Zinc Supplements: What You Need to Know

Photo Courtesy: Courtney Hale/iStock

Zinc is an essential nutrient that everyone needs to stay healthy. It’s a mineral that you need in small amounts to keep many of your body systems working. For example, zinc is important for a healthy immune system and helps your body process other key nutrients from food.

Most people can get enough zinc from the foods they eat and don’t need zinc supplements. But some people may need supplements if they have trouble getting zinc from foods. Here we’ll dive into the benefits of zinc, how much your body needs and whether zinc supplements may be right for you. 

How Can I Get Zinc From Foods?

Zinc is in a wide range of foods, so you can get all the zinc you need by eating a healthy balanced diet. You can get zinc from:

  • Meat, like beef and pork
  • Poultry, like chicken, turkey and duck
  • Seafood, like oysters, crab and lobster
  • Other animal products, like milk, cheese and eggs
  • Plant-based foods like nuts, seeds and beans

Many cereals are also fortified with zinc.

Do I Need a Zinc Supplement?

You only need a zinc supplement if you have a zinc deficiency (low zinc level in your body) and your doctor recommends that you take a supplement. It’s important to talk with a doctor before you buy any vitamin or supplement pills. Your doctor can check your zinc levels and tell you if you need a supplement.

Signs that you may not be getting enough zinc include:

  • Loss of taste or smell
  • Poor appetite
  • Depression or low mood
  • Frequent illnesses
  • Wounds that are slow to heal
  • Diarrhea
  • Hair loss

Most people can get all the zinc that they need from food. But some groups are more likely to have a zinc deficiency, including:

  • Vegetarians — Since meat and seafood are some of the best sources of zinc, vegetarians may have more trouble getting enough zinc in their diet.
  • People with alcohol use disorder — Heavy drinking may make it harder for your body to process zinc and also increase the amount of zinc lost in your urine (pee).
  • Older babies who are breastfed — Breast milk has very small amounts of zinc, and babies need more zinc as they get older. So older babies who are still breastfeeding may not be getting enough zinc.
  • Older adults — As you get older, it gets harder for your body to absorb zinc from food. Zinc deficiency is common in people ages 75 and older. 
  • People with certain medical conditions — Zinc deficiency is common in people with conditions like sickle cell disease and some digestive disorders.

The effects of zinc deficiency are similar to changes caused by aging, and low zinc levels may speed up the aging process. Eating a varied diet with foods that are high in zinc can help promote healthy aging. But there’s no clear evidence that taking zinc supplements is helpful for older adults who don’t have a zinc deficiency.

If you’re concerned about a zinc deficiency, talk with your doctor. And always ask your doctor before you start taking any new vitamins or supplements.

What Are the Benefits of Zinc Supplements?

The main benefit of zinc supplements is treating a zinc deficiency. Zinc may also be an effective treatment for people who have Wilson disease, a rare disease that makes copper build up in your organs (because zinc can help lower copper levels).

There’s also some evidence that zinc supplements may have benefits for other common health conditions in certain cases. For example:

  • Diarrhea — Zinc may help treat diarrhea in children who are malnourished. But it’s not recommended for treating diarrhea in children who have a healthy, varied diet.
  • Skin ulcers — Since zinc helps with wound healing, people with zinc deficiency and skin ulcers (open sores or wounds on the skin) may benefit from zinc supplements.
  • Common cold — Zinc is unlikely to prevent you from getting a cold. But evidence suggests that taking zinc supplements or lozenges soon after your symptoms start may help to shorten the length of a cold. 

Researchers are also studying the links between zinc and age-related macular degeneration, an eye disease that leads to vision loss in older adults. While zinc is linked to improved vision, it’s not clear whether zinc supplements can prevent the development of AMD.

Remember, zinc supplements aren’t recommended for everyone, and they can interfere with certain medicines and cause side effects. So make sure to talk with your doctor first.

How Much Zinc Do I Need?

The total amount of zinc you need each day depends on your age, sex and whether you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. Here are some of the recommended daily amounts:

  • Women need 8 mg a day
  • Men need 11 mg a day
  • People who are pregnant or breastfeeding need between 11 and 13 mg a day

For a full list of recommended amounts, see this zinc fact sheet from the National Institutes of Health.

Remember that most people can get the daily recommended amount of zinc from foods — so you probably don’t need a zinc supplement. Zinc can also be harmful if you take too much. It can interfere with how your body absorbs and uses other nutrients, including iron and copper.

The maximum daily intake (highest safe amount) of zinc for adults is 40 mg. But since you’re also getting some zinc from food, never take more than 25 mg of zinc supplements a day (unless your doctor specifically tells you to take more).

And the maximum safe dose for children is even lower — so talk with your child’s doctor before giving them any supplements with zinc in them.

Are There Side Effects of Taking Too Much Zinc?

Yes. High doses of zinc can cause serious side effects, including:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Indigestion or stomach cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Anemia
  • Weak bones

To prevent these side effects, talk with your doctor or a registered dietitian before deciding to take zinc supplements. Taking too much zinc — or taking zinc supplements when you don’t need them — can put you at risk for serious side effects.