Zinc: The Gatekeeper of Immune Function
The mineral zinc is essential for immune function and its impacts extend to both the innate and adaptive immune system. Unfortunately, much of the population fails to get adequate zinc from dietary factors and zinc deficiency is common worldwide. Nearly two billion individuals are estimated to be zinc deficient and the elderly, those adhering to a vegetarian or vegan diet, as well as individuals with kidney issues, are disproportionately affected.
Zinc is critical for health overall but its two major regulatory effects in the body are balancing the inflammation response and facilitating the body’s reaction to oxidative stress, two critical functions of zinc for immunity. Since deficiency of this mineral is so common throughout the world, inadequate zinc intake is likely a contributing factor to the prevalence of several chronic diseases. Zinc’s influence on the immune system extends to all facets and the mineral is a critical gatekeeper nutrient. Some of the key functions for zinc on the immune system are outlined here and include:
- Immune cell formation, maturation, and differentiation: Zinc benefits the formation, maturation and differentiation of cells of the immune system, including monocytes, natural killer cells and others. In fact, zinc is critical for the development of the whole immune system which accounts for both innate and adaptive immunity. Studies have found that zinc deficiency in animals and humans influences the ratio of white blood cells that are produced, for example leading to the greater numbers of monocytes and granulocytes than T cells.
- Immune cell function: A deficiency of zinc alters the functionality of immune cells. Experiments have shown that low zinc levels reduce the immune activity of natural killer cells. Research further found that the function and effectiveness of T cells and B cells was also altered in cases where zinc levels were insufficient.
- Immune cell signaling: Changes in intracellular and tissue zinc concentrations during a progressive immune response occur, leading to zinc-induced changes in immune function. Thus, the mineral plays a significant role in immune cell signaling. At least three categories of zinc signals have been identified, including zinc flux (generated within seconds), zinc waves (generated within a few minutes), and homeostatic zinc signals (which are generated over the period of a few hours). One of the major impacts of decreased zinc levels on the immune system is the disruption of intercellular communication via cytokine-induced signals.
- Epigenetic changes: Epigenetics are defined as changes in gene expression of DNA. Zinc influences health and development through all phases of the lifespan and adequate supply of this mineral is integral to effecting favorable epigenetic changes. Zinc is a key cofactor for several epigenetically active enzymes; thus, extending its influence to key aspects of health, including immune health. An example of this is increased susceptibility to inflammation with aging in those with low zinc status. This finding is likely associated with altered activation of immune cells which resulted from zinc deficiency, leading to increased inflammation with aging.
Zinc deficiency is underappreciated, and its consequences can be extremely significant, impacting immune health in fundamental ways. Ensuring adequate dietary intake of this mineral and adding in zinc supplements as necessary is an easy choice to make, not just for immune health but for health overall.
- Wessels I et al. 2017. Zinc as a gatekeeper of immune function
- Maares M and Haase H. 2016. Zinc and immunity: An essential interrelation
Tags: Zinc, Immune, Epigenetics, Natural killer cells, Monocytes, T cells, B cells, Immunity, Minerals, Inflammation, Cell signaling, Oxidative stress, Antioxidant, Free radicals