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Everything You Need to Know About the Trace Mineral Zinc

If you’re hearing a lot about zinc these days, that’s no surprise. Due to its much-studied impact on supporting immune resilience and health, this trace mineral is always a hot topic throughout the winter months — and especially under the current global circumstances. 

Because immune health is top of mind right now and zinc is well known for its immune-supporting properties, you may find yourself asking: Could I be deficient in zinc, putting me at risk? Am I getting enough zinc through my diet? Should I consider supplementing? 

These are important and relevant questions,so let’s take a dive into everything you need to know about zinc, and get you on the road to optimal immune health.

Why is zinc so important?

Found in all tissues of the body, zinc is critical for cell growth. It plays a key role in many biological functions, including epidermal, gastrointestinal, central nervous, immune, skeletal, and reproductive systems, and is particularly important for proper childhood development.

Deficiency in this mineral during growth periods may be tied to a condition known as “failure to thrive.” (1)

This cellular-level nutrient encourages the human body to make key genetic material like proteins and DNA, but also helps wounds heal, plays a part in taste and smell, and works to naturally fortify the immune system against unwanted bugs, bacteria, and viruses. (2,3,4,5) That’s why you see zinc in many over-the-counter seasonal supplements touted to help ward off or shorten the length of sicknesses.

For immune support, you can picture zinc working in three ways: 1: through the production and function of immune cells and compounds at a foundational level; 2: fortifying immune defenses at mucosal barriers, for example in the back of the throat; and 3: helping to uphold a “tight junction” and membrane integrity, including respiratory function in the lungs. (6,7)

Humans get zinc through food, particularly animal sources. But beans, nuts, whole grains, and dairy also contain decent amounts of zinc. Interestingly, oysters offer the best source of food-based zinc, and the trace mineral is added to those “fortified” breakfast cereals, too. 

But if your diet lacks any of these — for example if you’re a strict vegetarian or vegan — you may not be getting the recommended daily amount of zinc (approximately 8 milligrams for women and 11 for men). (8) Globally, 17.3% of the population is at risk for zinc deficiency due to inadequate dietary intakes. (9) These findings suggest that supplementing with zinc may be necessary for a large percentage of the population. 

Most zinc binds to proteins in the body, but some of it is known as “free,” in ionic form. This simply means that it is more available to be used by the body. However, zinc is inherently difficult to absorb via the gut, whether from food or supplements, and actually getting zinc into cells where it’s needed most can be tricky.  

And here’s why: There are limited and or inefficient cellular transporters for zinc to enter the cell.  Plus a protective compound called phytic acid found in grains, beans, seeds, and nuts can prevent zinc absorption. (10) Gut dysbiosis, or an imbalance between good and bad bacteria in the gut, can also impair zinc absorption. (11)

Why are we not getting enough zinc?

People with a well-rounded diet could feasibly get enough zinc by eating a variety of foods mentioned above throughout the day, hoping enough passes through the “gut barrier” into the cells. But some of us are more susceptible to potential zinc deficiency. 

For example, in areas of the world where people consume lots of cereal-based foods and not much meat, low zinc levels may be common. Pregnant and lactating women, as well as their infants, need extra zinc, as the mineral quickly depletes during this formative time period. 

Even for adults who think they’re getting enough zinc through diet, that pesky phytic acid on the outside of otherwise healthy foods remains problematic, as it inhibits zinc’s potential bioavailability.

How can we get more zinc to our cells?

While we can certainly modify our diets to include more zinc-loaded foods, getting this trace mineral to the cells more directly may require some assistance. Luckily, there are remarkable breakthroughs in zinc supplementation, particularly how the key mineral can be made more bioavailable to the body. 

Research indicates that zinc’s immune-supporting properties exponentially increase when delivered in an ionic form, called a zinc ionophore. (12) A zinc ionophore is a compound that reversibly binds zinc ions, transporting zinc across cell membranes independently of zinc transporters. (13) Essentially, an ionophore helps zinc complexes move passively into cells through the cell membrane without using energy. And, as we know, increasing cellular levels of zinc is how we’re going to get the most out of this essential mineral. 

To form these ionophores, zinc requires some “helpers.” Quercetin, luteolin, and propolis are three flavonoids that show promise in delivering greater bioavailability when combined with zinc. Quercetin, a plant flavonoid found in onions, green tea, apples, and berries, already demonstrates remarkable zinc ionophore activity. (14) It also works to mitigate the harmful effects of excess zinc.

Luteolin also complexes with zinc to support cellular uptake, modulates histamine levels, and supports immune balance in the respiratory tract, addressing multiple aspects of healthy immune function. (15) Propolis supports internal defenses against foreign invaders, complementing zinc’s immune-supporting activities. (16)

A better way to deliver supplemental zinc 

Only the most sophisticated supplement makers are able to put an ionophore in forms that can infuse through the cells, essentially bypassing the gut altogether.

There are a couple of very promising biochemical delivery mechanisms for getting zinc to places where the body can use it best: spray and SEDS (self-emulsifying delivery system). If made in a lab with access to this advanced technology, both methods can leverage the ionophore complex mentioned above.

A liquid zinc-based spray is best used locally in the throat. By applying a high-density oral zinc complex where we most often come in contact with outside bugs, we can support our frontline internal defenses against these foreign invaders. (17) A spray is especially easy to apply, particularly while on the go in your daily routine, while traveling, and when you know you’re heading to an environment with increased threats.

SEDS, or self-emulsifying delivery system, is another cutting-edge supplement delivery method for natural compounds like zinc that have an unpleasant taste at higher concentrations or like curcumin that may “stain.” Instead of using a traditional capsule,where the compounds break down in the gut before getting into the cells, SEDS, in the form of a softgel, offers a superior alternative for delivery, bypassing the digestive process. 

Pharmacokinetic studies indicate that as the softgel quickly dissolves in the stomach its emulsified nanoparticles can more easily diffuse through intestinal cell membranes into the bloodstream in as little as 20 minutes, with peak blood concentration occurring within 90 minutes. (18) Putting a zinc ionophore into a SEDS softgel supports getting these critical ingredients quickly into your blood and cells where they are needed most. 

Interested in learning more about zinc’s foundational benefits and zinc products available through Quicksilver Scientific? Check out our latest offerings.

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