As you may know, one my favourite vitamins for strong immunity is Vitamin D, this hormone plays a vital role in modulation of the innate and adaptive immune responses, and the body's tissue Zinc levels. Vitamin D deficiency is highly correlated with autoimmunity, and protocols to increase Vitamin D (1, 25-dihydroxyvitamin D) serum levels have been demonstrated to decrease the expression of disease activity, through suppression of interferon inducible genes. Simply put: Interferons are signalling proteins (part of a larger group called cytokines) that are released in response to pathogens (intruders like viruses, bacteria etc). They are named by their ability to ‘interfere’ with pathogen replication. In cases of autoimmunity, self-tolerance is lost and the immune system tags body tissue to be destroyed. In such states, dampening of these immune signalling proteins is obviously a good thing! (1, 2)
For more details on these inflammatory messengers see my Gut-Brain axis series here and here. I also cover some of the benefits of Vitamin D here, including an important vitamin that must be taken with Vitamin D if you are supplementing.
While Vitamin D is perhaps the most potent immune modulating hormone we now know of, it does not stand alone. There are in fact an array of important nutrients that contribute to immunity; one very important micronutrient for immunity and general wellbeing is Zinc. Like other water-soluble vitamins (C, B-complex and folate), Zinc cannot be stored in the body so must be consumed daily in order to benefit from its positive functions in the body. These include enhanced immunity, mood and cognition, sleep, and intestinal health.
Over 300 enzymes require zinc for their activation and nearly 2000 transcription factors require zinc for gene expression. Transcription is the first step in gene expression, where the information from a gene is used to synthesise a functional gene product. Transcription factors are proteins that control parts of this process. The interaction between nutrients and the genome is extremely important; the expression of our genes has a profound affect on our health. As we know from epigenetics - it is the expression of our genes that shape our physical future, not simply changes in the DNA sequence; i.e. due to gene inheritance. Zinc also has anti-inflammatory mechanisms, is an antioxidant and is essential for cell mediated immunity.(3)
Given the number of important mechanisms zinc is involved in, it is alarming that an estimated 2 billion people worldwide suffer from zinc deficiency. This is largely in effect due to the prevalence of high grain-based carb diets, that contain very little amounts of bioavailable zinc and high amounts of phytates. Phytates decreases the absorption of zinc and many other nutrients. Other factors that contribute to zinc deficiency include: soil mineral depletion; alcohol consumption, vegetarian diets, reduced stomach acid (H pylori infection) and pharmaceutical drugs. If you regularly consume alcohol, grains, and/or eat a vegetarian diet; suspect you may have reduced stomach acid levels or are on prescription medication, increasing your zinc intake may be of use to you. (4, 5, 6, 7)
Zinc deficiency is correlated with a number neurodegenerative diseases, depression, reduced cognition and physical status. Alzheimer’s patients have shown positive benefits from zinc supplementation, and improved mood is observed among those with a higher dietary intake of zinc. Those suffering from an acute bout of diarrhea can also find relief in a dose of zinc.(8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 13.5)
Symptoms of zinc deficiency include: Weak immunity (frequent colds and flu), depression, chronic fatigue, and growth retardation in children; mood imbalances, reduced cognition, and slower uptake of information - including dyslexia. As deficiency progresses severe symptoms include: Skin lesions, impaired wound healing, anemia, impaired vision and fast degradation of eyesight.(14, 15, 16, 17)
HOW DO I KNOW MY LEVELS?
Now, before you run out to get your serum zinc levels tested, it needs to be noted that blood panels for zinc deficiency are insensitive to early zinc deficiency. This is due to the fact most of the body’s zinc is stored inside the cells and not in the blood. A functional response to zinc treatment is one of the best markers for zinc deficiency. Simply put: By looking at your diet and the other mentioned factors that contribute to zinc deficiency, including symptoms, one can determine if they are in a risk group for deficiency. If by then taking a zinc supplement symptoms are alleviated, this can be seen as a functional response and proof of sub-par levels of zinc. White spots on nail-beds, and reduced taste sensation are also an indication of progressed zinc deficiency.(18, 19, 20)
NUTRITIONAL & SUPPLEMENTAL INTAKE
Vitamin B6 is an important co-factor in the utilisation of zinc in the body, and many people deficient in zinc (especially those with suspected Pyroluria) will benefit from supplementation of both.(21, 22)
From nutritional sources oysters are the highest source of zinc, followed by veal liver, pumpkin seeds, roast beef and tahini. As mentioned previously if you are a vegetarian, eat a high grain-based diet, have symptoms of zinc deficiency, and/or tick the boxes for the other factors mentioned above, supplementation may be necessary.
Taking a zinc supplement that combines a variety of bioavailable forms of the compound will be your best bet. Chelation improves absorption, so look for supplements with chelated zinc, as well as zinc gluconate and methionine. If possible avoid zinc sulfate and zinc oxide, these are inorganic forms of zinc and offer less bioavailability.(23)
A daily dosage of 10-25mg of supplemental ‘elemental’ zinc is a rough guideline to use, but you must evaluate your need for zinc supplementation and the amount you are receiving through dietary nutrition. If the supplements at your health food store do not provide the elemental conversion of zinc, use this as a reference to do the conversion yourself; detailed version here.
Generally speaking the elemental zinc conversions are as follow:
Zinc acetate – 30% elemental
Zinc gluconate – 14%
Zinc sulfate – 23%
Zinc oxide – 80%
This means, for instance, that every 100mg of Zinc gluconate will net you 14mg of elemental zinc.
While zinc is relatively harmless it is not a supplement that you want to abuse. Over-consumption of zinc will upset the absorption of copper which can have toxic effects.(24) As with everything, incorporate any dietary and supplemental changes in isolation where possible and closely monitor yourself over the proceeding days/weeks. Always cease the newly introduced compound if symptoms worsen and consult your local health guru (who may be your local physician) for testing.
Important as adequate dietary zinc intake is, I must take a moment to stress that there is no panacea, magic food or pill out there. Building and maintaining optimal health is a dance that involves a multitude of factors; some nutritional, some environmental, some emotional and even metaphysical/spiritual. Taking responsibility for your own well-being is the first and most important step, and it is something that cannot be purchased! From that place the flow freely moves in the direction of health, as one’s own curiosity, intuition, energy and discernment are activated.
Eat real food; look honestly at your alcohol, processed food and sugar intake; evaluate whether reducing grain-based carbs may positively affect your health, and ensure adequate protein, healthy fats and micronutrients (vegetables) are consumed daily. Have an honest discussion with your family, or even yourself, about how you handle stress, and what your dominating mental/emotional state is. What is the primary 'effector' in shaping this state? Do you need to focus on building tools to cope with stress better? Are you exercising your body and brain? Untamed stress and an unfit body and brain are a guaranteed recipe for rapid aging neurodegeneration.
For some people there is probably little benefit honing in on the finer details of micronutrient deficiencies if the above has not been investigated first.
I make this final note not to detract from the data on zinc deficiency and its far-reaching physiological effects, but in an effort to provide perspective in tandem. Please don’t go hunting for health in a supplement bottle; the hunt for wellness must come from the inside out - and start with your mind and plate first. Supplements are adjuncts that can offer great value, but without diet and lifestyle changes one will not resolve the root cause of imbalance. I will go into these broader elements in a post very soon.
Until then, big love and health to you all!