Zinc: The Key to a Healthy Immune and Digestive System

Published on October 25, 2015 by Dr. Paul Hrkal

Zinc is an essential micronutrient required for many enzyme and body functions. It is essential for growth and physical development, and for the metabolism of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Approximately 12% of people in the US do not consume enough zinc in their diets, and this number is closer to 40% in those over 65 years of age. In older adults it is most likely a combination of eating fewer zinc-rich foods (meat and shellfish such as oysters) and the inability to absorb it from the digestive system. For proper absorption zinc requires vitamin B1, B6 and adequate stomach acid. Many people, especially as they get older, have low levels of stomach acid, which leads to mineral deficiencies.

A zinc deficiency may play a role in many chronic diseases but it is best known for its pivotal role in the immune system. It is essential for the function white blood cells to protect the body from invasion by bacteria and virus’. A recent study looked at the relationship between zinc deficiency and inflammation. They concluded that a zinc deficiency induced an increase inflammatory response in the cells. For the first time, researchers were able to show that reducing zinc caused improper immune cell activation and dysregulation of cytokine IL-6. When zinc is removed (or deficient), the cells that control inflammation activate and respond differently in a way that causes the cells to promote more inflammation. This means that zinc plays a key role in both keeping the immune system able to fend off invaders and at the same time as preventing overstimulation and chronic inflammation.

Zinc is also a key factor in the healing of the digestive lining, which is damaged and “leaky” for many people. Leaky gut is a condition characterized by hyperpermeability of the intestines, and is associated with a number of chronic conditions including celiac disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, eczema, multiple sclerosis, ulcerative colitis and autism. A specific form of zinc called zinc carnosine has been shown to stabilize the gut lining and to promote repair of the gut, helping to reduce leakiness. The research has been so impressive that a zinc carnosine complex that has been a successful pharmaceutical drug in Japan since 1994 for the treatment of stomach disorders such as ulcers, dyspepsia and infections with Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria associated with stomach ulcers. With dozens of research studies and over 12 years of human experience as a prescription product, zinc carnosine has a strong track record of safety, efficacy and scientific merit and is a natural medicine of choice for all sorts of gastrointestinal problems.

It is also important to note that zinc should be balanced with copper. The importance of zinc is becoming more recognized; copper's crucial role in our health has often been overlooked. Over supplementation with zinc by itself can result in copper deficiency, which can have serious implications for your long-term health. Both animal and human evidence suggests that, for optimal utilization of both minerals, the balance between zinc and copper should be about ten-to-one. Unfortunately, it is common for supplements containing these nutrients to include too much zinc, and little or no copper. You should look for a zinc supplement that also contains a small amount of copper (in about a 10:1 ratio zinc:copper). A good dose of zinc is 30mg per day with 4mg of copper.

Image by © 2014 Michael Jung via Dollarphotoclub

Key References

Bonaventura P, Benedetti G, Albarède F, Miossec P. Zinc and its role in immunity and inflammation. Autoimmun Rev. 2015 Apr;14(4):277-85. doi: 10.1016/j.autrev.2014.11.008. Epub 2014 Nov 24.