Over the course of the pandemic, President Trump has touted many coronavirus cure-alls that have been found to be not only ineffective but outright dangerous. There was the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine he publicized before he got sick. Next, there was azithromycin, an antibiotic better known as a Z-Pak, frequently used for infections like bronchitis and pneumonia. And finally, there was the antibody cocktail he was treated with, promised would be available to all Americans for free and then quietly stopped flexing once it was found to be made of decade-old fetal tissue.
He neglected to mention, however, zinc, which his doctors also gave him during his recent hospital stint, which is widely available over-the-counter (for under $4 a bottle to boot) and which is thought to be pretty damn effective against COVID-19.
“The early research has shown that zinc is poison to the coronavirus. It kills the virus on contact and acts as ‘COVID-19 birth control,’ blocking its reproduction,” physician Jacob Teitelbaum tells me, noting several studies that back him up. “Optimizing zinc, along with vitamins D, C, K and A, has a dramatic effect on decreasing the severity of COVID-19 infections. This is why the president was given zinc and vitamin D at Walter Reed.”
The benefits of zinc were brought up early in the pandemic, but they were often touted alongside hydroxychloroquine, so any upside smelled like bullshit by association. Yet the medical consensus this entire time has been that zinc supplements are a good idea for anyone who’s worried about contracting COVID, as well as those who already have it.
Although zinc alone cannot keep people from getting sick, Shirin Peters, a physician and founder of the Bethany Medical Clinic in New York, agrees that it’s a crucial line of defense in conjunction with other precautions. “My personal and professional opinion is that zinc likely reduces the severity of COVID illness when taken in diet or as a supplement in the right quantity, both preventatively or after COVID-19 diagnosis,” she tells me.
Zinc is crucial for defending against the coronavirus for a number of reasons, but most notably, the hormone thymulin — which regulates our immune system — is zinc-dependent. Many viruses, including COVID-19 and HIV, trigger massive losses of zinc in urine, as an opportunistic way to thrive and spread. “This is likely why loss of taste and smell, a common symptom of severe zinc deficiency, occurs so often in this virus,” Teitelbaum explains.
Zinc has further protective effects on cilia, tiny hairs on mucous membrane cells that keep bacteria and pathogens out. This is why zinc is frequently consumed in lozenge or syrup form — it can stay in the throat and be a better barrier to the virus. Zinc deficiencies brought on by COVID can similarly erode protective tissues in the respiratory tract and cause what Peters refers to as “leakiness in its lining,” a condition where infection overwhelms the immune system so much that fluid seeps out of blood vessels into the tissue.
While it’s a good idea to consume more zinc-rich foods like beans, nuts, whole grains and shellfish, Teitelbaum warns that “it would be very difficult to get optimal amounts just from the diet.” Consequently, he recommends taking a multivitamin with 50 milligrams of zinc daily for a month “to replenish and optimize zinc stores,” before tapering off to a multivitamin with 15 to 30 milligrams of zinc. If a person were to contract the coronavirus, he also suggests maintaining a 40- to 50-milligram dose, unless otherwise specified by a doctor, as zinc can decrease the effectiveness of some antibiotics.
Along those lines, it’s important to not exceed 50 milligrams, no matter how COVID-conscious you might be, because anything more than that is considered toxic and can cause nausea, vomiting, stomach cramping, diarrhea and headaches. Over a longer period of time, it can also cause copper deficiencies and actually weaken the immune system.
Rest assured, it’s pretty hard to overdo it on zinc, as “most over-the-counter supplements have significantly less than 50-milligram zinc in each daily pill,” Peters explains. “So it would be reasonable for people worried about COVID to take a multivitamin containing zinc or a separate zinc supplement without fear of zinc toxicity.”
Why, you’re probably asking yourself by now, isn’t zinc being discussed more as the U.S. enters its third wave of the pandemic?
Teitelbaum blames doctors, who are trained in medicine, but not nutrition. “Sadly, physicians simply aren’t taught about nutrition, so they aren’t likely to be helpful here,” he says. “My understanding came from reviewing thousands of studies in the area, not from what I learned in medical school. Nutrition training in medical school is virtually nonexistent.”
Beyond that, the supplement industry has gained a reputation for being filled with grifters, with Teitelbaum conceding that quality control is an issue with supplements that claim to be rich in iron or other nutrients and vitamins, but are not. For this reason, he recommends taking supplements from established companies that follow Good Manufacturing Practices, or GMP guidelines, as noted on the bottle.
That said, the supplement industry is regulated in one way that the pharmaceutical industry is not — companies aren’t allowed to cite data in advertisements for supplements. “Laws make it illegal to discuss research on natural therapies for treating illness,” Teitelbaum says. So when we’re not fortunate enough to receive treatment at Walter Reed, consumers are left to figure things out for themselves, like everything else in health care these days.
Thankfully, the benefits of zinc may be the only useful piece of information we can take from Trump’s treatment — even if it’s the one thing he’s not talking about.