Zinc helps bring infections under control by limiting levels of inflammation, research finds.
Zinc is an essential mineral as our body doesn’t store it, thus it needs to be obtained from the everyday diet.
Nearly one-third of the world’s population may have a zinc deficiency.
About 12 percent of the U.S. population are not getting enough zinc and 40 percent of the elderly.
Oysters, red meat, lentils, seeds and nuts, green vegetables, diary, and egg are good sources of zinc.
Zinc has many complex jobs and collaborates with different proteins in the body to keep us healthy.
Scientists have found that a protein pulls zinc into key cells which are the body’s first line of defence against infection.
Then zinc cooperates with a process that is crucial in fighting infection — consequently this will stop the immune response from overreacting.
Insufficient zinc in the body at the time of infection would lead to huge inflammation and the immune response can get out of control.
A research team examined if zinc’s activity has any impact on sepsis, a life-threatening condition caused by the immune system overreacting to an infection.
When the immune system tries hard to fight off an infection there is a chance that it goes into overdrive and attacks the body’s own cells.
Any type of infection, including influenza and COVID-19, can cause sepsis, which is linked to severe illness and death.
The findings suggest why supplementation with zinc at the first sign of a cold appears to reduce its severity.
Professor Daren Knoell, study co-author, said:
“We do believe that to some extent, these findings are going to be applicable to other important areas of disease beyond sepsis.
Without zinc on board to begin with, it could increase vulnerability to infection.
But our work is focused on what happens once you get an infection — if you are deficient in zinc you are at a disadvantage because your defense system is amplified, and inappropriately so.
The benefit to health is explicit: Zinc is beneficial because it stops the action of a protein, ultimately preventing excess inflammation.”
According to Professor Knoell, only 10 percent of zinc in the body is available immediately to be used against infection.
The study carried out experiments in human white blood cells which are the first line of defence in fighting infection.
The team found that when a pathogen enters the body, through a process which includes the NF-κB pathway, the innate immune system (the first line of defence) will be activated.
NF-κB, a very active protein, pulls zinc into the immune cells and binds to a different protein in the cells.
With these events any other activity in the process will stall and so the immune response slows down.
This will reduce inflammation, the body’s natural response to pathogens, which can hurt healthy cells.
Professor Knoell, said:
“The immune system has to work under very strict balance, and this is a classic example of where more is not always better.
We want a robust inflammatory response, which is part of our natural programming to defend us against a bug.
But if that is unchecked, and there is too much inflammation, then it not only attacks the pathogen but can also cause much more collateral damage.”
About the author
Mina Dean is a Nutritionist and Food Scientist. She holds a BSc in Human Nutrition and an MSc in Food Science.
The study was published in Cell Reports (Liu et al., 2013).