Zinc supports the immune system, improves cognitive abilities, contributes to a healthy digestion, preserves the protective properties of the skin, and shields the body from free radicals with its antioxidant activity.
Zinc is an essential trace element present in almost every cell of the human body, regulating cellular metabolism. Zinc interacts with thousands of different molecules, regulating a wide range of cellular functions throughout the body.
Functions of zinc depend on an unstable equilibrium. Both insufficient and excess levels of zinc can disturb the zinc-mediated equilibrium of physiological functions.
Daily zinc requirements are best covered by a healthy diet including 5 portions of fruit or vegetables per day. Zinc deposits stored in the body can be depleted during times of increased demand, such as during pregnancy, infection, inflammation, trauma, or stress. These situations can lead to a zinc deficiency, which can be reversed by timely increased zinc supplementations.
Who needs zinc?
Zinc is an essential micronutrient necessary for normal functioning of almost every cell in the body. Daily uptake of an adequate amount of zinc is therefore important to maintain cellular homeostasis. Sufficient supply of zinc is crucial for normal development of babies and children, as well as during pregnancy and lactation.
Elderly people are also at increased risk of zinc deficiency, which can negatively impact immune function and cognitive abilities.
In case of suspected zinc deficiency, additional intake of zinc is recommended, e.g. using zinc supplements. Zinc infusions may be indicated in the case of acute severe zinc deficiency.
Caution is advised however, as excess intake of zinc can negatively affect the physiological balance of the body.
Zinc supports the immune response
The immune system is constantly reacting to invading pathogens such as viruses and bacteria, and is responsible for the removal of damaged cells. A weakened immune system is unable to promote optimal communication between the different immune cells, making the immune response less efficient. Zinc increases the activity of T helper cells, which are recruiting antibody producing B cells. In the case of a zinc deficiency, this communication pathway is delayed.
The same effect is observed in the ageing immune system. Zinc supplementation therefore supports the optimal functioning of the immune system, and has the potential to rejuvenate the immune response of older people.
Evidence for the direct action of zinc on the immune system has been provided by several studies with persons suffering from common cold. Zinc supplementation reduced the duration of the cold on average by 33%.
Zinc improves mental capacity
A major part of the zinc taken up with the diet is delivered to the brain, where it is required for the building of the neuronal networks. Zinc deficiency, especially during the developmental phase of the brain, can therefore disturb the mental development. Babies born from mothers with a zinc deficiency during pregnancy show reduced attention spans and activity, are slower learners and have lower motor skills.
Furthermore, studies are now showing that zinc also contributes to the preservation of mental capacity. Zinc supplementation positively impacts on the cognitive and emotional capacities of older women. Several lines of evidence also demonstrate that zinc can alleviate the symptoms of depression, especially in patients considered to be therapy resistant.
Zinc helps a healthy digestion
Dietary zinc is taken up via the gastrointestinal system, where the nutrients are absorbed through the intestinal epithelial layer to the cells. The development of this epithelial layer follows a complex process of cell division, cell specification and removal of excess cells. Zinc plays a crucial part in this procedure.
Zinc deficiency during the development of the gastrointestinal system can have serious consequences for the digestion, and lead to severe diarrhoea.
A holistic approach to homeostasis (the physiological balance of the entire body) led scientists to propose that digestive problems due to zinc deficiencies can affect the immune system as well as the cognitive abilities.
Zinc preserves the skin's protective properties
As zinc is an important catalyst of cell renewal, zinc deficiencies have a particular effect on the skin. Insufficient zinc supply rapidly causes rashes, ulcers, and lesions. The skin is losing its protective properties, opening the door to fungal infections and inflammations. Adequate zinc supply is also critical for wound healing. Long-term zinc deficiency can cause severe dermatitis.
Zinc as an atioxidant
Antioxidants reduce the number of free radicals that are formed in the body due to environmental factors. Zinc belongs to the group of micronutrients acting as antioxidants. Neutralising free radicals reduces oxidative stress, which can potentially cause cell damage.