Zinc and Immune System – Can it Build up, Boost and Improve Immunity?

Last updated on April 18th, 2020

Is taking zinc in some form or another a real benefit to the immune system. We take a look at the evidence.

zinc and its effects on the immune system

Can Zinc Build up the Immune System

A number of nutrients are associated with a strong immune system. Zinc is one of them.

Some people even suck zinc lozenges when they are trying to fight off a cold.

However, zinc is more than just a possible remedy for the common cold. It’s an important mineral.

The body uses zinc in many ways so it’s a little sad that some people don’t give their zinc intake a second thought until they become ill.

Correct nutrition is important—all of the time. When we are eating right our normal diet will probably provide us with all the nutrients we need—including zinc.

A sufficiently nutritious diet encourages good health and can make us feel more vital and alive.

It may also make us less susceptible to disease and help us to recover faster if and when we do become ill. 

One of the reasons for this will be because we are getting enough zinc.

It won’t be the only reason though. The nutrients we consume work as a team and many of the Team Nutrition members play on the Keeping Bugs Away Team.

However, Zinc is undoubtedly one of the team’s star players. If it wasn’t for zinc the team would have a pretty shoddy defense.

What is Zinc?

Zinc is a mineral the body obtains from food. You can also get zinc from pills, supergreens powers, and certain other types of supplement.

Zinc

Your body can store some nutrients, such as Vitamin D, but there are many that it cannot.

Zinc is one of the nutrients your body uses every day but cannot retain.

For this reason, you need to be sure you consume a sufficient amount of zinc each day.

Failure to do so may weaken your immune system and negatively affect your health in numerous other ways.

How Does the Body Use Zinc?

Human biology is incredibly complicated. Scientists are continually learning new things about the way the body works.

So, although we know a lot of the things zinc does within the body, it’s entirely possible future research will reveal it does a lot more.

However, researchers have already discovered zinc supports the activity of more than 300 enzymes that aid nerve function, digestion, metabolism, and many other biological processes.

Some of the other processes zinc supports include.

  • Gene expression
  • Cell division
  • DNA synthesis
  • Wound healing
  • Protein synthesis
  • Growth and development

Zinc also aids the immune system in a number of ways.

How Zinc Supports Immune Function

One of the ways zinc supports immune function is by aiding the production of disease-fighting “T Cells” and “B Cells.”

is zinc good for the immune system
Can zinc really build up your immune system?

The T Cells and B Cells act together in identifying bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens that enter the body.

When a threat is detected, the B Cells begin producing antibodies to fight the infection.

The T Cells aid the battle by producing cytokines (a protein) to help direct the immune response.

The T Cells provide further help by manufacturing granules containing special enzymes to destroy infected cells. 

Apart from being necessary for the production of T Cells and B Cells, zinc also supports healthy immune function in another way. 

The body needs adequate supplies of zinc to produce a specific type of white blood cell, known as macrophages.

Macrophages hone in on pathogens that enter the body and then eat them.

How Much Zinc Do You Need?

Zinc is necessary for a healthy immune system, but how much of it do you need per day?

Men require 11 mg of zinc per day.

Women only require 8 mg per day unless they are pregnant or nursing. Carrying a child or breastfeeding makes them require a tiny bit more.

However, many people who increase their zinc intake to boost immune function consume more than the RDA. 

Exceeding the RDA should not present problems unless the amount of zinc consumed is unreasonably high.

According to the National Institutes of Health, it’s permissible to consume up to 40 mg of zinc each day.

In fact, the people participating in some studies have taken zinc supplements that provide over 200 mg per day and done so without experiencing any ill effects.

What are the Best Foods for Providing Zinc?

Meat is one of the best foods for providing zinc. Oysters, lobsters and other shellfish are also very good.

Foods that have a high level of zinc in them
What foods are high in zinc

Certain types of fish, including sardines and salmon, provide moderate amounts of zinc as well but meats and shellfish contain considerably more.

Eggs and dairy products contain zinc too. 

However, vegetarians who are hoping to build a stronger immune system by consuming more zinc won’t have any difficulty finding plant-based sources. 

Lentils, peas, and chickpeas are good for providing zinc.

Many vegetarians will be eating these options regularly anyway because they are also good sources of protein.

Peanuts contain zinc too. You’ll typically get around 3.3 mg of zinc for every 100 g of peanuts you eat. You may have to go steady, though.  Peanuts are also high in fat.

Many other nuts are good sources of zinc. Sunflower seeds and wholegrain foods contain zinc as well.

Finding vegetarian foods that contain zinc is not a problem, but vegetarians may still be more prone to zinc deficiency than non-vegetarians are.

It can be particularly hard for vegans because their diet does not allow any dairy or eggs.

The body finds it harder to absorb zinc provided via plant-based food due to the presence of an anti-nutrient called phytate.

Phytate hinders normal mineral absorption, making it harder to obtain many minerals including zinc and iron.

Some estimates suggest vegan vegetarians might have to double the RDA to compensate for the problems the body has absorbing zinc from vegan-acceptable foods like whole grains, seeds, and legumes.

Zinc Supplements: Is There a Need?

Although vegans and vegetarians are more likely to need to top-up their zinc with supplements than meat-eaters are, careful meal planning should allow most people to get sufficient zinc from their diet.

However, during times of sickness and/or when the latest bugs are doing the rounds, taking extra zinc may not be a bad idea.

Zinc and Immune Function: What the Research Shows

There are numerous studies that examine the relationship between zinc and the immune system.

After an in-depth evaluation of the data available to date, researchers in Germany concluded zinc is so “essential” for the immune system function a deficiency can severely impair ability to fight off and recover from disease.

However, even though there is plenty of evidence that proves how important zinc is to immune function, the researchers stress the need for further study.

They hope future investigations may reveal more about the various underlying processes involved.

Zinc as a Cold Remedy

Although it’s not one of the most aggressive infections on the planet, nobody relishes catching a cold.

woman with a cold
Is zinc good for a cold?

All that coughing and sniffling can put a severe dent in the day.

There are many cold remedies on the market.

There are also cough sweets that may help take some of the misery out of a cold. Zinc lozenges are another option some people turn to when they want a swifter recovery. 

Do zinc lozenges work? Some brands are better than others but research from Finland suggests zinc lozenges can decrease a cold’s duration by a day or so.

The researchers conducted a series of seven placebo-type trials involving doses of zinc that were as high as 207 mg per day.

The pooled estimate, after seven trials, shows zinc was effective in reducing common cold duration by 33%.

After a thorough evaluation of the data, the researchers suggest zinc lozenges as a viable cold remedy.

They also state lozenges that contain zinc as zinc acetate may work best.

In addition to this they point out taking doses over 100 mg per day are unlikely to offer additional benefit.

Is Zinc Good for Respiratory Infections

Researchers in Thailand set out to explore the value of zinc supplements as a way of treating acute respiratory tract infections (ALRI).

The study was conducted on 64 children (2-60 months old) who were in hospital due to ALRI.

The researchers treated some of the children with supplements that provided zinc (30 mg) and gave others a placebo.

The children who were being treated with zinc recovered much faster than those in the placebo group.

This meant they were able to leave the hospital and return home earlier than the children in the control group (placebo).

None of the children experienced any side effects.  (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6548996/)

Zinc and Immune System Summary

Research shows a strong immune system requires adequate amounts of zinc. Typically at least 8-11 mg per day.

Research also suggests taking higher doses of zinc during times of sickness may accelerate recovery. 

However, although the participants in some tests have take supplements that provide much higher doses, there is no evidence to suggest consuming more than 100 mg of zinc per day offers any advantages over doses that are 100 mg or less.

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