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Immunity

The Important Role of Zinc in Immune Function

Dr Jane Winter
Written by Dr Jane Winter | Dietitian, Science Communication Manager
Poke bowl source of zinc

Zinc is not only vital to our overall health, but is also one of the most important minerals for our immune system. Here’s everything you need to know about zinc, including what it is, how to get it and the role zinc plays in immune system health.

What is zinc?

Zinc is an essential mineral that plays an important role in many bodily processes[1]. It’s also a trace mineral, meaning although it’s crucial, our bodies don’t need vast amounts of it.

Since our bodies can’t make it, it can only be absorbed through the diet.

What are the benefits of zinc?

Zinc is a vital element in various physiological processes. It plays an pivotal role in our cellular metabolism (converting food to energy) and protein synthesis[2]. One of zinc’s most important benefits is supporting our immune health.


The role of zinc in the immune system

The role of zinc differs depending on the aspect of our immune system defence. It’s crucial for the normal development of cells that are responsible for our innate immune defences. It’s also vital for the communication between immune cells, helping them signal to each other. Immune responses are also dependent on zinc when macrophages (large white blood cells, an important part of our immune system) are released.

One of the clinical signs of zinc deficiency is a weakened immune system. Severe zinc deficiency has been found to lead to a compromised immune system[3] and even mild to moderate degrees of deficiency have been found to reduce immune function[4].


What are zinc-rich foods?

As our bodies do not produce zinc and can only store limited amounts, it needs to be consumed through diet.

The good news is, most people meet their RDI (recommended daily intake) of zinc through their diet alone, with women needing 8mg and men needing 11mg. Foods high in zinc include:

  • Oysters
  • Crab
  • Prawns
  • Mussels
  • Red meat
  • Poultry
  • Beans
  • Nuts
  • Fortified cereals

Zinc may also support normal growth and development during pregnancy, childhood and adolescence.[5]

References:

[1] Zinc | Nutrient Reference Values, 2020

[2] https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/

[3] Shankar AH, Prasad AS. Zinc and immune function: the biological basis of altered resistance to infection. Am J Clin Nutr 1998;68:447S-63S. [PubMed abstract]

[4] Wintergerst ES, Maggini S, Hornig DH. Contribution of selected vitamins and trace elements to immune function. Ann Nutr Metab 2007;51:301-23. [PubMed abstract]

[5] https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/