Thanks to progress in zinc research, it is now possible to describe in more detail how zinc ions (Zn++) and nitrogen monoxide (NO), together with glutathione (GSH) and its oxidized form, GSSG, help to regulate immune responses to antigens. NO appears to be able to liberate Zn++ from metallothionein (MT), an intracellular storage molecule for metal ions such as zinc (Zn++) and copper (Cu++). Both Zn++ and Cu++ show a concentration-dependent inactivation of a protease essential for the proliferation of the AIDS virus HIV-1, while zinc can help prevent diabetes complications through its intracellular activation of the enzyme sorbitol dehydrogenase (SDH). A Zn++ deficiency can lead to a premature transition from efficient Th1-dependent cellular antiviral immune functions to Th2-dependent humoral immune functions. Deficiencies of Zn++, NO and/or GSH shift the Th1/Th2 balance towards Th2, as do deficiencies of any of the essential nutrients (ENs) - a group that includes methionine, cysteine, arginine, vitamins A, B, C and E, zinc and selenium (Se) - because these are necessary for the synthesis and maintenance of sufficient amounts of GSH, MT and NO. Via the Th1/Th2 balance, Zn++, NO, MT and GSH collectively determine the progress and outcome of many diseases. Disregulation of the Th1/Th2 balance is responsible for autoimmune disorders such as diabetes mellitus. Under Th2, levels of interleukin-4 (II-4), II-6, II-10, leukotriene B4 (LTB4) and prostaglandin E2 (PGE2) are raised, while levels of II-2, Zn++, NO and other substances are lowered. This makes things easier for viruses like HIV-1 which multiply in Th2 cells but rarely, if ever, in Th1 cells. AIDS viruses (HIVs) enter immune cells with the aid of the CD4 cell surface receptor in combination with a number of co-receptors which include CCR3, CCR5 and CXCR4. Remarkably, the cell surface receptor for LTB4 (BLTR) also seems to act as a co-receptor for CD4, which helps HIVs to infect immune cells. The Th2 cytokine II-4 increases the number of CXCR4 and BLTR co-receptors, as a result of which, under Th2, the HIV strains that infect immune cells are precisely those that are best able to accelerate the AIDS disease process. The II-4 released under Th2 therefore not only promotes the production of more HIVs and the rate at which they infect immune cells, it also stimulates selection for the more virulent strains. Zn++ inhibit LTB4 production and numbers of LTB4 receptors (BLTRs) in a concentration-dependent way. Zn++ help cells to keep their LTB4 'doors' shut against the more virulent strains of HIV. Moreover, a sufficiency of Zn++ and NO prevents a shift of the Th1/Th2 balance towards Th2 and thereby slows the proliferation of HIV, which it also does by inactivating the HIV protease. Research makes it look likely that deficiencies of ENs such as zinc promote the proliferation of Th2 cells at the expense of Th1 cells. Zinc deficiency also promotes cancer. Under the influence of Th1 cells, zinc inhibits the growth of tumours by activating the endogenous tumour-suppressor endostatin, which inhibits angiogenesis. The modern Western diet, with its excess of refined products such as sugar, alcohol and fats, often contains, per calorie, a deficiency of ENs such as zinc, selenium and vitamins A, B, C and E, which results in disturbed immune functions, a shifted Th1/Th2 balance, chronic (viral) infections, obesity, atherosclerosis, autoimmunity, allergies and cancer. In view of this, an optimization of dietary composition would seem to give the best chance of beating (viral) epidemics and common (chronic) diseases at a realistic price.