Zinc supplementation may help improve immune response in older individuals

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

An article published ahead of print on January 27, 2016 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reports the outcome of a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial which found a positive effect for zinc supplementation on indicators of immune function in older nursing home residents.

Boston researchers randomized 53 nursing home residents aged 65 and older who had low serum zinc levels to receive 30 milligrams (mg) zinc or a placebo that contained 5 mg zinc for three months. Blood samples collected before and after treatment were analyzed for serum zinc levels and immune response markers.

At the end of the study, participants who received 30 mg zinc exhibited a significant increase in the number of peripheral T cells.  They also significantly increased their mean serum zinc levels by 16%, when compared to the placebo group.

"Zinc deficiency is associated with changes in T cell–mediated function similar to those observed with aging," note Junaidah B. Barnett of Tufts University and associates. "Zinc supplementation may therefore play an important role in increasing serum zinc concentrations, improving immunity, and preventing infectious diseases such as pneumonia in the elderly."

"The key finding from this study is that it is feasible to increase serum zinc concentrations in nursing home residents with a low serum zinc concentration through supplementation with zinc," they emphasize. Dr Barnett and colleagues note that the 5 milligrams of zinc provided by the placebo was ineffective at maintaining or increasing zinc concentrations.

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Zinc deficiency linked to chronic inflammation
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A report published in the May 2015 issue of Molecular Nutrition and Food Research reveals how being deficient in the mineral zinc results in immune dysfunction and chronic inflammation, which is involved in cardiovascular disease and other conditions.

Emily Ho of Oregon State University (OSU) and her colleagues examined the effects of zinc deficiency in cell cultures and aged mice. The team observed an increase in the responses of the cytokines interleukin 1beta and interleukin 6 following the administration of an inflammation-provoking substance to human white blood cells known as monocytes. In aged mice, zinc deficiency was also associated with an increase in interleukin 6 gene expression.

"Zinc deficiency induced inflammatory response in part by eliciting aberrant immune cell activation and altered promoter methylation," the authors concluded. "Our results suggested potential interactions between zinc status, epigenetics, and immune function, and how their dysregulation could contribute to chronic inflammation."

"When you take away zinc, the cells that control inflammation appear to activate and respond differently; this causes the cells to promote more inflammation," explained Dr Ho, who is a professor and director of the Moore Family Center for Whole Grain Foods, Nutrition and Preventive Health in the OSU College of Public Health and Human Sciences.

Dr Ho noted that 12% of U.S. residents and nearly 40% of those 65 and older fail to obtain adequate zinc. In addition to consuming less of it, older men and women are less efficient at absorbing the mineral. "It's a double-whammy for older individuals," she observed.

"We think zinc deficiency is probably a bigger problem than most people realize," Dr Ho noted. "Preventing that deficiency is important."

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Health Concern

Immune system strengthening

Age, stress, and poor nutrition can sap our immune system of its effectiveness. Influenza provides one example; during young adulthood, when the body can mount a robust immune response to this common virus, influenza is rarely fatal. Among the elderly, however, the virus is associated with significant rates of death and hospitalization (Nichol 2005).

Metallic micronutrients such as copper, zinc (Prasad 2000), and selenium influence the activity of antioxidant enzymes and can reduce oxidative stress. Among children, deficiencies of zinc, copper, and selenium have been linked to immune deficiency and infection (Cunningham-Rundles 2005).

Selenium is involved in several key metabolic pathways (Rotruck 1973; McKenzie 1998, 2000). Glutathione peroxidase, the enzyme that recycles glutathione, depends on the presence of selenium for its antioxidant activity (Arthur 2003). Although plant food is a major dietary source of selenium (e.g., garlic is rich in selenium), the highest concentration of dietary selenium occurs in meat.

Zinc deficiency is linked to impaired immune function, partly because of decreased T lymphocyte and B lymphocyte function.

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