Zinc: An Essential Mineral with Mental Health Benefits

We are back with another blog dedicated to supporting your mental health! The wellbeing warrior spotlight for this week is Zinc. 

The Basics

Zinc is an essential mineral that can be found in certain foods, as an additive in others, or as a supplement. This powerful nutrient is involved in a plethora of important roles in the human body, including our metabolism, immunity, muscle integrity, wound healing, and normal cellular growth1. In addition to these functions, zinc has also been linked to our neural functioning2 as well as moderating levels of depression, impulsivity3, and overall mood status4. These mental health benefits aren’t surprising, seeing as zinc is actually the most abundant trace element found in the brain3

Despite this mineral having so many essential roles in the human body, we do not have an efficient “storage system” for it. Thus, it is important we consume enough zinc on a daily basis to maintain proper levels in our body1.

The aim of this blog is to dive into the research that supports zinc as a warrior for our mental health. As well as discuss where the nutrient can be found and how much we need to support our overall health and well-being.

The Link to Mental Health 

Through multiple research studies and reviews, it has been well documented that diets low in zinc have been linked to impaired brain function3, increased anxiety, and worsened depression4. One article5, which reviewed the research of 17 studies, concluded that those participants that struggled with depression had chronically lower levels of zinc in their blood when compared to participants who were not depressed. 

While the link between zinc and its mental health protective effects has been well-established, the exact mechanism for why this relationship exists has not yet been determined.

One proposition is that it influences our mental health through our central nervous system (CNS). This comes from the fact that the amount of zinc available in our bodies plays a key role in the function of our CNS6, which is the system that encompasses our brain and the nerves that influence our awareness, sensations, thoughts, memories, and more.

Another potential explanation for why zinc is so essential for our mental health is its influence on the development, growth, and functioning of our brain cells2. With an impaired ability for normal cell functioning, accompanying episodes of depression are more prevalent.

Regardless of the exact mechanism for how zinc protects our mental health, we DO know that the relationship exists! Therefore, enriching our diets with adequate zinc is one evidence-based way we can start optimizing our mood.

Where Can We Get It, and How Much Do We Need?

Zinc can be found in a wide variety of foods, such as seafood, meat, beans, nuts, whole grains, and dairy products. However, another thing to keep in mind when trying to optimize the diet with zinc, is that the bioavailability (i.e., the amount of the nutrient actually absorbed from foods) is higher in animal products than it is in plant products. This is because plant-based foods often contain a nutrient called “phytate”. Phytates bind to zinc, and therefore inhibit its full absorption1. Because of this, vegetarians may require as much as 50% more zinc in a day to meet daily needs1. So, if eating on a plant-based diet, it may just mean you need to be a little more mindful of adding more zinc-rich food items into your diet, or, that a supplement could be a good idea! 

The following chart outlines both the current recommended dietary intake (RDA), which is the minimum daily amount required to meet the needs of most healthy individuals, as well as the tolerable upper limit (UL), which is the maximum daily amount that should not be surpassed in order to avoid toxicity, for zinc1:

The following chart1 breaks down how much zinc can be found in certain zinc-rich food items and then compares it to the percent of recommended daily intake for the average healthy adult: 

As you will see, oysters are a huge source of zinc! One serving is well-over the daily RDA, however, most North Americans won’t be eating oysters on a daily basis. Therefore, the most common sources of zinc come from red meat, poultry, and seafood. So, for those who rely on plant-based diets, you can see from the chart that realistically optimizing your diet to meet your daily zinc needs may be difficult with just food alone. Therefore, supplementation may be recommended!

Zinc supplements are fairly affordable and accessible at most drug stores and supermarkets. If you decide that the best way for you to ensure you are getting enough zinc into your day is with a supplement, one tip is to be sure you are reading the label to see how much “elemental zinc” is in the formula. Zinc supplements are available in different forms (i.e., gluconate, sulfate, picolinate, citrate, etc.), so reading the label and trying to align the amount of elemental zinc available with the RDA for your population bracket is recommended. It is okay to get more than the RDA for zinc but be sure to not exceed the listed upper limit, as this can cause other health concerns. For example, a healthy adult women eating on a plant-based diet could aim to get between 8 and 25 mg of elemental zinc from supplements in a day, knowing that many of the foods we eat offer us a certain degree of zinc as well!

The Bottom Line 

Research has established a significant link between zinc and its mental health benefits; therefore, we most definitely recommend optimizing your diet with this nutrient to ensure your get the best mental health protection from your nutrients!

Whether your zinc comes from food, supplements, or a combination of the two, this well-being warrior has proven its benefits in the world of mental health and well-being. 


1National Institutes of Health. (July 15, 2020). Zinc: fact sheet for health professionals. Received from: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/

2Petrilli, M. A., Kranz, T. M., Kleinhaus, K., Joe, P., Getz, M., Johnson, P., Chao, M. V., & Malaspina, D. (2017). The Emerging Role for Zinc in Depression and Psychosis. Frontiers in pharmacology8, 414. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphar.2017.00414

3Greenblatt, J. M., To, W., Dimino, J. (2016). Evidence-based research on the role of zinc and magnesium deficiencies in depression. Psychiatric Times, 33(12). Received from: https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/evidence-based-research-role-zinc-and-magnesium-deficiencies-depression

4Hajianfar, H., Mollaghasemi, N., Tavakoly, R., Campbell, M. S., Mohtashamrad, M., & Arab, A(2020). The association between dietary zinc intake and health status, including mental health and sleep quality, among iranian female students. Biological Trace Element Research. Received from: https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/10.1007/s12011-020-02316-3

5Swardfager, W., Herrmann, N., Mazereeuw, G., Goldberger, K., Harimoto, T., & Lanctôt, K. L. (2013). Zinc in Depression: A Meta-Analysis. Biological Psychiatry74(12), 872–878. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2013.05.008
6Swardfager, W., Herrmann, N., McIntyre, R. S., Mazereeuw, G., Goldberger, K., Cha, D. S., Schwartz, Y., & Lanctôt, K. L. (2013). Potential roles of zinc in the pathophysiology and treatment of major depressive disorder. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews37(5), 911–929. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2013.03.018