By Melissa Mitri, MS, RD
Eating a healthy, nutritious diet is key to supporting your immune system and reducing your susceptibility to colds and other illnesses. Zinc is one nutrient in particular that can help support a healthy immune system.
Zinc is a mineral that serves many important functions in our bodies, but one of its main functions is in keeping our immune system strong. It does this by helping immune cells communicate with each other. This communication between cells helps them activate in times of stress or illness. In doing this, zinc helps to initiate an inflammatory response to fight the threat.
In fact, several studies have found that zinc supplementation substantially reduced the incidence and duration of the common cold.
Zinc is an essential mineral found in food or supplements. One of the most abundant trace minerals in our bodies, it is necessary for the proper function of more than 300 enzymes involved in our metabolism the functioning of our nervous and immune systems.
In fact, zinc is essential for immunity. Zinc deficiency has been associated with increased inflammation, a reduced immune response and an increased risk of illness. Zinc also promotes wound healing by helping to maintain skin integrity.
People at risk for zinc deficiency are vegetarians, those with digestive illnesses and pregnant or breastfeeding women. These groups need to be cautious of their intake of foods high in zinc or take a supplement.
Alternatively, those with adequate zinc levels were found to have less inflammation and were more likely to have stronger immune systems.
Many foods contain varying amounts of zinc, but the best sources come from animal foods such as shellfish, chicken, and red meat like beef and pork. The zinc contained in animal foods is more readily absorbed in our bodies. Therefore, if you don’t eat meat, you’ll need to consume a large amount of zinc-containing plant foods or a supplement to meet your daily needs.
The best plant-based sources of zinc include legumes like chickpeas and lentils, nuts and seeds, mushrooms, kale, and peas. Dairy, eggs and whole grains also provide zinc. Vegetarian sources are absorbed less efficiently because of other plant compounds present that limit absorption. If you’re worried you may not be getting enough in your diet, taking a supplement can give you peace of mind.
The recommended daily intake, or RDI, for zinc is 11 mg for men and 8 mg for women. If you choose to take a supplement, zinc citrate or zinc gluconate are more absorbable forms than zinc oxide. Many multivitamins with minerals may contain zinc in varying amounts. Alternatively, you can choose a separate zinc supplement or an immune-boosting formulation that contains zinc.
A well-balanced diet is key to ensuring you get adequate zinc, but if that’s not doable, a high-quality zinc supplement is your best bet for warding off colds and other infections.
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