Zinc, Selenium & Your Immune System
What is the Immune system and what factors contribute to its activity?
The Immune system is basically a complex network of cells, tissues, and organs that work synergistically to repel and fight various pathogens and intruders that enter the body through external means which may cause illness e.g bacteria, fungi, viruses, parasites, allergens, microbes,etc2. The immune system in its complexity is able to recognize millions of pathogenic factors and its components communicate with each other in an effort to kill or at least control these pathogens, before they spread further into our systems and cause illness. Once immunity defense cells get signals of alarm, they start to produce powerful chemicals that allow them to multiply and enhance their power to fight pathogens.
The main cells responsible for preserving immune function are T-Lymphocytes1. These are a class of white blood cells that multiply to handle foreign intruders. The second components are antibodies which are able to recognize and match the foreign body by its shape (as opposed to the body’s own cells), merge with it and kill it.
While the body’s own system function is capable of fighting thousands of pathogenic factors on a regular basis, in many cases, the body’s own capabilities can get suspended e.g through HIV infection, nutrient deficiencies, stress and other pathogenic factors that downgrade the ability of our immune system to defend us. Thus, it is important we give ourselves everything that it needs e.g micronutrients so that our immune system is more capable of fighting all these pathogenic and toxic factors.
Zinc. Zinc is a vital trace mineral that is naturally present in almost all cells of the human body and externally, it is found in some types of foods e.g eggs, seafood and supplements. Zinc is a very vital factor for the regulation of cellular metabolism and plays a major role in the activity of 100+ enzymes, protein formation, antioxidant activity, wound healing, DNA repair8 and of course immune system function. It also helps keep hair, skin and nail tissues healthy and radiant and also supports a healthy pregnancy in women.
The essential status of zinc for humans was recognized approx. 40 years ago in the Middle East5. Scientists saw that people with zinc deficiencies had suffered from multiple infections and poor immune system function which lead to disease.
The ability of zinc to boost immune system function in certain disorders has been backed up by numerous studies over the past few decades. One particular study conducted by Ohio State University and published on BBC4 has found that zinc can stop the immune system from getting out of control and causing serious problems after ‘sepsis’ which is a life-threatening condition in which the body attacks its own organs and cells falsely to fight off infection.
Zinc in a few lines can either support the function of the immune system when needed or help control its effects when it starts to attack the body’s own cells. This is why it is considered by many as an ‘immune modulator/regulator’10.
Selenium. Selenium is basically another trace element naturally present in the human body and in various foods mainly of animal origin e.g red meat, fish/seafood, eggs and mushrooms. Surprisingly enough, early 30s researchers have first thought that this was a toxic substance when in reality, it was later shown to be a vital trace mineral for human health.
Selenium is made of proteins (selenoproteins), that play a major role in reproduction, thyroid hormone metabolism, DNA formation and repair, oxidative damage and fighting of body infections.
Some studies have investigated its role in enhancing immune system function through various ways and results were very promising. Dietary selenium (taken from the diet or supplementation) has been found to play a role in the immune treatment of viral and bacterial infections7. Dietary selenium specifically can support the formation and multiply of T-lymphocytes and differentiation of T-helpers to fight of infection with minimal risk of attacking the body’s own cells.
Other nutrients that help support immune system activity
Vitamin C. Vitamin C is an essential antioxidant vitamin that is most famous during the cold season as it helps immune system support and decreases the severity or duration of a cold or similar symptoms. You can find Vitamin C in citrus fruits and dark leafy greens like spinach and kale or through supplements.
Probiotics. Probiotics are actually a class of beneficial bacteria cultures naturally present in our gut and help maintain the health and balance of our digestive system and health in general. Some call them ‘the immune system of our digestion’ and in a way they are as when they get out of balance, bad bacteria can spread through our digestive pathways and cause issues. Probiotics are found in live yogurt, kefir, and fermented foods like kimchi although supplements contain the highest amounts.
Lifestyle factors and tips to help boost immune system
Diet. Following a healthy diet is very important as our immune system needs adequate nourishment and nutrients to fuel itself and fight off foreign intruders and disease. Scientists have found that people who are malnourished or follow poor diet habits depleted of essential nutrients, are more prone to develop infections than those who don’t.
Exercise. Although not as important as diet, staying physically active and mild exercising can help the body energize and replenish itself through enhancing oxygenation and blood circulation which are optimal conditions for the immune system to function.
Healthy Lifestyle. Another factor with an indirect impact on our health and immunity is our lifestyle habits. Stress levels in particular and substance abuse e.g smoking, drinking, can wreak havoc on our systems and suppress our immune responses in fighting pathogens. Thus, it is important we keep our stress levels under control and avoid consumption of alcohol, smoke or drugs that are highly toxic to our health.
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