Zinc has a long history known as the mineral of the immune system. New research from Oregon State University demonstrated that it appears to affect how the immune system responds to inflammation.
A zinc deficiency may play a role in chronic diseases that involve inflammation, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes. I see this deficiency frequently on plasma zinc levels on my patients with autoimmune disease.
When zinc is removed, the cells that control inflammation activate and respond differently in a way that causes the cells to promote more inflammation, according to Emily Ho, a professor and lead author of the study.
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. Zinc is also vitally important to the immune system. Practically every enzyme reaction in the brain involves zinc, and so does the development and function of the central nervous system.
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 malabsorption issues.
In this study, researchers examined 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.
The researchers also compared zinc levels in young and old living mice. The older mice had low zinc levels that corresponded with increased chronic inflammation and decreased IL-6 methylation, which is an epigenetic mechanism that cells use to control gene expression. Decreased IL-6 methylation was also found in human immune cells from elderly people.
This research suggests a potential relationship between low levels of zinc and increased inflammation that can occur with age. Thus, a zinc deficiency may be a bigger health concern than many people realize, especially in older populations.
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Source: Carmen P. Wong, Nicole A. Rinaldi, Emily Ho. Zinc deficiency enhanced inflammatory response by increasing immune cell activation and inducing IL6 promoter demethylation. Molecular Nutrition & Food Research, 2015; DOI:10.1002/mnfr.201400761