Zinc is the second most abundant metal in the body, after iron, and is necessary for the activity of approximately three hundred different enzymes. Not surprisingly, zinc has many important roles, including nearly every cellular function, from protein and carbohydrate metabolism to cell division and growth.. It is essential for DNA and RNA transcription (the “reading” of the DNA map to make proteins), and thus controls gene expression and communication within cells, and is required for the production of proteins. Zinc regulates apoptosis (programmed cell suicide, normal in a variety of circumstances). It is important for absorption and activity of B vitamins, is required for muscle contraction, and is needed in the production of insulin and testosterone. It is required for collagen formation, a healthy immune system, and the body’s ability to heal from wounds. It also plays a role in skin health and maintaining sensory organs (that’s why zinc deficiency is associated with loss of smell and taste) and is a vital nutrient for immune system function. It is also an essential component of the vitamin D receptor (what vitamin D binds to in cells), meaning that the actions of vitamin D, are at least in part dependent on zinc.
Zinc has been shown to directly affect the immune system through control of T cell development and activation. It has also been shown to reduce cytokine production by Th1 and Th17 cells (culprits in autoimmune disease). Zinc deficiency is arguably the most common micronutrient deficiency in autoimmune disease. It has been linked to rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, pemphigus vulgaris, Alzeimer’s disease, autoimmune hepatitis, primary biliary cirrhosis, autoimmune thyroid disease, systemic lupus erythematosus, and type 1 diabetes. In all cases in which supplementation of zinc has been evaluated, benefits have been observed, in some cases including dramatic reversal of the disease.
The richest source of zinc is oysters, but other good sources include red meat, poultry, nuts and seeds, and legumes.