Zinc is only a trace mineral, which means you don’t need a lot of it. But the amounts you do consume have numerous functions in your body. Zinc activates hundreds of different enzymes involved in ongoing metabolic processes. The mineral runs your immune system, helps you taste and smell, makes cells do their job and keeps you generally healthy.
Increases Sensory Functions
Your senses are strongest when zinc is present in your system. This mineral is critical for allowing you to sense your environment and taste the foods you eat. When you don’t have enough zinc in your body, you may lose your ability to smell or even taste things. You might even start having problems with another sense -- your vision -- minimizing your ability to see at night.
Improves Immune Processes
T-lymphocytes, known simply as T-cells, are the kind of cells that scavenge in the blood looking for bacteria that aren’t supposed to be there. These specialized cells improve immunity by protecting you against infections. One of zinc’s jobs is to help create new T-cells, and to help activate them when a foreign invader enters the body. Without adequate levels of zinc, your immune function weakens, leaving you more susceptible to illness.
Makes Cells Work
Removing dead cells and replacing them with fresh new cells is something that the body does on a daily basis. One of zinc’s roles is helping these new cells grow properly and then divide as needed, such as when healing a wound. Some zinc even forms part of the membrane around cells, protecting the inner mitochondria, in addition to regulating gene functions in cells. Low levels of zinc often result in delayed development and growth, since cells aren’t able to function as they should.
Plays Other Roles
Small amounts of zinc go on to allow hormones to be released in the body. Sending nerve impulses for muscle movements and cell signaling is another job of zinc. Zinc also has a role in metabolism by breaking down carbohydrates for energy. As if all of that weren't enough, zinc works around the clock to protect every cell -- as an antioxidant -- by nixing free radicals that permanently damage cells.
You need just 8 to 13 milligrams of zinc every day, depending on pregnancy status, gender and age. Beef, seafood, pork, yogurt, nuts, beans and legumes are some of the richest sources of zinc. Too much zinc, particularly from supplements, can be dangerous, though. You shouldn’t have more than 40 milligrams of zinc from any source in a single day, advises the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine. High intakes of the mineral lead to severe gastrointestinal upset, decreased functions of other minerals, impaired immune functions and poorly working hormones.