Zinc helps the cells in your body communicate by functioning as a neurotransmitter. A deficiency in zinc can lead to stunted growth, diarrhea, impotence, hair loss, eye and skin lesions, impaired appetite, and depressed immunity.
Some researchers have even heralded the element as the long-sought "silver bullet" for treating the common cold. Over the past decade, about 14 studies have been done on the mineral's cold-curing power. About half have shown that it works and half that it doesn't.
Inflammation is linked with a variety of chronic health problems, including cancer, heart disease, autoimmune disease and diabetes. A study last fall conducted at Oregon State University and published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, suggested that the recommended levels of zinc supplementation might have to be increased in older people in light of the evidence for a steep drop off in utilization.
The mechanism behind zinc's reported ability to help fight off infections may lie in its ability to kick start and shut off immune pathways, say researchers.
A new study suggests that the mineral plays a key role in controlling the body's response to infections by 'tapping the breaks' on immune system pathways in a way that stops them causing a spiral of our-of-control inflammation.
Writing in the journal Cell Reports, the US-based researchers behind the study also found that if there is not enough zinc available at the time of infection, the consequences include excessive inflammation.
Led by Professor Daren Knoell from Ohio State University, USA, the new research reveals for the first time zinc's role in mediating this pathway and helping shut it down effectively.
"The benefit to health is explicit: Zinc is beneficial because it stops the action of a protein, ultimately preventing excess inflammation," he said.
"We do believe that to some extent, these findings are going to be applicable to other important areas of disease beyond sepsis," explained Knoell.
"Without zinc on board to begin with, it could increase vulnerability to infection," he suggested. "But our work is focused on what happens once you get an infection -- if you are deficient in zinc you are at a disadvantage because your defence system is amplified, and inappropriately so."
It's still not entirely clear by what mechanism the dysregulation of the zinc transporters and resulting poor zinc utilization results in increased inflammation, but the link is real.
While the primary aim of the study was to explore the link between zinc deficiency and inflammation, Knoell and his team said their findings may also explain why supplementation with zinc at the start of a common cold appears to help stem the effects of the illness.
The research team said while their study and previous research links zinc deficiency to inflammation and may suggest that supplementation could help very sick ICU patients, it is still too early to make that leap.
"I think the question is whom to give zinc to, if anybody at all," said Knoell. "We predict that not everybody in the ICU with sepsis needs zinc, but I anticipate that a proportion of them would."
"Zinc is a critical element that we get from our diet, but we do not think we can give zinc and fix everything," he commented. "Usually, if there is zinc deficiency, we would expect to see other nutrient deficiencies, too."
The research team studied the activity of zinc in the context of sepsis -- a severe systemic response to infection, that lead to death -- using cell culture models.
Knoell's lab previously showed that zinc-deficient mice developed overwhelming inflammation in response to sepsis compared to mice on a normal diet.
In the new study, Knoell and his colleagues focused in on zinc's role in preventing the inflammation that had led to such poor outcomes in the zinc-deficient mice. Using human monocytes (immune cells involved in the first line of defence against infection) the research team examined what happens when the immune response is launched.
They reveal that when a pathogen is recognised, a series of molecules wake up to create a process that activates the immune response but also leads to the expression of a gene that produces a zinc transporter called ZIP8.
This transporter then rapidly moves to the cell's wall, where it can then shuttle zinc from the bloodstream into the cell.
After cell entry, zinc is then directed to and binds to a different protein which then halts any further activity in that process.
The cumulative impact of this feedback loop is that it prevents excessive inflammation, which can be damaging to cells and the body, said the researchers.
"The immune system has to work under very strict balance, and this is a classic example of where more is not always better," Knoell said. "We want a robust inflammatory response, which is part of our natural programming to defend us against a bug. But if that is unchecked, and there is too much inflammation, then it not only attacks the pathogen but can also cause much more collateral damage."
Knoell said that the findings from the study may have therapeutic implications for supplemental zinc "in a strategic manner to help improve some people with certain conditions."
"But also, could we learn from this so someday we can be more diagnostic about who it is that needs zinc? And if so, what dose and for how long?"
Karen Foster is a holistic nutritionist, avid blogger, with five kids and an active lifestyle that keeps her in pursuit of the healthiest path towards a life of balance.