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Will Taking a Zinc Supplement Help Protect You From the Coronavirus?

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
Zinc supplement for COVID-19?

With fall approaching and seasonal flu shots now available, here’s what you need to know about taking supplements like zinc to help protect you from the coronavirus and whether you should buy zinc lozenges now before all the stores run out this winter.

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Are taking supplements for disease protection really a good idea?

A recent conversation with a relative revealed that a co-worker was dosing himself daily with zinc supplements to help protect himself against the coronavirus. His rationale was that since the flu is also viral and that he had heard of taking supplemental zinc to prevent and treat influenza, that it therefore made good sense to give his body an edge against COVID-19 by priming the pump with zinc “just in case.”

The co-worker’s rationale and actions are not unusual. Whenever the public feels that their current health system is failing them, they will turn to self-medication alternatives such as going on multivitamin binges and taking herbal supplements.

However, while multivitamins and some supplements are generally safe, a recent NIH News in Health posting poses that concerns of effectiveness and safety with respect to supplements should be preceded with the question “Do I really need it?”

Dietary Supplements in Brief

Vitamin supplements are primarily used to ensure the body is getting enough nutrients…to fill in the gaps in your diet.

Some of the more commonly used supplements that experts find value in include:

• Calcium to support bone health.
• Vitamin D to help the body absorb calcium.
• Vitamins C and E for their antioxidant properties that prevent cell damage and help to maintain health.
• Folic acid for women of childbearing age and during pregnancy.
• Vitamin B12 for keeping nerve and blood cells healthy.
• Fish oil for heart health.

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However, health experts agree that for the most part a good diet alleviates the need for supplements.

“It’s possible to get all of the nutrients you need by eating a variety of healthy foods, so you don’t have to take one,” says Carol Haggans, a registered dietitian and consultant to NIH.

Furthermore, the NIH warns that “…some supplements may have side effects, especially if taken before surgery or with other medicines. Supplements can also cause problems if you have certain health conditions.”

Their recommendation is to consult their Dietary Supplements Fact Sheet List for supplements that you are considering taking to fulfill your health needs, and then go see your physician about it for their advice and whether your condition and current medications contraindicate taking particular supplements.

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“You should discuss with your doctor what supplements you’re taking so your care can be integrated and managed,” advises Dr. Craig Hopp, an expert in botanicals research at NIH. “There’s little evidence that any supplement can reverse the course of any chronic disease…don’t take supplements with that expectation.”

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So, Where Does Zinc Fit In With All Of This?

According to an NIH supplement fact sheet

• Zinc is a nutrient that people need to stay healthy.
• Zinc is found in cells throughout the body to make proteins and DNA.
• Zinc helps the immune system fight off invading bacteria and viruses.
• Zinc is essential during pregnancy, infancy, and childhood for the body to grow and develop properly.
• Zinc also helps wounds heal and is important for taste and smell sensations.
• Zinc can be derived from a diet that includes foods like oysters, red meat, poultry, seafood such as crab and lobsters, and fortified breakfast cereals, beans, nuts, whole grains, and dairy products.

Too little zinc in a diet causes slow growth in infants and children, delayed sexual development in adolescents and impotence in men. Zinc deficiency also causes hair loss, diarrhea, eye and skin sores and loss of appetite. Weight loss, problems with wound healing, decreased ability to taste food, and lower alertness levels can also occur.

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If you have too much zinc in your system (typically from taking supplements) you may experience nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, stomach cramps, diarrhea, and headaches. When taking too much zinc for too long, sometimes you might have problems such as low copper levels, lower immunity, and low levels of HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol).

Approximate daily doses of zinc required nutritionally for infants: 3 mg; for children under eight: 5 mg; for children over eight: 8 mg; for teenagers: 10 mg; for adult males: 11 mg; for adult females: 8 mg; for pregnant and nursing females: 11 and 12 mg respectively.

So, as you can see, zinc is important for good health. But what about for disease prevention and/or treatment such as with COVID-19?

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Due to that zinc is believed to have a wide range of antiviral properties, it has engendered a significant amount of recent research in light of the coronavirus and the COVID-19 pandemic. While still a hypothesis, zinc supplementation is suggested to have a potential public health benefit for prophylaxis and the treatment of COVID-19.

However, not everyone is convinced.

According to a Mayo Clinic webpage on “Debunking COVID-19 (coronavirus) Myths”, here is what it says about typical flu season supplements for the treatment of COVID-19:

Supplements: Many people take vitamin C, vitamin D, zinc, green tea or echinacea to boost their immune systems. While these supplements might affect your immune function, research hasn't shown that they can prevent you from getting sick. The supplement colloidal silver, which has been marketed as a COVID-19 treatment, isn't considered safe or effective for treating any disease.

And, in the Cleveland Journal of Medicine, a recent article came to the conclusion that:

“…Ascorbic acid, zinc, vitamin D, and N-acetylcysteine have biologic plausibility for the prevention and treatment of COVID-19 and are candidates for clinical trials evaluating patients with these indications. Although there is likely little risk for patients taking labeled over-the-counter doses of these supplements, clinical evidence does not currently support routine use of any of these agents for the prevention or treatment of COVID-19.”

Therefore, although not scientifically proven to be effective toward preventing or curing COVID-19, zinc may still well be beneficial.

In an article published by UCHealth Today, one virologist is quoted regarding his views on the possible value of zinc lozenges:

“The email was one that James A. Robb sent to friends and family. He is University of Colorado School of Medicine MD, a pathologist, and molecular virologist who, while at the University of California, San Diego in the 1970s, did pioneering work in understanding coronaviruses. He wrote:

Stock up now with zinc lozenges. These lozenges have been proven to be effective in blocking coronavirus (and most other viruses) from multiplying in your throat and nasopharynx. Use as directed several times each day when you begin to feel ANY “cold-like” symptoms beginning. It is best to lie down and let the lozenge dissolve in the back of your throat and nasopharynx. Cold-Eeze lozenges is one brand available, but there are other brands available.”

But, as the article also points out, the words quoted were not meant to imply that zinc lozenges will prevent or cure COVID-19, only that in the virologist’s experience that “…zinc will inhibit the replication of many viruses, including coronaviruses. I expect COVID-19 will be inhibited similarly…” and, that “…there is no experimental support for this claim…nor any guarantee against being infected by the virus, even if zinc inhibits the viral replication in the nasopharynx.”

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So, there we have it. Taking zinc supplements may or may not help when it comes to COVID-19. But, as long as a person does not exceed their recommended daily dose of zinc, it is not expected to cause any harm either. And, since science does have the view that zinc has possibilities, my brother’s co-worker’s actions are not unreasonable in light of what we are experiencing today.

If you unsure of any supplement, see your doctor, exercise good judgment based on the facts; and, as the song goes:

Carry on my wayward son

For there'll be peace when you are done

Lay your weary head to rest

Don't you cry no more

Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Today, with an eye on the latest news, Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on what you need to know for healthier living. For continual updates about health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.

Image Source: Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

References:

Should You Take Dietary Supplements?” NIH News in Health August 2020.

Dietary Supplements Fact Sheet List” courtesy of the NIH

Coronavirus: To zinc or not to zinc?” by Todd Neff for UCHealth, March 25th, 2020.

What is the role of supplementation with ascorbic acid, zinc, vitamin D, or N-acetylcysteine for prevention or treatment of COVID-19?” Seth R. Bauer, et al., Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine June 2020

COVID-19 and Supplements: What We Know Now” courtesy of the Cleveland Clinic.

Potential role of zinc supplementation in prophylaxis and treatment of COVID-19” Amit Kumar et al., Med Hypotheses. 2020 Nov; 144: 109848; Published online 2020 May 25.

Debunking COVID-19 (coronavirus) myths” courtesy of Mayo Clinic Staff, 20 August 2020.

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