January 4th 2019
Zinc - the one supplement that could keep you cold-free this winter
November 21st 2018 / 0 comment
Scratchy throat? Swapping vitamin C or echinacea for a zinc supplement when you're feeling off colour, could be the key to stopping it from worsening. Here’s why
The cacophony of sneezes that bombard us on our morning commutes can mean only one thing - sniffle-season is well and truly upon us and it’s about to make our journeys into work that much more stressful. The odds of making it to spring sneeze-free are stacked against us, however, having some zinc supplements on standby could help turn them back in our favour - more so than a supply of vitamin C or echinacea.
The science backs it up. It’s the one supplement that Dr Michael Mosley rates for its cold-curbing ability - it has impressive preventative potential, as seen from a study conducted by the University of Alberta that found that children who took 10 to 15mg of zinc daily, were less likely to miss school due to a cold.
Taking a zinc supplement can also decrease the length of a cold too, as seen in another study that found that zinc acetate lozenges reduced duration from seven days to four. “It is theorised that zinc lozenges may work because positively charged zinc is strongly antiviral and astringent,” explains Shabir Daya, pharmacist and co-founder of Victoria Health. “It seems to also protect our membranes from a variety of assaults too.”
Zinc also prevents viruses from attaching to cells in the nasal passage and therefore stops them from entering the body, nutritionist Christine Bailey tells me. What’s more, it plays an important role in antibody production too.
Despite us needing more of the stuff as we step into winter, many of us are deficient in this immunity-boosting mineral. It’s something that Christine frequently sees in her clinic. Daily requirements are recommended at 7mg if you’re a woman, 9.5mg if you’re a man and sticking to these quotas has been linked to a stronger immune system and greater resiliency to illness. The best dietary sources in Christine’s experience include shellfish like oysters, crabs, mussels, lobsters and clams, lean meats such as beef, pork, lamb and poultry like turkey and chicken, and also some fish like sardines, salmon and sole. If you’re vegetarian or vegan though, seek out your zinc in beans and pulses like chickpeas, lentils, black beans and kidney beans, as well as nuts and seeds such as pumpkin seeds, cashews, hemp seeds and tahini. Some can be found in certain grains like oats, quinoa, brown rice and fortified breakfast cereals too.
Why take a zinc supplement?
While reaching the amounts recommended is achievable through diet, Christine highlights that you’d need to eat quite a lot of the foods highlighted in order to do so. 7mg per day roughly equates to seven tablespoons of tahini, 100g (around one packet) of pumpkin seeds or four cupfuls of cooked chickpeas if you’re vegetarian or vegan; one small cooked fillet steak, 125g canned crab, 200g roast turkey or five cupfuls of plain low fat yoghurt if you’re a dairy/meat-eater.
While a ‘food first, supplements second’ approach is best, a zinc supplement can be useful in Christine's experience, for correcting deficiency. It can also serve as a helping hand in getting you up to a higher immune health-boosting dose that can prevent the first signs of a cold developing into something worse.
What should you look for in a zinc supplement?
Zinc lozenges can be particularly effective when taken as soon as you feel a little off colour (say if you have a scratchy throat, for example). The type of zinc compound that your supplement contains is key though. “Choose absorbable forms such as zinc citrate or zinc gluconate,” advises Christine. “Stay away from zinc oxide, which is poorly absorbed.”
How long should you take a zinc supplement for?
To prevent a cold from taking hold, taking a zinc supplement for the first two to three days of showing symptoms can be helpful. It’s most effective if taken within 24 hours, according to this study. It’s important to ensure that you aren’t taking it in conjunction with other zinc supplements though (say if you’re taking a multivitamin), to avoid going over safe limits. Also consider how much zinc you're getting from your diet and that your intake of other immunity-boosting nutrients is taken into account too.
“If you’re taking a zinc supplement for colds and flu, it is for short-term use only and should be no more than 25mg,” Christine says. Taking more than the recommended daily amount of zinc for long periods of time may inhibit copper and iron absorption and cause nausea, diarrhoea, headaches and/or abdominal cramps.
The best zinc supplements for colds
Here are Christine’s and Shabir’s top picks. If you’re on prescription medication, consult your GP first as taking a zinc supplement can interfere with them.
Lamberts Zinc Citrate, £5.20 for 90 tablets
Nutri-West Zinc Lozenges, £17.14 for 60 tablets
Solgar Flavo-Zinc Lozenges, £4.99 for 50
Disclaimer: Certain supplements are used for different reasons and a one-size-fits-all approach should never be adopted. In addition, pregnant women and anyone on medication should always consult a doctor before embarking on a supplements programme.