As we age, our immune systems can sometimes weaken. That’s especially an issue during the current coronavirus pandemic, which has proven more serious for older people. It’s led to more people focusing on changes they can make to build stronger immune systems.
Zinc plays a central role in this effort. Since the 1960s, medical researchers have produced studies showing zinc is essential to proper immune system function. But millions don’t get enough zinc in their diet, with an estimated 17% of the worldwide population at risk for inadequate zinc intake.
One of the smartest moves we can make as we age is to ensure our diet is rich in foods that contain zinc and other nutrients and phytochemicals that promote a healthy immune system. Zinc can be found in a variety of foods, including mushrooms, some types of soup, and wheatgrass. Also, many vegetables and fruits have immune-boosting effects and also can lead to higher cognitive test scores.
Zinc Deficiency Leads to Health Problems Worldwide
Zinc is a trace mineral that scientists now know is essential to life because of its “fundamental role in gene expression, cell development and replication,” according to the World Health Organization. Severe zinc deficiency leads to conditions that include impaired immune function, skin disorders, cognitive dysfunction and anorexia.
While severe zinc deficiency is considered rare, WHO reports that “mild-to-moderate zinc deficiency” is prevalent worldwide. Scientists continue to investigate the link between zinc and the immune system. But there is no doubt it exists.
For example, a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that when given a zinc supplement, residents of a nursing home increased their serum zinc and T-cell numbers, both key to healthy immune systems. Those given a placebo saw no improvement in those numbers.
While researchers continue to investigate how zinc works with the immune system, it’s already well-known that the presence of zinc is essential for DNA synthesis and cell proliferation. Therefore, scientists believe that highly proliferating cells such as immune cells depend on an adequate supply of zinc.
How To Improve Your Zinc Intake
If we don’t pay attention to zinc intake as we age, our immunity can start to diminish, usually between the age of 60 and 65. You can increase your zinc intake by changing your diet. Even so, many people may also need to take a supplement.
Foods rich in zinc include shellfish, legumes, sesame seeds, cashews and other nuts, cheese, eggs, whole grain, and dark chocolate. Also, some vegetables include healthy amounts of zinc. In addition to mushrooms, vegetables high in zinc include green peas, spinach, lima beans, asparagus, beet greens, broccoli, sweet corn and okra.
As with all diet choices, you must balance the health benefits against any potential negative outcomes. For example, red meat is high in zinc, but too much red meat is associated with cardiovascular problems. The best step is to consult with your physician about your levels of zinc and get guidance on the best way to keep those levels high as you age, helping to keep your immune system strong.