Zinc is a trace mineral, one that your body needs in very small quantities – but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. Zinc participates in numerous chemical reactions inside our body, including ones involved in wound healing, immune function, fertility, and cell growth. Despite its importance for human health, research shows that many people, especially those over the age of 60, don’t get enough zinc and need more of this mineral than younger people. In addition, according to some studies, you need more zinc if you exercise. Can getting more zinc in your diet improve your exercise performance? Here are reasons why you should make sure you’re getting enough zinc, especially if you work out and have a zinc deficiency.
Zinc Supports Muscle Growth and Strength Gains
When you strength train, you need the support of hormones like growth hormone and testosterone to support muscle growth. You also need a hormone produced by your liver called IGF-1. Zinc is directly involved in the synthesis and release of these muscle-friendly hormones. In addition, studies in men show a link between zinc deficiency and lower testosterone. When these men were supplemented with zinc, their testosterone level rose. Getting enough dietary zinc helps create a hormonal environment that promotes muscle growth when you strength train.
Zinc Supports Healthy Immune Function
Exercise in moderation boosts immune function and may offer protection against colds and other viruses. That’s one of the many benefits of working out! Yet, exercise is also stressful on your body. Without proper nutritional support, especially if you’re doing multiple, intense training sessions, you may become more susceptible to catching the latest viruses that are passing around. Zinc influences multiple aspects of immune function and if you’re not getting enough of this essential mineral, your susceptibility to infection goes up. Zinc activates cells called natural killer cells that can quickly and decisively vanquish viruses. That’s what you want when everyone around you has a cold.
You Lose Zinc When You Work Out
You also lose zinc when you sweat. A study published in the FASEB Journal found participants experienced a significant drop in their zinc level during the recovery period after an aerobic workout. Losses of zinc should be greater with high-intensity workouts and during longer periods of exercise since you sweat more. According to a study published in Sports Medicine, endurance athletes are at higher risk of zinc deficiency and athletes may experience loss of muscle and bone mass as a result. Plus, research shows zinc deficiency can reduce muscle strength and endurance.
Zinc Deficiency May Slow Fat Loss
If you’re trying to lose body fat, getting enough dietary zinc may help you achieve that goal. Although it isn’t proven that zinc boosts fat loss in people who aren’t deficient, several studies support the role zinc plays in shedding body fat. For one, a 2013 study found that obese individuals tend to have lower zinc levels than leaner people. Another study also showed that obese adults who supplemented with zinc for one month experienced a significant reduction in BMI and waist size. Zinc is probably not the next great fat loss supplement but getting enough of it through diet could make it easier to control your weight.
Zinc Aids in Exercise Recovery
After a tough workout, your body needs rest so you can make a full recovery. Zinc may help here too. Zinc helps modulate the stress response and exercise is a stressor on our body, although a good one in moderation since it causes your body to adapt. After a workout, your muscles need to repair and zinc is one of the minerals you need to facilitate those repairs. Plus, zinc helps to modify the stress response by acting as an antioxidant. Some experts even believe that zinc slows the aging process by reducing the oxidative burden of cells.
Are You at Risk of a Zinc Deficiency?
Two groups of people are at the highest risk of zinc deficiency – vegetarians and folks over the age of 60. You find zinc in highest concentrations in meat and seafood. Although whole grains, beans, and lentils contain respectable quantities of zinc, zinc is less easily absorbed from plant-based foods. If you consume dairy, milk, and cheese, you’ll get moderate amounts of zinc from these foods. However, if you eat a mostly plant-based diet, make sure you’re including plant foods with the highest concentrations of zinc, including nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes, and wheat germ.
What about men and women over the age of 60? Research shows as many as 40% of older people may be zinc deficient. In older animals, the proteins that transport zinc into cells don’t function as well as they did during youth. This increases the risk of tissues and cells becoming zinc deficient. Zinc is closely tied to the immune response and inflammation. Researchers speculate that some of the chronic health problems older people experience may be related to inflammation brought on by zinc deficiency.
If you don’t consume enough calories, you’re also at higher risk of low zinc levels and are in danger of other vitamin and mineral deficiencies as well. Excessive calorie restriction simply isn’t good for your body! Research shows that women are at higher risk of zinc deficiency than men, partially due to the fact that women more commonly restrict calories.
How do you know if you’re deficient? You can measure your zinc level through a red blood cell zinc test. If you’re severely deficient, you may need a zinc supplement, but talk to your doctor before taking one. Taking high doses of one mineral can interfere with the absorption of another. For example, zinc reduces the absorption of copper. That’s why most zinc supplements contain both.
If possible, get your zinc from food sources – but make sure you’re getting enough, especially if you’re physically active.
Poliquin Group. “Top 10 Benefits of Zinc”
Am J Clin Nutr August 1998. Vol. 68 no. 2 447S-463S
The FASEB Journal. Vol. 30 no. 1 Supplement 919.1 April 2016.
Biol Trace Elem Res. 2013 Aug;154(2):168-77. doi: 10.1007/s12011-013-9718-4. Epub 2013 Jun 21.
Adv Pharm Bull. 2013; 3(1): 161–165. Published online 2013 Feb 7. doi: 10.5681/apb.2013.027.
Science Daily. “Zinc Deficiency Mechanism Linked to Aging, Multiple Diseases”
Sports Med. 2001;31(8):577-82.
Medscape. “Nutrition and Athletic Performance”
Sports Med. 2001;31:577-82.
Related articles By Cathe: