Zinc deficiency and immunity

Severe, or even marginal, deficiencies of zinc lead to reversible dysfunctions of human T lymphocytes.

Zinc deficiency is easily produced in laboratory animals, with a prompt development of numerous abnormalities in immune functions. Zinc deficiency consistently leads to atrophy of the thymus and other lymphoid organs, to reduced lymphocyte numbers in tissues (especially in the T cell areas) and to lymphopenia. Zinc deficiency is accompanied by anergy, manifested predominantly by dysfunctions of cellmediated immunity, along with some depression in the production of T cell-dependent antibodies and splenic plaque-forming cells.

Zinc deficiency initiates a selective decrease in CD4f helper cell numbers. In vitro testing reveals a markedly reduced proliferative response by these cells to phytohemagglutinin and other mitogens. Natural killer cells also show decreased activity and T cell-mediated cytotoxicity is reduced. In zinc-deficiency, lymphocytes have a reduced ability to produce interleukin 2 (IL-2) in vitro. These dysfunctions could be due to direct effects of zinc deficiency on individual lymphocytes and their metabolic mechanisms. But some dysfunctions, especially in T cells, could also be due to a concomitant reduction in the synthesis and zinc-dependent activation of thymic hormones. Zinc deficiency also has adverse effects on B cell functions, although not as marked as those seen in T cells.

Zinc deficiency also affects many nonspecific aspects of host defense. The production of monocytes and macrophages is reduced, and granulocytes exhibit impaired chemotaxis. Wound healing and tissue integrity become defective, with the development of extensive mucosal and dermal lesions, especially at mucocutaneous borders.

Dysfunctions in host defense mechanisms during zinc deficiency thus include the immune system, monocyte/macrophages, granulocytes and the breakdown of anatomical surface barriers. Such combined problems make the zinc-deficient host extremely susceptible to infectious diseases, and greatly increases the severity of infections that do occur.

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