Zinc strengthens the immune defense and controls inflammatory conditions such as eczema. According to a Finnish meta-analysis, high-dosed zinc supplements can help the immune defense fight a regular cold much faster. It turns out that there are widespread zinc deficiencies. First of all, sugar, birth control pills, inorganic iron supplements, and normal ageing processes impair the body’s zinc uptake. Secondly, it may be difficult to get enough zinc if you are on a vegetarian or vegan diet. Not only does a zinc deficiency have a negative effect on your immune defense and skin health, it also upsets the countless enzymatic processes in which zinc is involved.
The relation between zinc and the immune system is rather complex. Zinc supports over 300 different enzymes that regulate the thyroid function, nervous system, and many other functions, many of which are directly or indirectly associated with the immune system. The zinc content in white blood cells is approximately 25 times higher than the content in red blood cells, which is because the immune defense consumes large quantities of zinc.
Zinc is also a very important antioxidant that protects cells against oxidative stress caused by free radicals, which are aggressive molecules that can cause damage to cells. The amount of free radicals is increased with stress, infections, and poisoning.
A zinc deficiency especially affects the T cells of the immune system
The immune system consists of various proteins and white blood cells. The innate immune system functions like storm troops, while the adaptive immune system (which develops after birth) consists of T and B cells that are able to specialize and make us immune.
Several studies demonstrate zinc’s essential role in the immune system. Zinc is important for the macrophages, granulocytes, and NK cells of the innate immune defense, which fights most infections without us noticing. Zinc is also important for the T cells that fight virus and cancer cells. Zinc deficiencies in laboratory animals has been shown to cause lymphoid tissue atrophy.
A zinc deficiency particularly affects the so-called T helper cells that instruct the immune defense to attack microbes effectively and to withdraw, once the infection is under control. Because zinc is so vital for proper control of the T helper cells, a deficiency can both lead to a weak immune defense and result in prolonged infections because the immune system overreacts, whereby chronic inflammation occurs. You can find an overview of the immune system at the end of this article.
Zinc is mainly found in meat, shellfish, dairy products, nuts, kernels, and beans. Animal zinc sources have the best absorption in the body.
Short-term use of high-dosed zinc supplements shortens the duration of colds
Zinc is a popular remedy for cold prevention, and the nutrient is also able to lower the rate of respiratory infections in children. Taking extra zinc may not help, if person gets enough zinc from his diet. Nonetheless, zinc levels in the blood drop in the case of an infection, because the white blood cells take up and consume zinc when fighting virus and bacteria. A team of scientists from the University of Helsinki wanted to investigate the effect of giving zinc supplements to cold-ridden patients. The participants in the three Finnish studies that were included in this meta-analysis received daily zinc doses of 80-92 mg. This is a substantially higher dose than the recommended daily intake level, but the Finnish researchers referred to other controlled studies where even higher doses (100-150 mg per day) were given to patients for several months. None of these studies has shown any side effects.
Quite as expected, the scientists did not observe any side effects in the three studies. Normally, people are advised against taking high-dosed zinc supplements for extended periods, as this may interfere with the body’s uptake of iron and copper in the long run.
Study results and the importance of organic zinc and the correct quantity
According to the Finnish meta-analysis, 70% of the cold-ridden patients who took zinc supplements had recovered after five days. In the placebo group that was given dummy pills, only 27% had recovered after the same number of days. The scientists used organic zinc acetate, which the body can easily absorb and utilize.
They did however point to the fact that many zinc supplements on the market contain too little zinc. Moreover, many zinc supplements contain inorganic zinc sources such as zinc sulfate or zinc oxide, which the body cannot absorb very well. A type of zinc that the body can easily absorb is zinc gluconate. Make sure to study the label.
Zinc also counteracts influenza, hepatitis, and other virus diseases
Apparently, zinc controls a specific protein that can both strengthen the immune defense and counteract undesirable inflammation. This was seen in a new Australian study conducted by scientists from Westmead Institute for Medical Research.
Zinc binds to the interferon IFN-ƛ3 receptors of the white blood cells, helping to reduce antiviral activity. That way, zinc blocks the undesirable inflammatory activity caused by IFN-ƛ3, which is associated with aggravation of liver cirrhosis caused by virus or other factors.
In other words, zinc helps to activate a desirable immune response that allows the immune system to work without overreacting and causing inflammation and tissue damage.
Zinc for skin, wound healing, eczema, and herpes
Zinc is vital for the production of new skin cells, hair cells, and nail cells. Most skin ailments and poor wound healing are somehow linked to zinc deficiencies.
A study headed by Professor Daren Knoell from Ohio State University showed that zinc is part of a protein that prevents uncontrolled inflammatory response. This kind of response is seen in many types of eczema and psoriasis.
Zinc supplements have also been shown to be effective for treating herpes virus infections, including herpes simplex (from kissing), genital herpes, and herpes zoster (shingles).
Important: In the case of eczema and herpes infections one can also use topical zinc salve
Zinc deficiencies are widespread. Prevention is important
An estimated 25% of the world’s population is zinc-deficient. Zinc deficiencies are categorized as minor, moderate, and severe. Severe zinc deficiency is rare in this part of the world, whereas moderate and minor zinc deficiencies are common. A minor zinc deficiency can easily occur as a result of not getting enough zinc (from food or supplements) for a brief period.
It is therefore important to make sure to get enough zinc to prevent infections. It helps keep the immune defense on its toes so it can combat any virus before it spreads and causes disease. Considering that over 300 enzymatic processes in the body depend on zinc, it is generally a good idea to get enough of this nutrient every day. Deficiencies can result in inflammation, eczema, impaired fertility, metabolic disorders, and many other symptoms.
Plasma levels of zinc can be measured rather easily. It is an inexpensive analysis that more and more people make use of.
You need more zinc in these cases:
- Beginning infection
- Unbalanced diet and overconsumption of sugar and junk-food
- Vegetarian/vegan diets – zinc from plant sources are not absorbed well
- Abuse of tobacco, alcohol, and stimulants
- Birth control pills and hormone disturbances
- Impaired fertility
- Pregnancy and lactation
- Skin, hair, and nail disorders
- Poor wound healing and after surgery
- Ageing process caused by poor zinc absorption
Overview of the immune defense
|Defense||Non-specific (innate)||Specific (adaptive)|
|Functions as||Storm troops, messengers, and “garbage collectors”||Special troops that develop immunity.
Develops after birth
|Mechanical and biological||Skin and mucosa.
|Specific compounds in the ”acute” phase||Interferons
|Direct cell destruction||Dendrite cells
|T cells. Responsible for virus, fungus, and cancer cells.
B cells and antibodies. Especially responsible for bacteria and toxins
University of Helsinki. Zink acetate lozenges may increase the recovery rate from the common cold by three-fold. ScienceDaily May 11, 2017
Zink for Colds, Rashes and the Immune system. WebMD. 2017
Westmead Institute for Medical Research. Zinc may hold key to fighting liver disease. ScienceDaily June 1, 2017
Scott A et al. Zinc is a potent and specific inhibitor of IFN-ƛ3 signaling. Nature Communications, 2017
Parosh Kadir Muhamed og Steen Vadstrup. Zink er vores vigtigste spormineral. Ugeskr Læger 3. marts 2014
Ananda S Prasad. Zink in Human Health: Effect of Zink on Immune Cells. Molecular Medicine 2008
Lothar Rink. Zink and the immune system. Cambridge Core. Published on line 2000
Chau-Sa Dang. Daren Knoll Leads the Way for Zink Research. The Ohio State University.
Pernille Lund. Sund og smuk hele livet. Ny Videnskab. 2016
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