The Often-Overlooked Role of Zinc in the Age of Viruses

Essential trace mineral helps regulate our immune response in ways that affect COVID-19 outcomes
May 28, 2020 Updated: May 28, 2020

Despite our most valiant efforts to avoid catching COVID-19, this is neither the first nor last viral pandemic that will sweep the world. While pharmaceutical companies work to find a vaccine or effective treatment, a common and critical nutrient deficiency is undermining our immune response.

The role of zinc, an essential trace mineral, has been studied for decades. The consequences of zinc deficiency are seen in people with genetic disorders, immune dysfunctions, emotional disorders, thyroid and neurological issues, and many other illnesses.

Zinc deficiency is among the most common malnutrition problems worldwideZinc is a key ingredient in creating enzymes and proteins involved in many biochemical pathways.

It isn’t surprising that zinc deficiency is so common. This mineral began disappearing from our soil with the advent of industrial agriculture, largely due to farming practices reliant on chemical fertilizers and pesticides that deplete the soil’s immune system, alter its pH balance, and harm healthy soil-borne microorganisms that help create trace minerals.

Anthony William, the best-selling author of a series titled Medical Medium, summarized much of the research around zinc deficiency, warning that not getting enough zinc will cause the immune system to overreact to virulent flu, or underreact to a low-level chronic viral infection such as herpes or Epstein-Barr virus.

When our immune system is well-stocked with zinc, it slows these viruses by repelling and weakening them, allowing the lymphatic system and liver to quickly kill off and remove the virus particles from the body.

An overreacting immune system, in the form of a “cytokine storm,” is a particular problem with COVID-19.

A cytokine storm occurs when the immune system overreacts to infectious or noninfectious diseases, and the inflammatory response spirals out of control, elevating inflammation to dangerous levels. This explains why otherwise completely healthy people can get so virulently sick with COVID-19.

A study in 2011 showed that zinc was able to suppress immune [hyper] response and regulate the inflammatory cytokines.

A compilation of studies done by the WHO in 2011 looked at children diagnosed with other respiratory infections and affirmed this aspect of zinc supplementation.

“Zinc is thought to help decrease susceptibility to acute lower respiratory tract infections by regulating various immune functions,” wrote the WHO researchers.

Halting the prolonged respiratory failure and death caused by cytokine storm is especially important due to the lack of other treatments. If zinc can do this, COVID-19 just might become a standard flu.

Another benefit of zinc was revealed in a 2010 study that showed that zinc blocks RNA replication for coronaviruses like COVID-19. Earlier studies showed zinc could do this for poliovirus and influenza virus as well. This action effectively stops the virus from reproducing itself inside host cells.

Without this trace mineral, our immune systems are unable to respond effectively to viral threats and our body becomes a prime hunting ground for viruses. With it, it is better able to hunt down invading pathogens.

Recently, Australia started a few clinical trials, one of which will examine the effects of a high-dose of zinc injected straight into the bloodstream of COVID-19 patients. The pharmaceutical industry already recognizes the effectiveness of zinc in fighting pathogens, as it is used in products such as dandruff shampoo, anti-fungal (ringworm) body washes and creams, diaper rash creams, and more. Further studies are being done including combining zinc with hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin to fight COVID-19.

Zinc could affect COVID-19 outcomes in other ways as well.

The Independent reported that about one-quarter of COVID-19 deaths in England were people with diabetes. According to Cambridge University Press, zinc is important for insulin function, and a lack of zinc can contribute to diabetes and its complications, including impaired response to oxidant stress. Diabetes itself depletes zinc, which should always be monitored in diabetic patients.

High quality, alcohol-free liquid zinc sulfate products are available online and in health food stores for around $30. For healthy people, a few drops per day will do, but for someone who is becoming sick, or already sick, several full droppers are a more effective dose. Taking a full dropper every 3–4 hours when you are getting sick or already sick can often stop the virus in its tracks.

Far too much evidence has been compiled from thousands of studies to dismiss the importance of zinc in supporting a strong immune system. That means it is entirely rational to suggest that getting enough zinc can help maximize your chances of fighting off this new pathogen and being one of the people who are asymptomatic.

We do not know how long it takes to gain herd immunity to COVID-19. Shutting down the world economy to avoid widespread infection may flatten the curve, but if the curve is flattened too much, it may only prolong the duration of mass contagion.

Meanwhile, social distancing and self-quarantine requirements come with their own health impacts. Keeping us inside and sedentary is further weakening our immune systems.

It is important we look for ways to ensure our immune systems, the most powerful tool we have to deal with COVID-19, are in top shape. No drug, vaccine, or other treatment can more effectively deal with a pathogen than our own bodies. This basic fact of disease and our biology is overlooked to dangerous effect.

We all have a choice to make right now; to become weaker and more vulnerable, or stronger and more adaptable. Choose to strengthen yourself with this essential trace mineral—we all need it.

Joni Renee Zalk holds a master’s degree in Chinese medicine from Middlesex University in London and enjoys living in sunny Boulder, Colo. She does volunteer acupuncture treatments for addiction centers and nonprofit organizations.