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Your Immune System Declines As You Age, Zinc Could Help
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Your Immune System Declines As You Age, Zinc Could Help

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When you think of aging, you might picture gray hairs, wrinkles, and aches and pains. But did you know that your immune system ages, too? 

An aging immune system involves a declining production of B cells and T cells, which are types of immune cells, plus lymphocytes that do not work as efficiently as they used to.  

That means that starting around age 60, immune systems go through changes, and do not respond as efficiently to harmful microbes, whether novel bacteria and viruses, or ones they were previously exposed to. 

Can you slow the aging of your immune system? 

Just as you might start a skincare routine to support a slower skin aging process, or you might start doing yoga and mobility exercises to keep your joints pain-free for as long as possible, you might be wondering what you can do to help your immune system age more slowly. 

Researchers found that one nutrient plays a significant role in how efficiently the immune system works in the 60 and over population. And, it’s a nutrient that comes in inexpensive, easy-to-find supplement form. 

That supplement is zinc, which is available in nearly every supplement aisle you frequent, and it is likely priced lower than supplements on the neighboring shelves. You’ll find zinc included in hundreds of formulas for concerns ranging from immunity to sexual health.

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Several studies have found a link between immune system aging and zinc levels. One review found several studies showing that zinc supplementation may improve immune function while reducing inflammation in elderly populations. Another study reports that zinc supplementation could reverse the undesirable changes that the immune system undergoes with aging, if zinc deficiency was at the root. 

We cannot be sure whether this mechanism is why older populations are more severely affected by COVID-19, but zinc could be a beneficial addition to a treatment plan. One paper in the journal, Frontiers in Immunology states that zinc has shown antiviral properties, and could be especially beneficial in patients whose zinc levels are below range. 

What does zinc do? 

Zinc has several functions throughout your body. 
  • Provides an essential nutrient for your immune cells replicate when needed to fight off pathogens
  • Helps your senses of taste and smell work properly
  • Helps your body synthesize proteins
  • Helps make and repair DNA
  • Contributes to development of the growing fetus and child 
  • Contributes to wound healing

Zinc is most commonly known for its role in supporting a healthy immune system. When the body senses an invader, the immune system stimulates immune cells to replicate rapidly, and this process gobbles up your body’s available zinc. 

What happens when you’re deficient in zinc?

You may not notice a zinc deficiency, or it may present as a different condition entirely, making it difficult to identify. Symptoms of zinc deficiency include a weakened immune system, slow growth in children, poor appetite, hair loss, sexual dysfunction, slowed wound healing, the sense that your food tastes “off,” brain fog, and more. 

Zinc deficiency can be assessed with blood tests in combination with clinical symptoms.  

Zinc levels decline as you get older, and even a slight drop in zinc can shift immune function. 

Why do zinc levels decline with age?

Studies show that zinc absorption isn’t as efficient in the elderly. There are several possible reasons, any combination of which could seriously affect zinc levels. 

One reason is that senior citizens often follow medical advice to avoid zinc-rich animal products as a means to reduce cholesterol, which would reduce zinc intake. On top of that, they replace these foods with refined wheat products that contain phytates, which are compounds that bind to zinc and prevent its absorption. 

Other reasons the elderly may not be absorbing as much zinc include inadequate chewing, insufficient intestinal absorption, taking medications that block absorption of certain nutrients, and other factors.

Who is at risk for zinc deficiency?

The elderly are not the only population at risk for zinc deficiency. Although zinc deficiency is relatively uncommon, it does happen. Groups at risk for low zinc include: 

  • Vegetarians and vegans. Plant-based sources of zinc are not as bioavailable as the zinc from animal products. If you avoid animal products, consult a dietician to see whether you should supplement. 
  • Pregnant and breastfeeding women. Growing a human increases your demand for zinc. Your prenatal vitamin likely covers this requirement, but check with your doctor to make sure.
  • People with digestive disorders. Those with digestive disorders, especially disorders of the lower digestive tract like ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, may not absorb zinc as efficiently. 
  • Breastfed babies over 6 months old. Breastmilk does not cover zinc requirements beyond 7 months, but usually parents begin to introduce solid foods around this time. Check with your doctor about your baby’s nutrition requirements. 
  • Alcoholics. Alcohol increases the rate at which your body excretes zinc. 
  • People with sickle cell disease. People with sickle cell disease may have different nutritional requirements. Ask your doctor if you’re not sure.

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