Is a Deficiency of This Common Mineral Your Immunity ‘Blind Spot’?
These days, it’s becoming more obvious that having a properly functioning immune system is critical for your health and longevity. So many people are searching for the best ways to boost their immune system.
But it’s not so easy to always keep things running smoothly when it comes to immunity.
Your body’s immune cells must maintain constant vigilance, remaining on guard every second of the day for signs of invasion or danger.
Just as you must be able to tell the difference between normal situations and hazardous ones in everyday life, your immune system has a similar job, but on a microscopic scale.
Specialized immune cells roam throughout your body, trying to distinguish harmful molecules (such as pathogens) from benign molecules (such as food).
This article will discuss how the aging process and other factors can put your immune health at risk. You’ll see how a deficiency of a common but often neglected nutrient could turn out to be your “blind spot” when it comes to having a health immune system.
Fortunately, you’ll discover a simple way to help boost your immune system naturally and defend against age-related immune decline.
Fighting Back Against the Immune Decline of Aging
The aging process itself causes a reduction in numbers of specific immune cells assigned to identify and destroy abnormal invaders, including bacteria, viruses, parasites, and other organisms.
The bad news is that this decrease in immune cells leaves older adults more at risk for health concerns. It can even render vaccinations less effective for seniors.
Scientists have an impressive sounding term for this age-related decline in immune function. They call it “immunosenescence.”
The reasons behind this process of immunosenescence are quite complex and not fully understood. However, evidence suggests that several key immune functions become reduced or altered with increasing age.
1. Your bone marrow produces fewer and more poorly functioning stem cells that would otherwise develop into immune-enhancing cells.
Your body’s regenerative power is determined by the ability of stem cells to replace damage or worn-out cells. As they evolved, mammals including humans have lost much of the regenerative power found in lower organisms. Aging adds to this diminished ability to produce and propagate adult immune cells.
2. The thymus gland shrinks in size. As a specialized organ of the immune system, the thymus sits behind your breastbone and between your lungs. By about age 75, the thymus has been more or less replaced by fatty tissue. Earlier in life, this gland is where thymus cell lymphocytes (known as T helper cells) mature.
These T cells, once mature, migrate to the lymph nodes, where they function as part of the immune system to fight off disease. What this means is that aging further reduces your supply of immune T cells.
3. With advancing age, worn out immune cells begin to accumulate, leading to an increase in the low grade, chronic inflammation associated with many health concerns.
Known as “inflamm-aging”, this smoldering fire of chronic inflammation is a hallmark of the aging process itself. The process is characterized by a build-up of pro-inflammatory chemicals attracted by damaged immune cells.
4. You also have fewer natural killer type immune cells to defend your health.
These cells, known as NK cells, are renowned for their ability to recognize and eliminate virally infected cells. Age-related changes in NK cell function lead to poorer adaptive immune function in older adults.
This may sound very technical, but it leads to something quite interesting…
Researchers have found remarkable similarities between immunosenescence and the dietary deficiency of a specific nutrient. These similarities are so striking, scientists now believe it’s not merely a coincidence.
What is this important nutrient?
Well, it might surprise you to know that it’s the humble mineral called zinc.
Why Zinc is the Cornerstone of a Healthy Immune System
The mineral zinc is known as a trace element. Trace elements include minerals such as zinc, copper, iron, chromium, and others present in living tissues and required only in minute amounts for normal growth.
As the tenth most common element in the human body, zinc is crucial to the proper functioning of over 300 enzymes and hormones. In fact, zinc is a key component of one of the body’s most important antioxidant enzyme systems, linked to human longevity.
Zinc plays an important role in tissue repair and growth, developing strong bones and healthy skin, and protecting against cellular DNA mutation.
But for purposes of this article, zinc is also crucial for the support of healthy immune system function and the ability to recover from infection.
As reported in the medical journal Immunity and Ageing, zinc deficiency follows along with what you’ve already learned.
- It reduces the activity of the thymus gland and its hormones.
- It reduces the number of T helper cells and NK cells.
- It reduces antibody production.
- It impairs functions of innate immune cells.
- It reduces the ability of the body to regulate inflammation.
- And it decreases the response to vaccination.
What’s more, even marginal zinc deprivation can diminish immune function.
So it’s no wonder that zinc deficiency can lead to significantly impaired immune function and many health concerns that result from an immune system gone haywire.
Who is at Risk for Zinc Deficiency?
You may have guessed by now that older adults are particularly at risk for zinc inadequacy.
It’s not your fault if you didn’t know this, as it is not well-popularized.
Around 2 billion people worldwide suffer from zinc deficiency.
When it comes to the U.S., the government’s National Health and Nutrition examination Survey (NHANES III study) of 29,103 people revealed that 35-45% of adults 60 and over had zinc intakes below the estimated average daily requirement.
This is attributed to poor appetite, medication interactions, difficulties in chewing, metabolism changes, financial issues, and other factors associated with aging.
However, zinc inadequacy is not limited to the older population.
Here are some other groups vulnerable to zinc deficiency (which sometimes overlap and compound age-related issues):
- People who suffer from certain diseases that impair absorption and speed up zinc losses
Digestive and gastrointestinal disorders such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, even chronic diarrhea.
Those with liver, kidney, or sickle cell disease.
Individuals with diabetes or other chronic illnesses.
- People who eat a vegetarian diet
Vegetarians get less dietary zinc because they do not eat meat, which is high in bioavailable zinc. Plus, they typically consume more whole grains and legumes, which contain phytates. Phytates — substances found in cereals, breads, beans, and other foods — bind zinc and inhibit its absorption.
- Alcoholics often have low zinc status
Alcohol consumption decreases absorption of zinc and increases excretion of zinc in the urine. Additionally, alcoholics often consume less zinc in their diets.
Adding Zinc to Your Diet — Foods to Support Immune System Health
Once you know how important zinc is, you may wonder what foods have zinc in them? Luckily, a wide variety of foods contain zinc, which makes eating them one
of the best ways to boost immune system health naturally. Here are some good sources:
- Shellfish — oysters, crab, and lobsters
- Red meat and poultry
- Baked beans and kidney beans
- Pumpkin seeds, cashews, and almonds
- Eggs and hard cheeses
Should You Buy and Supplement With Zinc as a Way to Boost Immune System Health Naturally?
As you’ve seen, maintaining adequate zinc levels is important for aging adults and those with chronic health issues.
And here’s something else that’s important to know…
While you can eat more of the foods listed above, your body has no way to store zinc. This means you need a constant intake of zinc on a daily basis to maintain healthy levels.
And of all the zinc contained in the body, only about 10% of it is readily available to help fight off infection.
Because of this, many health experts recommend buying zinc supplements for immune support and general health and well-being.
One of zinc’s popular uses in recent years is its ability to reduce the severity and duration of colds.
The common cold is actually caused by any of more than 200 viruses that target the human respiratory tract. The beauty of zinc is that it interferes with the ability of a virus to attach to the surface of cells in the respiratory tract and reproduce.
However, merely using zinc as a temporary intervention does not address the issue of age-related zinc insufficiency. That’s why it’s such a smart idea to buy a high-quality supplement with zinc and add it to your daily health regimen, both for immune support and overall well-being.
Bonus Benefits of Zinc
In addition to the immune-boosting effects of zinc, researchers are finding other important benefits of this trace mineral:
- Reduces the risk of obesity, blood sugar concerns, and autoimmune issues
- May improve mental performance and decrease mood-related concerns
- Helps lower the risk of age-related eye disorders
- Supports your body’s ability to recognize and remove abnormal or mutated cells
- Aids in wound healing
Zinc is only one of many nutrients that can help boost immunity, especially for older adults. We will cover these vitamins, herbs, and natural nutrients in future articles.
And of course, as with all substances, some caution must be observed. Zinc can interfere with certain medications. In addition, long-term supplementation at high doses can result in a copper deficiency. So it’s always good to check with your physician for any safety precautions.
You’ve seen now that immune function diminishes significantly during the aging process — and that zinc deficiency works in concert with this immune suppression. That’s why supplementing your diet with zinc represents a first line of defense against pathogens. Plus, it helps boost the immune system naturally — in addition to its many other health benefits.
Note: This article is not intended to provide medical advice and any changes should be done in consultation with your health care provider.
Sources for This Article Include:
Aw, Silva, et al. Immunology. 2007 Apr; 120(4)435-446. Immunosenescence: Emerging Challenges for an Ageing Population. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2265901/
Childs, Calder, et al. Nutrients. Diet and Immune Function. 2019 Aug;11(8) 1933. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6723551/?report=reader
National Institutes of Health. Zinc: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals.
Briefel, Bialostosky, et al. The Journal of Nutrition. Zinc Intake of the U.S. Population: Findings From the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Study; Vol 130, Issue 5, May 2000.
Haase & Rink. Immunity & Ageing. The Immune System and the Impact of Zinc During Aging. 6, Article number: 9 (2009).
Endocrineweb. An Overview of the Thymus.
Ho, Wagner, et al. EMBO Reports. Stem Cells and Ageing. 2005 Jul;6(suppl 1): S35-S38.
Pinti, Appay, et al. European Journal of Immunology. Aging of the Immune System — Focus on Inflammation and Vaccination. 2016 Oct; 48(10) 2286-2301.
Hazeldine J, Lord JM. Ageing Res Rev. The impact of ageing on natural killer cell function and potential consequences for health in older adults. 2013;12(4):1069-1078.
Committee on Diet and Health, National Research Council. Diet and Health: Implications for Reducing Chronic Disease Risk
Science News Daily. Zinc helps against infection by tapping brakes in immune response. 2013.