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Zinc, Immunity & more

Zinc is a critical micronutrient and a fundamental component for the function of several proteins. It is required for numerous biological processes, including reproduction, growth and development, neurological function, and perhaps most notably, immune function. Zinc deficiency is correlated with immune dysfunction and systemic inflammation, yet approximately 85% of Australian women and 50% of men are not receiving adequate zinc through their diet.

Why Is Zinc Deficiency So Common?

Modern agricultural practices and food processing have contributed to depleted zinc levels in the soil and our food. Obtaining sufficient zinc through the diet each day is important because there are no specialised storage systems for zinc in the body. Sadly, even the healthiest diets may not provide adequate amounts of zinc to meet the physiological needs of many individuals. Additionally, zinc absorption and utilisation may be blocked by toxins, heavy metals, excess copper and even phytates in our food. Lifestyle factors, such as increased exercise, alcohol and coffee consumption, and vegetarian diets also increase the need for zinc, while higher levels are needed during pregnancy and breastfeeding, in the elderly and those with ongoing health conditions.

Impact of Low Zinc on Immunity

Studies show that zinc deficiency leads to dysfunctional immune cell activation and subsequent increased systemic inflammation. Specifically, zinc deficiency increases the production of proinflammatory cytokines – inflammation markers. Additionally, zinc depletion impacts the immune defences of your white blood cells, as well as their production in the thymus resulting in reduced antibody production.

Seven Clinical Clues of Zinc Deficiency

Evidently, zinc deficiency can be incredibly damaging to the immune system. Fortunately, there are some key clinical clues which can aid the detection of low zinc levels:

  • White spots on the fingernails: It’s true that white spots classically occur in zinc deficient individuals and might be a good clue that you’re low in zinc. However, white spots can easily occur from a knock or injury to the nail bed and the absence of white spots does not rule out zinc deficiency. 
  • Poor immune function: Zinc is essential for healthy immune cell function and its deficiency can be an underlying cause of frequent colds and flu and other immune challenges such as allergies. Zinc may also help inhibit the excessive release of histamine from mast cells, with a zinc deficiency likely to increase histamine production.
  • Issues with taste and smell: Researchers have confirmed that people with zinc deficiency have reduced sensation of taste and smell, and they’ve found that supplementation improves taste recognition and sensation. 
  • Mood and neurological disturbances: Zinc plays an important part in modulating the brain’s response to stress. In fact, the highest levels of zinc in the body are found in the hippocampus. Zinc is a cofactor for neurotransmitter function and helps protect our neurology by improving brain derived neurotropic factor (BDNF). It is no wonder that zinc deficiency is  associated with mood changes ranging from depression to rapidly changing thoughts, nervousness, hyperactivity and even psychosis.
  • Gastrointestinal problems: Supplementation with zinc may help strengthen the intestinal lining to protect against ‘leaky gut’ and heal intestinal cells. Most gastrointestinal conditions benefit from zinc supplementation and often require higher levels because the intestinal absorption of zinc may be affected. 
  • Skin complaints: It’s common knowledge that zinc is good for the skin and is important for wound healing. Low zinc levels might present with delayed wound healing or the appearance of stretch marks. More severe zinc deficiency may cause atopic dermatitis and a cracked, fissured appearance of the skin. 
  • Thinning and greying hair: Zinc deficiency is associated with de-pigmentation of the hair. Zinc is also an essential cofactor needed for healthy thyroid function. Poor zinc status and an underlying thyroid issue may cause hair thinning and even alopecia.

The past few years have significantly increased our awareness of just how important immune system function is to our health and wellbeing. However, just purchasing any zinc supplement without the proper guidance can result in a worsening of your zinc deficiency.  As with all minerals, and indeed all supplements, quality and format are the key.  Taking excess doses can block absorption and cause further nutritional imbalances.

There is a reason why qualified naturopaths study for years to gain their accreditation and undertake ongoing professional education – science and research are evolving with new information being published almost daily.  To remain abreast of the research requires commitment and experience so please always consult a qualified naturopath.  


Information courtesy: BioPractica