Pneumonia is a serious disease, from which more than one million people die each year. A team of scientists from Melbourne University in Australia has now discovered how the trace element zinc strengthens the immune system and helps it fight pneumococcus, which is the leading cause of pneumonia. Their research also shows that zinc deficiencies are rather common. Getting too little zinc can be a result of poor eating habits as well as vegetarian and vegan diets. There is also the fact that ageing processes, sugar, birth control pills and inorganic iron supplements can impair the body’s uptake and utilization of zinc. If the immune system lacks this vital nutrient, it may increase your risk of sick days and perhaps even be life-threatening in worst case.
Most cases of pneumonia are caused by bacteria such as pneumococcus – streptococcus pneumoniae. Pneumonia is often triggered by virus infections like the cold and influenza. If a person has a compromised immune defense, microorganisms like pneumococcus from the nose and throat may spread to the lower respiratory tract, where they do not belong. Pneumonia can also occur as a result of breathing in microorganisms from the surroundings. Poor nutritional status, smoking, high alcohol consumption, diabetes, chronic pulmonary diseases like asthma, COPD, and cystic fibrosis may also increase the risk of developing pneumonia. Fatalities are typically seen among people older than 70 years, and many cancer patients die of pneumonia. Zinc also protects against the triggering virus infections, so there are many reasons why you should make sure to get plenty of zinc at all times.
The link between zinc deficiency and pneumonia
An estimated two billion people worldwide die every year due to a zinc deficiency. But why a zinc deficiency increases the risk of bacterial infections such as pneumonia has not been fully understood, until recently.
Professor Christopher McDevitt from University of Melbourne headed a multidisciplinary team that used advanced photo techniques that helped the scientists reveal how the immune defense uses zinc as anti-bacterial protection against bacteria such as pneumococcus. The scientists studied mice that got diets with different levels of zinc. They found that if mice lacked zinc, they succumbed to induced pneumonia at a three times faster rate because their immune systems did not function properly.
The study showed more precisely how zinc was mobilized at the site of infection. Here, the nutrient stresses the disease-provoking bacteria and helps specific white blood cells destroy them. The result of their study is linked directly to the new and advanced photo technique that reveals new aspects of zinc’s role in the immune defense.
Because pneumonia represents a huge disease burden and costs more than one million lives annually on a global scale, and because the scientists can see a link to the widespread problems with zinc deficiency, it is vital to address the lack of zinc by means of diet or supplements. The scientists also stress that is it essential to get plenty of zinc in connection with pneumonia vaccines. Their new study is published in PLoS Pathogens.
Zinc deficiencies typically affect the T cells of the immune system
Zinc’s important role in the immune defense has been demonstrated in earlier studies. It is essential for the white blood cells (macrophages), granulocytes, and NK cells in the innate immune defense that fights most infections. Zinc deficiency typically affects the so-called T helper cells that serve as conductors for the rest of the immune defense, helping it to attack microbes effectively and dialing down its attacks, once the infection has been defeated. Because zinc is so vital for the T helper cells, having too little zinc may weaken the immune response, so the infections become complicated and life-threatening or the immune defense overreacts, causing chronic inflammation.
Zinc sources and official recommendations
Zinc is mainly found in meat, shellfish, dairy products, nuts, kernels, and beans. Zinc from animal sources is absorbed better than zinc from plant sources.
Zinc deficiencies are rather common and it is important to prevent them
Zinc deficiencies are categorized as mild, moderate, or severe. Severe zinc deficiency is rare in our part of the world, whereas moderate and mild zinc deficiency is rather common. Mild zinc deficiency can occur after a short period if a person fails to get enough zinc from the diet or supplements. If you want to prevent pneumonia and other infections, it is important to have enough zinc in your system at all times, so the immune defense has what it needs to handle bacteria and virus before they cause any harm.
Choose organic zinc supplements that the body can absorb and utilize
Always make sure to get enough zinc from your diet and go with the sources that have good absorption. If you take a zinc supplement, do not choose inorganic sources like zinc sulfate or zinc oxide, which the body does not absorb all that well. Stick with organic sources such as zinc gluconate and zinc acetate that are absorbed and utilized well by the body. Always read the label to find out what the supplement contains.
Bart A. Eijkelkamp et al. Dietary zinc and the control of Streptococcus pneumonia infection. PLOS Pathogens, 2019
Zink for Colds, Rashes and the Immune system. WebMD. 2017
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
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