Zinc deficiency is common in cirrhosis and has been involved in the altered nitrogen metabolism. In this study, we measured the effects of zinc supplementation on the dynamics of amino acid-derived urea synthesis in cirrhosis with mild or latent encephalopathy. The hepatic conversion of amino acids into urea was studied in eight patients with advanced cirrhosis under controlled conditions of substrate availability (continuous alanine infusion), before and after 3-month oral zinc sulfate supplementation (600 mg/d). Eight more patients, matched for hepatocellular failure and encephalopathy, served as controls. Plasma zinc levels were reduced in all patients and returned to normal after oral zinc. The alanine-stimulated urea nitrogen synthesis rate in relation to alpha-amino-N concentration--the functional hepatic nitrogen clearance--increased by 25% after zinc supplementation, i.e., more urea was produced at any alpha-amino-N concentration. Basal and alanine-induced glucagon decreased by 50%, and the ammonia response to alanine decreased by 30%. Psychometric tests improved, as did routine and dynamic liver function tests and the Child-Pugh score. Also, the plasma concentration of lipid peroxides was reduced by zinc. No significant changes were observed in the control group. Our data indicate that long-term oral zinc speeds up the kinetics of urea formation from amino acids and ammonia. Changes in the hormonal drive and/or the antioxidant activity of zinc might be involved in the general improvement in liver function, whereas the beneficial effects on encephalopathy might stem from decreased ammonia.