LMU – 172 Unmasking the Hidden Power of Zinc: A Vital Nutrient for Immune Health
Source: Nutrients (June 2017); Frontiers of Nutrition (2014); The Journal of Nutrition (2000), Nutrients (July 2017); Oregon State University
Lifestyle Medicine Update (September 11, 2020)
The significance of zinc in human health, particularly its pivotal role in fortifying the immune system, remains a mystery to many. It’s a mineral that often flies under the radar, underestimated both by the average individual and even some healthcare professionals. While some may have encountered zinc lozenges as a remedy for sore throats or the initial signs of cold symptoms, its true potential goes far beyond this limited application. We are about to embark on a journey into the fascinating world of zinc, exploring its multifaceted role in optimizing immune function and its vital importance in preventing a wide range of health problems, including respiratory infections. It’s a story that unfolds at the intersection of nutrition and immunity, revealing the hidden treasure trove that is zinc.
The Immune System’s Unsung Hero: Zinc
At the heart of this narrative lies the crucial role of zinc in bolstering our immune system. This unassuming mineral is indispensable in our body’s defence against respiratory tract infections and a myriad of other health threats. Optimal zinc intake is essential for the immune system to function at its best, and this revelation carries profound implications for our overall well-being.
Astonishingly, studies in North America reveal that a substantial 55% of adults do not meet the daily recommended intake of zinc as prescribed by government health agencies. This deficiency is far from benign, as zinc plays a pivotal role in bolstering our immune defences. In underdeveloped regions where daily nutrition is often lacking, or where the high intake of phytic acid fiber in cereal grains exacerbates zinc deficiency, the consequences can be dire. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), zinc deficiency ranks as the fifth leading cause of mortality and morbidity in developing countries, impacting one-third of the global population. This deficiency is linked to approximately 16% of lower respiratory tract infections, 18% of malaria cases, and 10% of diarrheal diseases worldwide.
While severe zinc deficiency is relatively rare in developed countries, mild to moderate deficiency is surprisingly common. Unlike iron, the body lacks significant zinc storage capacity, necessitating a consistent daily intake to maintain optimal tissue and circulating levels. Startlingly, approximately 30% of elderly individuals in North America exhibit mild to moderate zinc deficiency, signalling a pervasive issue within our society. Other vulnerable groups include Black Americans, Mexican Americans, premenopausal women of childbearing age, and adolescents aged 12 to 19, all of whom are susceptible to zinc deficiency. For adults, the recommended daily zinc intake stands at 15 mg. However, studies reveal that both males and females in North America average only around 11 mg of daily zinc intake from food. Among those aged over 71 years, the intake drops to an alarming 8 mg. This chronic sub-optimal intake leaves a substantial portion of the population vulnerable to mild to moderate zinc deficiency, a condition that often goes unnoticed.
Unmasking the Signs and Symptoms of Zinc Deficiency
The insidious nature of mild to moderate zinc deficiency manifests through a range of signs and symptoms, often attributed to the normal aging process. These indicators include:
- Decreased Immune Function: Zinc deficiency compromises immune function, leading to decreased natural killer cell lytic activity, reduced interleukin-2 activity of T-helper cells, and diminished serum thymulin activity required for T-lymphocyte maturation.
- Altered Taste Acuity: Many people with mild zinc deficiency complain of decreased taste acuity, which can lead to diminished appetite and a less enjoyable eating experience.
- Impaired Vision in Low Light: A reduction in dark adaptation is another hallmark of zinc deficiency.
- Loss of Lean Mass: Individuals with zinc deficiency may experience a decrease in lean muscle mass, accompanied by a decline in strength.
- Delayed Wound Healing: Wounds and bruises tend to heal more slowly in those with marginal zinc deficiency, sometimes failing to heal adequately.
It’s astonishing to consider how these common age-related complaints, such as diminished taste, muscle loss, susceptibility to infections, and slow wound healing, could all be tied to an underlying zinc deficiency. Intriguingly, topical zinc ointments have shown remarkable efficacy in addressing slow-healing skin wounds, often attributed to the aging process. However, the root cause of these issues frequently stems from internal zinc deficiency.
The Importance of Balanced Zinc Intake
While the potential benefits of zinc are clear, it’s vital to exercise caution. Excessive intake of zinc supplements can have adverse effects, including impaired immunity, copper deficiency, anemia, and other serious complications. Thus, it’s imperative not to rush into purchasing high-dose zinc supplements without proper medical guidance.
A practical and reasonable solution to ensure daily zinc intake, along with other essential nutrients that our diets often lack, involves considering a simple multiple vitamin and mineral supplement. This approach aligns with the findings of the 2017 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which revealed that 31% of the U.S. population is at risk of at least one vitamin deficiency or anemia, with vitamin A, B6, folic acid, and vitamin B12 being the most common deficiencies. Additionally, these studies underscore the prevalence of suboptimal intake of crucial minerals like calcium, magnesium, zinc, and selenium, especially among older individuals. Consequently, maintaining adequate zinc nutritional status becomes a daily necessity to ensure that our immune systems remain in peak condition.
A Holistic Approach to Immune Health
While the foundation of good health starts with a well-balanced diet rich in essential nutrients, there’s merit in considering the benefits of a daily multiple vitamin and mineral supplement. This approach provides a safeguard to ensure consistent zinc intake, along with a host of other vital vitamins and minerals that contribute to overall health and well-being.
It’s important to note that assessing zinc nutritional status through blood tests can provide valuable insights. A zinc blood plasma level of 100 ug/dl (plus or minus 10 ug/ml) is indicative of adequate zinc nutritional status. Levels below 80 ug/dl suggest mild to moderate deficiency, while levels below 50 ug/dl signify severe deficiency. Unfortunately, routine zinc plasma tests are not typically part of annual physical exams, and most state and provincial health plans do not cover them. If you’re interested in obtaining a zinc blood test, you may need to request it from your doctor and be prepared to cover the cost. However, in most cases, maintaining proper nutrition and considering a standard multiple vitamin and mineral supplement can eliminate the need for such extensive testing.
In conclusion, the untold story of zinc is a captivating journey into the world of immune health and overall well-being. This often-underestimated mineral plays a pivotal role in our body’s defence against infections and numerous health challenges. While its deficiency may go unnoticed, it can manifest in a range of age-related symptoms that, when properly understood, can be addressed through nutrition and supplementation. Maintaining optimal zinc intake is essential to keeping our immune systems robust and ensuring a healthier, more vibrant life.
- Gammoh NZ et al. Zinc in infection and inflammation. *Nutrients 2017 (June)*. 9(6):624. [Read more](https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5490603/)
- Prasad A. Zinc is an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent: its role in human health. Frontiers of Nutrition (Review Article) 2014. [Read more](https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnut.2014.00014/full)
Dr. James Meschino
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. James Meschino, DC, MS, ROHP, is an educator, author, and researcher having lectured to thousands of healthcare professionals across North America. He holds a Master’s Degree in Science with specialties in human nutrition and biology and is recognized as an expert in the field of nutrition, anti-aging, fitness, and wellness as well as the author of numerous books.