honey, ideal for soothing a sore throat (and mouth-wateringly delicious!).

1. Roa G and Rowland K. Zinc for the common cold: not if but when.
2. Prasad A. Zinc in human health: effect of zinc on immune cells.
3. Wessels I et al. The potential impact of zinc supplementation on Covid 19 pathogenesis.
4. Wessels I et al. The potential impact of zinc supplementation on Covid 19 pathogenesis.