It’s that time of the year again when we reach for the medicine cabinet and decide what supplement regime we will follow to ward off illness in those dark winter months. As our sun tans fade, we are conscious of getting enough of the right nutrients to keep our immunity in top condition so as to minimize the threat of flu season and all the plethora of winter ills. One nutrient however that most of us recognize as vital in this fight is zinc as zinc contributes to the normal function of the immune system. However, with so many brands of zinc supplements on the market and so much confusion out there, how do we know if we are taking enough and how do we know if the quality is sufficient to get results?

Let’s start with facts and some recent research. Zinc is an essential trace element in the body and is vital in over 300 enzyme reactions. It has a role in the biochemistry of physiological processes that govern everything from the way we look and feel, to our immunity, to our sexual health. While severe zinc deficiency is rare in developed countries it is sometimes seen in groups with no animal protein intake who are not careful to find suitable vegetable sources in their diet. However, the World Health Organisation estimates that up to 80% of us are mildly zinc deficient and there are very definite symptoms associated with this. Fatigue, lowered immunity, loss of libido, macular degeneration and a host of skin conditions can manifest in this zinc deficient state.

The RDA in the USA for zinc can vary between government agencies but the National Institutes for Health states that it is 11mg for adult men and 8mg for adult women. This figure is also used by the Linus Pauling Institute in OSU which is at the forefront of zinc research. Scientists at this institute found little evidence that zinc lozenges decreased the duration of the common cold and they also found that too much zinc was damaging to the immune system in the same way that too little is. So how much should we take?

Given that the food we eat contains some zinc it is reasonable to figure we need a small amount by way of supplementation to make sure we get enough. Lifestyle is a big factor also. Athletes, pregnant and lactating women and sexually active men may have an increased need for zinc nutrition. However, when you take zinc elementally like in lozenges such as zinc gluconate or zinc acetate, you risk interfering with the body’s delicate balance of trace elements. Too much zinc can, for example, lead to copper deficiency. Copper deficiency can affect energy production and neurological processes in the brain. So, you take zinc for fatigue, then copper uptake is affected, causing problems with energy production. Back to square one.

I digress for a moment: This problem exists every time we take minerals elementally i.e. on their own. Our bodies have never been used to getting minerals or vitamins individually. They come in a matrix in the food we eat. This matrix is usually some kind of protein or fat which is broken down into small sub units during digestion. These sub units with their associated minerals and vitamins are then used to build the complex molecules our bodies need for normal functioning. For those with a limited knowledge of biochemistry it is not easy to understand. To use an analogy, let’s say you wanted to make a bicycle and I handed you 2 wheels, a saddle, pedals, a chain, brakes, handle bars and a frame, you would put it all together pretty quickly and ride away. It’s like this when you get your minerals and vitamins from a natural, unprocessed, organic source. The body has the building blocks it needs to maintain us. However, imagine if I handed you instead of 2 wheels, some wire and rubber to make the tyres, some bits of metal to make the spokes, some ball bearings, some nuts, a wheel rim, some rubber for the tube, the different components for the valve etc. Then I did this for all the other parts of the bicycle, you would then have literally thousands of components to put together to make your bike. Think you could manage that? Well it’s a bit like that when we fill our bodies with individual minerals and vitamins and expect to maintain good health.