Zinc And Aging Immunity. How Does It Help?


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Zinc has so many health benefits.


It is one of the most abundant nutritionally essential elements in the human body. It is found in all body tissues. 85% of the body’s total zinc found in muscle and bone, 11% in the skin and the liver and the remaining 4% in all the other tissues (1).


Zinc is important for balancing immunity, decreasing inflammation, as an antioxidant, cognitive function and so much more!


This important mineral wears many hats. All vitamins and minerals do. This is why a deficiency could have a negative impact on so many different aspects of our health. Zinc is needed to activate over 300 biochemical reactions (think jobs) needed for your well-being (2, 3). Vitamins and minerals are the first true ‘multi-taskers’.


Unlike other minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and iron, the body doesn’t store zinc. To get the most from zinc, you need to regularly get zinc from food everyday (4).


Zinc gives your immune system super strength

Imagine a winter, flu and cold season with fewer colds or shorter-lasting ones. Sounds pretty good right? Along with vitamin C and vitamin D, getting adequate amounts of zinc is critical.


Without enough zinc, your body can’t make immune cells properly. And the immune cells you do make can’t work as well; its like they’re sluggish and dragging their feet (5, 6)


Vitamin D, Colds & The Flu. Oh My!


Even before you have a legit clinical deficiency, being low on zinc can affect your immunity. As mentioned above, zinc has 300 different jobs to do. When you don’t get enough (of any nutrient for that matter), zinc (a nutrient) can’t perform all its duties. This is called a ‘functional deficiency’. The body isn’t functioning at its best.


When you don’t get all of the zinc you need, you are at an increased risk for bacterial, viral (colds and flu) and parasitic infections (7, 8)


Vitamin C to Reduce Cold Duration?


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Older adults and immune function

Growing older is a gift. Think about it. It’s certainly better than the alternative if you ask me. I’d rather grow old than die prematurely before my time 🙂


There are some physiological challenges as we age. But, with the right diet, exercise and optimal intake of nutrients, aging well is possible.


Do you find you get sick more often than you  did when you were younger? When you get a cold, does it take you longer to feel better? If you answered yes, your immune system might need a little nutritional TLC.


The good news is that your immune system can work great at any age when the right attention is given to it. Other systems or tissues, like muscle and bone, take more work to stay youthful. The immune system is better at standing the test of time.


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A few things happen to your immune system as you age.  Some of your immune cells, the T cells, have the job of remembering past infections. This helps your body launch an attack on invaders more efficiently. As you age, you produce fewer T cells so your immune response can be sluggish.


Also, all of your different immune cells need to communicate with each other so that they can coordinate their assault on pathogens. Yup, you guessed it, as you age, the immune cells don’t communicate as well with each other. Less communication = slower response. This slow response is especially true with vaccinations. Older adults with a lower zinc status have an inadequate immune response to vaccines (9).


You produce fewer immune and white blood cells as you age too. Less soldiers to fight means being more vulnerable to infections.


But don’t worry. This is not a bad news story but rather a good one. Why? Because studies have shown that increasing both dietary and/or supplemental zinc can help reboot your aging immune system.


Zinc supplementation has been shown to reduce inflammation while improving activation of T cells in the elderly (10). One of the ways zinc also helps is by tempering the immune system response. When you’re younger, you immune system is more in balance; ‘not too hot, not too cold’ but this balance can tip towards over-activation. Having too much of an inflammatory response to infection is actually counterproductive. You don’t want your immune system being too aggressive and this is where zinc can help (11, 12).


The immune system and the impact of zinc during aging


Zinc deficiency in the older adult

Clinical and functional zinc deficiency is common in older adults and the elderly. Almost 50% of older adult men and 30% of women don’t meet their recommended intake (13). Getting more zinc means getting more zinc-rich foods on a daily basis and for many, zinc supplementation. Whether that’s part of a multivitamin with minerals or an individual zinc supplement, a knowledgeable practitioner can help you navigate that decision process.


Many medications used by older adults can interfere with zinc status. These should be consider if you want to reap the benefits that zinc has on both overall health and immunity;

  • Amiloride (Midamor) — a potassium-sparing diuretic, used to lower blood pressure
  • ACE Inhibitors — a class of blood pressure lowering medication
  • Chemotherapy medications
  • Thiazide diuretics — “water pills”, used to lower blood pressure
  • PPIs — medications that suppress stomach acid production (Prilosec, Prevacid, Nexium, Solutab, Dexilent)
  • H2 antagonists — similar to PPIs, H2 antagonists reduce stomach acid (Zantac, Axid, Pepcid, Tagamet)


Getting more zinc is easy. Try to include more zinc-rich foods every day and if needed, consider a good quality supplement; either a multivitamin with minerals for a stand alone zinc supplement. A health practitioner can help tailor what’s best for you.


Food Sources of Zinc


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Doug Cook RDN is a Toronto based integrative and functional nutritionist and dietitian with a focus on digestive, gut, and mental health.  Follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.