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Zinc Calms the Immune System and Stops Infections from Going Haywire

Update Date: Feb 08, 2013 12:17 PM EST

Zinc can help control infections by stopping the immune system from going haywire and spiraling out of control in people with inflammatory conditions like sepsis, according to a new study.

Researchers say that the study could also explain why taking zinc supplements at the start of a common cold appears to help reduce the effects of the illness.

Researchers believe that the latest finding may have implications for other diseases.

"We do believe that to some extent, these findings are going to be applicable to other important areas of disease beyond sepsis," researcher Daren Knoell, a professor of pharmacy and internal medicine at Ohio State, said in a statement.

"Without zinc on board to begin with, it could increase vulnerability to infection. 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 defense system is amplified, and inappropriately so," he explained.

But because zinc has many complex roles in the body, researchers from the recent study were unable to know for certain how it helps fight off infection

The findings, published in the journal Cell Reports, revealed that not having enough of the mineral could lead to excessive inflammation, like sepsis, a potentially fatal systemic response to infection that is a common cause of death in intensive-care unit patients.

Researchers found that mice lacking zinc developed significantly more severe inflammation in response to sepsis compared to mice on a normal diet. However, when the zinc-deficient mice were given zinc supplements their condition improved.

After researchers experimented with human blood cells, they found that zinc calmed the immune system by binding to a specific protein in the inflammatory pathway.

"The benefit to health is explicit: Zinc is beneficial because it stops the action of a protein, ultimately preventing excess inflammation," Knoell explained.

While past and recent findings suggest that zinc supplementation could help critically ill ICU patients, researchers believe it's still too early to recommend that all ICU patients be given zinc to stop infections from spiraling out of control.

"I think the question is whom to give zinc to, if anybody at all. We predict that not everybody in the ICU with sepsis needs zinc, but I anticipate that a proportion of them would," Knoell said.

"Zinc is a critical element that we get from our diet, but we do not think we can give zinc and fix everything. Usually, if there is zinc deficiency, we would expect to see other nutrient deficiencies, too," he added.

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