Importance of Zinc for the Immune System

author avatar Dr. Eric Berg 08/30/2023

Let’s talk about the importance of zinc in your immune system. Zinc is probably one of the most important trace minerals because it does many things in the body - but one of its most important functions is its support of the immune system.

In this article, I will cover:


Zinc: The Basics

Zinc plays many important roles in the body

Zinc is an essential mineral that is naturally present in some foods, added to others, and available as a dietary supplement.

It is involved in many essential functions in the body. Specifically, it has a role in:

  • Genes and DNA synthesis
  • Enzymes
  • Protein synthesis
  • Wound healing
  • Heart health
  • Joint health
  • Fat Storing Hormone
  • Thymus function
  • Gonads
  • Immunity

Let’s take a deeper look at its role in the immune system and explain what happens to your immunity if you become deficient in zinc.


The Role of Zinc In the Immune System

Zinc is an immune modulator, meaning that it essentially regulates the body’s immune response and keeps it from overreacting or underreacting.

It can also function as an antioxidant and stabilize cell membranes, meaning it can help prevent free radical-induced injury during inflammatory processes. This effectively slows the aging process and helps protect the health of cells.

Finally, zinc has a role in lymphocyte differentiation and antibody production, meaning that it helps start the immune process in the body.

When this is disturbed in any way, a few things happen. First, it affects the survival, proliferation, and differentiation of important immune cells, including:

  • Monocytes
  • Polymorphonuclear cells
  • Natural killer cells
  • T-cells
  • B-cells

In other words, your immune cells can’t work very well if zinc isn’t working in your body. And this is a huge deal: these are the immune cells that defend your body and keep it healthy. You need them working correctly so you don’t fall victim to bad infections, viruses, and bacteria - which means that you definitely need zinc.

But that’s not all. A chronic zinc deficiency - where this goes on for an extended period of time - actually increases inflammation in the body and contributes to the development of chronic inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.

Overall, low levels of zinc can seriously hamper your ability to stay healthy and maintain homeostasis in the body.

What Can Prevent Zinc Absorption

So how can this deficiency happen to begin with? Well, there are certain things in your foods and your day-to-day environment that can prevent the absorption of zinc:

  • Phytates: Phytates are in cereals, whole grains, and bran. If you consume cereal on a regular basis - or if you’re eating a lot of bread, crackers, pasta, or other high carb options - you could potentially be deficient in zinc.
  • Oxalates: Oxalates can deplete your zinc. You can find oxalates in spinach, almonds, chocolate, kiwi, and rhubarb.
  • Antacids: Antacids will also lower the absorption of zinc. This really has to do wit your stomach acid. You need a lot of stomach acid to pull in the zinc. Antacids pull the stomach acid out, leaving you deficient in stomach acid. Then you can’t absorb zinc.
  • Malabsorption: If there is some kind of pre-existing gut damage or inflammation in your gut - because you took antibiotics when you were younger, for example - that could prevent the absorption of zinc.
  • Gastric bypass: This could also cause malabsorption.

Immune Issues That Develop With Zinc Deficiency

Symptoms of zinc deficiency

If you do have zinc deficiency, you could experience issues like:

Thymic Atrophy

The thymus gland is a small gland located behind the breast bone. It’s part of the lymphatic system - along with the tonsils, adenoids, and spleen - and part of the endocrine system.

So what does it do? It produces progenitor cells, which mature into T-cells (thymus-derived cells). The body uses T-cells to help destroy infected or cancerous cells.

When you develop a zinc deficiency, one of the first things you’re going to see is that your thymus gland starts to shrink. It’s called thymic atrophy. And an underperforming or shrunken thymus gland means lower T-cell production in the body. Not great.

Lymphocytes Go Down

Lymphocytes - usually categorized into B lymphocytes and T lymphocytes - are white blood cells that are one of the body’s main types of immune cells. They are made in the bone marrow and found in the blood and lymph tissue.

The B cells work to make antibodies that fight foreign invaders, or antigens, while the T cells kill cancer and help control the body’s immune response.

In chronic zinc deficiency, there’s a reprogramming of the immune system that ultimately results in reduced lymphocyte production.

That means you lose part of your infection-fighting army.

Defective White Blood Cell (WBC) Response

Again, zinc is an immune modulator, meaning it can help either send the immune system into action or keep it at bay.

Without this important modulator, your immune system doesn’t respond correctly anymore.

This can lead to excessive inflammation as the number of white blood cells (WBCs) and platelets increase disproportionately in response to an injury or an infection. In other words, your system overreacts and you can end up with painful inflammation that actually makes your symptoms worse.

Decreased Recovery Rate

You also get a decreased recovery rate of infection, meaning that it takes longer for you to heal. That’s because zinc plays a major role in regulating every phase of the wound healing process, including membrane repair, oxidative stress, coagulation, inflammation and immune defence, tissue re-epithelialization, angiogenesis, to fibrosis/scar formation.

In other words, no zinc means an inefficient healing process.

Increased Duration of Infection

By the same token, there’s also an increased duration of infection if you get sick. This is a logical extension of inefficient healing and a lower number of lymphocytes.

And it can have a cumulative effect. For example, if you have a sinus infection, a cut on your arm, and some bacterial overgrowth in your gut all at the same time, each one will further take down your immune system and weaken your body.

Increased Inflammatory Response and Oxidative Stress

We mentioned that improper immune modulation can lead to an increased inflammatory response. This can create a lot of collateral damage in the body.

Specifically, long-term, and unchecked inflammation causes oxidative stress, which can damage the body’s cells, protein, and DNA. In the big picture, this can contribute to aging and lead to many medical conditions, including:

  • Neurodegenerative disease
  • Cancer
  • Asthma
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Rheumatoid arthritis

How Do You Get Enough Zinc

If you find yourself dealing with any of these immune concerns or conditions, you need to take more zinc. This is especially true if your immune system is already weakened and you know you’re more susceptible.

Now the question becomes how do you make sure that you get enough zinc?

Well, there’s certain foods that are very high in zinc, including:

  • Oysters
  • Other shellfish
  • Red meat
  • Seafood and fish
  • Pumpkin seeds

Alternatively, if you want to get it as a supplement, I recommend getting zinc bisglycinate chelate. This is much more bioavailable than other sources, and it doesn’t have to be at high doses: it has a 230% better absorption rate than zinc sulfate and a 390% better absorption rate than zinc oxide.

If you haven’t seen my comprehensive video on boosting your immune system, I put it right here so you can check it out.

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Disclaimer: Our educational content is not meant or intended for medical advice or treatment.

Editor’s Note: This post has been updated for quality and relevancy.

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