How Does Zinc Affect the Immune System?

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Has anyone ever told you to take zinc?

If so, you might remember it as a fruit-flavored lozenge dissolved in the mouth to ward off an impending cold (elderberry has always been my favorite) or perhaps as part of a weight-gain or muscle-bulking supplement. Or maybe you’ve used topical zinc, which is used to treat diaper rashes, minor skin irritations, and block UV rays on the slopes or at the pool.

But aside from some of its more common usages, have you ever wondered what zinc is and what role it plays in protecting our health? In these tough times, many people are looking for natural ways of optimizing their immunity and, for this, nutrition is key. Read on for a brief overview of why you need to pay attention to your levels of zinc.

What is Zinc?

Zinc is a powerful trace element that people absolutely must have if they are to stay healthy, and it plays an extremely important role in multiple physiological functions. Found in cells throughout the body, zinc heals wounds, is responsible for normal growth and development, ensures correct DNA synthesis, regulates energy level and mood, ensures the proper functioning of our senses (taste and smell), and helps produce key sex hormones such as testerone, among other things.

One major job of zinc is as a “gatekeeper of immune function,” helping it to fight off invading bacteria and viruses and regulate the oxidative stress response. It has also been shown that zinc helps against infection by gently “tapping the brakes in immune response,” in a way that prevents out-of-control inflammation.

In short, low levels of zinc can severely impair immune function.

This applies to everything from how you fight off the common cold to whether or not you develop an autoimmune disease and theoretically, although research is still in progress, to how your body will react to Covid-19.

Zinc deficiency affects every organ of the body. How this influences health depends on how severe the deficiency is.

In fact, the relationship between altered zinc homeostasis and disease development has been well documented, providing evidence that the supplementation of zinc for a malfunctioning immune system would be well-advised.

Note that supplementation is not necessary, however, and can even be harmful, if you are getting all that you need through your diet.

Who is at Risk of Deficiency?

In general, it is believed that most people in the United States get enough zinc from the foods they eat while those in developing nations are at high risk for zinc deficiency, often caused by ingestion of high cereal protein intake, which is rich in phytate and makes zinc unavailable for absorption.

Image Credit: @Chinese Characters - Pixabay

In addition, certain groups of people are more likely than others to have trouble getting enough zinc, including people who have had gastrointestinal surgery (such as a weight loss surgery), those with digestive disorders (like Crohn’s or Ulcerative Colitis), vegetarians (both because they don’t eat meat and because the grains and beans they eat typically contain compounds that prevent zinc’s full absorption by the body), alcoholics, and people with sickle cell disease, cancer, and other chronic illnesses.

However, due to the high percentage of people in this country who consume the ‘SAD’ (Standard American Diet) – which does a great deal of damage to our gut lining, thus essentially ensuring that digestion will not work as it should – I would argue that zinc deficiency (or, at the very least, zinc inadequacy) is probably much more common here in the States than we think.

Signs of a Zinc Deficiency

  • Wounds that take a longer time to heal
  • Delayed sexual maturation
  • Growth delays
  • Hair loss
  • Hypogonadism in males or erectile dysfunction
  • Impaired immune function
  • Taste abnormalities
  • Loss of appetite

Natural Food Sources of Zinc

Image Credit: @vika-imperia550 - Pixabay

Zinc is known (somewhat confusingly) an essential nutrient, meaning that our bodies cannot make it themselves and instead must consume it either in the form of food or supplements. Additionally, the body does not store zinc, so daily intake is required in order to maintain adequate levels.

Fortunately, zinc is present in a number of common foods, particularly animal products, though many plant food sources contain it, as well. But because it is not only a matter of how much zinc we eat, but how much of it we are able to absorb, the importance of a balanced, whole foods diet cannot be overstated.

According to the National Institutes of Health, the following 10 foods are the highest sources of dietary zinc:

  • Oysters
  • Beef (chuck roast)
  • Alaskan crab
  • Beef (patties)
  • Lobster
  • Pork chops
  • Baked beans
  • Breakfast cereal (fortified)
  • Chicken
  • Pumpkin seeds

What About Supplements?

As with any dietary supplement, there are potential risks. Never start taking zinc without doing your own research and without input from your doctor or nutritionist.

Whilst you may find zinc as an ingredient in many immune system booster supplements, this may not be enough for your circumstances. Among other things, your provider will help you to arrive at the best dosage for you, including how much to take, in what form, and for how long. He or she will also possibly advise you against intranasal zinc supplements due to their potential for inducing (sometimes even permanent) anosmia, which is loss of your sense of smell.

Additionally, remember that zinc is a trace mineral. This means that we need a certain, rather small, amount of it each day but be aware that taking high doses of zinc supplements, or taking zinc supplements for too long, can ultimately result in zinc toxicity.

Image Credit:@Jorge Franganillo - Unsplash

According to the National Institutes of Health, too much zinc can cause:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Stomach cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Headaches

 

What’s more, when people take too much zinc for a long time, they are at risk for developing a copper deficiency, lowering their immunity, and lowering their levels of HDL cholesterol (the “good” kind).

Finally, zinc supplements can interfere or interact with medications you take.

Note that you cannot over-consume zinc from zinc-containing foods, which is another great reason to work on optimizing your diet.

The Takeaway

The bottom line is that zinc can not only help to maintain healthy immune function but adequate levels of it are absolutely crucial if your immune system is to function at all.

While getting your zinc naturally through a healthful diet is ideal, there are times when zinc supplementation is warranted. If you think there is a chance you might be deficient in this important trace element, talk to your health provider about implementing a supplement plan that is right for you.

Bibliography

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Does zinc protect you from Covid-19 or boost immune system? (2020, March 31). Drugs.com. Retrieved July 9, 2020, from https://www.drugs.com/medical-answers/zinc-protect-you-covid-19-boost-immune-system-3535446/

Gammoh, N. Z., & Rink, L. (2019). Zinc and the immune system. In M. Mahmoudi & N. Rezaei (Eds.), Nutrition and Immunity (pp. 127-158). Springer.

Prasad, A. S. (2008). Zinc in human health: Effect of zinc on immune cells. Molecular medicine, 14(5-6), 353-357.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2277319/#:~:text=Zinc%20affects%20multiple%20aspects%20of,are%20affected%20by%20zinc%20deficiency.

What are the health benefits of zinc? (2017, December 5). Medical news today. Retrieved July 9, 2020, from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/263176#precautions

Zinc: Fact sheet for consumers. (2019, December 10). National institutes of health: Office of dietary supplements. Retrieved July 9, 2020, from https://ods.od.nih.gov/pdf/factsheets/Zinc-Consumer.pdf

Zinc: Fact sheet for health professionals. (2020, March 6). National institutes of health: Office of dietary supplements. Retrieved July 9, 2020, from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/#h3

Zinc for colds, rashes, and the immune system. (2020, March 25). WebMD. Retrieved July 9, 2020.

https://www.webmd.com/vitamins-and-supplements/supplement-guide-zinc#2

Zinc helps against infection by tapping breaks in immune response. (2013, February 7). Science daily. Retrieved July 9, 2020, from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/02/130207131344.htm#:~:text=Zinc%20helps%20against%20infection%20by%20tapping%20brakes%20in%20immune%20response,-Date%3A%20February%207&text=Summary%3A,be%20damaging%20and%20even%20deadly.

Wessels, I., Maywald, M., & Rink, L. (2017). Zinc as a gatekeeper of immune function. Nutrients, 9(12), 1286.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5748737/#:~:text=After%20the%20discovery%20of%20zinc,innate%20and%20adaptive%20immune%20cells.

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