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Zinc is a mineral that is essential for a healthy immune system, production of certain hormones, wound healing, bone formation, and clear skin. It is required in very small amounts, and is thus known as a trace mineral. Despite the low requirement, zinc is found in nearly every cell of the body and is a key to the proper function of more than 300 enzymes, including superoxide dismutase. Normal growth and development cannot occur without it.
The U.S. Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for zinc is 5 milligrams (mg) for children under one year of age, 10 mg for children aged one to 10 years old, 15 mg for males 11 years or older, 12 mg for females 11 years or older, 15 mg for women who are pregnant, and 16-19 mg for women who are lactating.
Zinc has become a popular remedy for the common cold. Evidence shows that it is unlikely to prevent upper respiratory infections, but beginning a supplement promptly when symptoms occur can significantly shorten the duration of the illness. The only form of zinc proven effective for this purpose is the zinc gluconate or zinc acetate lozenge. Formulations of 13-23 mg or more appear to be most effective, and need to be dissolved in the mouth in order to exert antiviral properties. Swallowing or sucking on oral zinc tablets will not work. The lozenges can be used every two hours for up to a week or two at most.
People who are deficient in zinc are prone to getting more frequent and longer lasting infections of various types. Zinc acts as an immune booster, in part due to stimulation of the thymus gland. This gland tends to shrink with age, and consequently produces less of the hormones that boost the production of infection-fighting white blood cells. Supplemental zinc, at one to two times RDA amounts, can reverse this tendency and improve immune function.
In another immune stimulant capacity, zinc can offer some relief from chronic infections with Candida albicans, or yeast. Most women will experience a vaginal yeast infection at some time, and are particularly prone to them during the childbearing years. Some individuals appear to be more susceptible than others. One study showed yeast-fighting benefits for zinc even for those who were not deficient in the mineral to begin with. Other supplements that will complement zinc in combating yeast problems are vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin E. Another measure that can help to limit problems with Candida is eating yogurt, which is an excellent source of Lactobacillus, a friendly bacteria that competes with yeast. Limiting sweets in the diet and eating garlic or odor-free garlic supplements may also prove helpful.
People who are going to have surgery are well advised to make sure they are getting the RDA of zinc, vitamin A, and vitamin C in order to optimize wound healing. A deficiency of any of these nutrients can significantly lengthen the time it takes to heal. Adequate levels of these vitamins and minerals for at least a few weeks before and after surgery can speed healing. The same nutrients are important to minimize the healing time of bedsores, burns, and other skin lesions.
There are two male health problems that can potentially benefit from zinc supplementation. Testosterone is one of the hormones that requires zinc for production. Men with infertility as a result of low testosterone levels may experience improvement from taking a zinc supplement. Another common condition that zinc can be helpful for is benign prostatic hypertrophy, a common cause of abnormally frequent urination in older men. Taking an
Teenagers are often low in zinc, and also tend to experience more acne than the general population. The doses used in studies have been in the high range, requiring medical supervision, but increasing dietary zinc or taking a modest supplement in order to get the RDA amount is low risk and may prove helpful for those suffering from acne. People should consult a knowledgeable health care provider before taking large doses of any supplement.
There is some evidence that zinc supplementation may slightly relieve the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, but the studies are not yet conclusive. It's possible that those who initially had low zinc levels benefited the most.
In 2002, new research showed certain concentrations of zinc improved the effect of a therapy called interferon for some patients with chronic hepatitis C. Although the trial was preliminary, it showed promise for further research into zinc's effects in enhancing interferon therapy.
Zinc is sometimes promoted as an aid for memory. This may be true to the extent that vitamin B6 and neurotransmitters are not properly utilized without it. However, in the case of people with Alzheimer's disease, zinc can cause more harm than good. Some experiments indicate that zinc actually decreases intellectual function of people with this disease. Under these circumstances, it is probably best to stick to the RDA of 15 mg as a maximum daily amount of zinc.
The frequency of sickle-cell crisis in patients with sickle-cell anemia may be decreased by zinc supplementation. The decrease was significant in one study, although the severity of the attacks that occurred was not affected. Use of zinc supplementation or other treatment for sicklecell anemia, a serious condition, should not be undertaken without the supervision of a health care provider.
Both the retina of the eye, and the cochlea in the inner ear contain large amounts of zinc, which they appear to need in order to function properly. Dr. George E. Shambaugh, Jr., M.D., is a professor emeritus of otolaryngology and head and neck surgery at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago. In Prevention's Healing with Vitamins, he "estimates that about 25% of the people he sees with severe tinnitus are zinc-deficient." He adds that they sometimes have other symptoms of zinc deficiency. Large doses may be used in order to provide relief for this problem. Medical supervision and monitoring are necessary to undertake this course of treatment.
Topical zinc can be useful for some conditions, including cold sores. It is also available in a combination formula with the antibiotic erythromycin for the treatment of acne. Zinc oxide is a commonly used ingredient in the strongest sun block preparations and some creams for the treatment of diaper rash and superficial skin injuries. Men can use topical zinc oxide to speed the healing of genital herpes lesions, but it is too drying for women to use in the vaginal area.
There is still not enough information on some of the claims that are made for zinc. A few that may have merit are the prevention or slowing of macular degeneration, and relieving psoriasis. One should consult a health care provider for these uses.
Author Info: Judith Turner, Teresa G. Odle, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit, Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine, 2005This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your healthcare provider. Please consult a healthcare professional with any health concerns you may have.
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