Zinc and Immunity
This Mineral Lowers Inflammation, Helps In Healing And Memory
Zinc is another essential element of the immune response, or the body’s ability to fight off foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses.
It’s a trace mineral, meaning you only need it in small quantities, which commonly can come from foods, but may also require supplementation. Too little or too much zinc can lead to health problems.
A zinc deficiency was initially discovered more than 50 years ago, and one of the findings was an increased risk of infection.
Research has shown zinc is the second most abundant trace metal in the body after iron, and is also a catalytic enzyme component of approximately 2,000 enzymes. An excess of zinc can result in zinc-induced copper deficiency.
All told, zinc seems especially important in viral immunity. The exact mechanisms of the action of zinc continue to be discovered. But I will present some of the known facts and why having enough zinc is a good thing.
Specific studies have indicated zinc supplementation helps shorten the duration of the “common cold.” Most of these studies have specifically looked at zinc lozenges. The exact mechanisms are unknown, but high doses of ionic zinc showed a 42% reduction in cold duration, according to an early study in 2011.
Zinc deficiency is common in chronic infection, including HPV (human papillomavirus, which can cause certain cancers), HCV (Hepatitis C virus), and HIV (human Immunodeficiency virus), which you can read more about in these two studies, here and here. In patients with untreated hepatitis C, it’s expected about 60% will develop chronic hepatic infection resulting in a significant reduction in zinc levels in the plasma, according to 2019 research out of the U.S. Supplementation of zinc, both alone and in combination with interferon (INF-alpha as a treatment for hepatitis), has been shown to reduce liver inflammation. Importantly, Japanese researchers have found in a 2012 study, that zinc treatment over 7 years after HCV infection has reduced the progression to hepatocellular carcinoma, according to one study.
Supplementation of zinc in HIV + patients has shown a decreased rate of immune failure, reduced rate of diarrhea, and even an increase in CD 4+ T cell counts in a 2013 study in the Japanese Journal of Infectious Diseases. Zinc-containing topical gels have shown benefits in limiting HIV transmission.
The data in the previous two paragraphs, while certainly not meant to recommend self-treatment of any disorder with zinc supplementation, highlight the importance of zinc in viral immunity.
Zinc deficiency is rare in developed countries, but the groups at risk for low intake are the same as those at risk for many dietary deficiencies:
- Elderly people, due to poor diet and sarcopenia (loss of muscle).
- Polymorbid conditions are defined as those with 2 or more chronic diseases.
- Chronic diseases with an oxidative stress component.
- Alcoholics, often due to poor dietary intake.
- ICU patients: Malnutrition during and after ICU stays are common.
- People with reduced food intake, especially meat and seafood.
Following are some great food sources for zinc:
- Red meat
- Kiwi fruit
- Whole grains
- Dairy products
Zinc also plays a role in both innate and acquired immunity, by regulating cytokine production, participating in the complement system, and antibody production. Supplementation in a group of people 55–87 years old for 12 months has been shown to lead to a decrease in infection. Additionally, the group receiving the zinc had a decrease in TNF-alpha, an inflammatory cytokine, and markers of oxidative stress, according to a 2007 study by international researchers.
For people needing it, zinc supplementation must be controlled and monitored, as excess zinc can create an imbalance in all the systems that the mineral helps to regulate.
This is where the expertise of FunctionalMedicine411 can also be helpful. So contact us for more information.