Zinc: It’s your go-to immune nutrient that is essential for athletes. Zinc bolsters your body’s first line of defense against invading colds and viruses. Scientists call zinc a “gatekeeper” mineral for health. It is necessary for the body to recover from illness and injury. Zinc also has an under-appreciated role in energy metabolism. These factors make zinc a vital nutrient for athletes or anyone aimed at optimizing their physical performance.
Interestingly, athletes, especially those with special diets or who compete in endurance sports, are at high risk of a zinc deficiency. Scientists estimate zinc deficiency rates as high as 90 percent in vegetarian endurance athletes.
Zinc Is Essential For Life
Zinc is necessary for your cells to function and produce energy. This mineral also maintains the integrity of cell membranes. It protects them from free radicals that damage tissue and lead to inflammation. Further, zinc is involved in DNA reproduction, meaning that it affects your body’s ability to heal and repair tissue after an injury or hard training session.
Zinc & Athletic Performance
As an athlete, it’s certain that you need these factors working for you:
- Rapid energy production so that you have a high work capacity.
- Strong, sustained protein synthesis for muscle and tissue repair following training.
- Robust ability to scavenge free radicals that accumulate as inflammation.
- Vigorous immune system for faster recovery and avoiding illness.
Zinc plays a direct role in all these actions. How does it do it?
Zinc Raises Enzymes
One thing zinc is best known for is its role in enzyme function. It is a cofactor for enzymes that allow the body to produce energy, especially at high intensities. For example, zinc is necessary for lactate dehydrogenase, which affects the body’s ability to metabolize lactate. Lactate is a rate-limiting byproduct that causes that awful “burning” sensation in your muscles.
For this reason, studies show that athletes with low zinc status are more prone to fatigue. They also have lower power output and a lower blood lactate threshold that compromises their ability to perform at high intensities.
Zinc Supports Tissue Repair
Zinc is necessary for maintaining cell membranes and gene signaling. Together these functions allow for the repair of tissue, including wounds, bone fractures, and damaged muscle fibers. Studies show that zinc leads to slow injury recovery rates.
Zinc Improves Antioxidant Action
Zinc is a potent antioxidant, helping to protect the body from inflammation. Unlike other minerals like iron and copper, zinc lacks redox properties, which means the body can use it without risk of damage to cells.
Zinc Provides Immune Support
Zinc improves the activity of immune cells and raises activity of superoxide dismutase, another enzyme that protects tissues from illness or invasion by pathogens.
How Does Zinc Deficiency Impair Athletic Performance?
Impacts Energy Production
Aerobic exercise increases oxygen demand by 10 to 15 times over resting conditions. This leads to the production of oxidative stress that can damage tissue and cause muscle inflammation. Zinc bolsters the body’s antioxidant defenses by raising levels of the enzyme superoxide dismutase (SOD). In addition to helping the body adapt to intense exercise, SOD is protective against several chronic diseases, such as acute lung disease, heart disease, high blood pressure, kidney failure, diabetic retinopathy, and osteoarthritis.
Affects Bone Health
Another benefit of zinc is its role in strengthening bones. Low zinc compromises bone health—an important factor for athletes who need to produce high ground reaction forces that require strong bones. Zinc enables bone mineralization, which is necessary for recovering from fracture.
Impacts Testosterone Release
Zinc affects plasma testosterone. Testosterone is a hormone that regulates strength and muscle mass in men. It is associated with ability to win in both men and women.
One of the most interesting ways zinc affects performance is in how it regulates appetite and nutrient balance. Zinc plays a pivotal role in our ability to taste because it is necessary for the synthesis of gustin, a protein secreted into saliva that affects the growth of taste buds. Lack of zinc decreases our taste intensity and leads to poor appetite, especially for proteins. This exacerbates the deficiency since protein foods are the primary source of bioavailable zinc.
For athletes who require high energy intake, loss of taste lowers appetite and compromises nutrient status while leading to weight loss. Female athletes are especially at risk of low zinc and poor appetite, which can exacerbate menstrual cycle irregularities and compromise bone health.
Zinc Deficiency Rates
In the general population, low zinc is an unappreciated, common problem. In the national health and nutrition survey (NHANES), at least 30 percent of Americans do not meet the RDA for zinc (8 mg for women and 11 mg for men). Health factors increase zinc requirements and low zinc is common in the elderly, pregnant women, serious athletes, prediabetics, and those with sickle cell anemia, renal disease, alcoholism, gastrointestinal disease, HIV, and insulin resistance. Zinc deficiency is also common in individuals with eating disorders, burn patients, and malnourished children.
In athletes, zinc requirements are high due to the loss of zinc in sweat and its depletion during physical stress. Researchers theorize that loss of zinc during sweating may be a contributing factor to why testosterone levels are depressed after exhaustive exercise.
Diet and type of exercise also increase risk of zinc deficiency. Plant-based foods contain phytates that impair zinc absorption making meat and other animal products the best foods for getting your zinc.
Vegetarian diets or those high in carbs (carbs making up over 70 percent of the calories) are associated with suboptimal zinc status. Combined with endurance training, this is estimated to cause zinc deficiency in 90 percent of athletes who follow high-carb, low-meat diets.
Additionally, zinc affects the body's absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Even marginal zinc deficiency causes a marked decrease in the absorption of fats, decreasing the key antioxidant and immune nutrients vitamin A and vitamin E.
Zinc Supplementation Recommendations
To correct low zinc, a high-quality zinc chelate such as UberZinc will help restore the body’s zinc levels and it can also be used for extra immune support to overcome an acute illness such as COVID-19.
For longer term use, zinc combined with selenium and copper will optimize nutrient stores and support the body’s ability to recover from intense training. Zinc Essentials supplies zinc, copper, and selenium in the proper ratios. Avoid taking zinc without copper for the long term because doing so will lead to an imbalance between these two nutrients.
Zinc should be taken with food in order to avoid stomach upset or nausea. It should be taken separately from supplements containing iron or magnesium for better absorption. Coffee may impair zinc absorption by 50 percent and coffee drinkers should delay taking zinc for one hour from coffee ingestion.