Zinc: mechanisms of host defense

J Nutr. 2007 May;137(5):1345-9. doi: 10.1093/jn/137.5.1345.


Zinc deficiency in humans decreases the activity of serum thymulin (a thymic hormone), which is required for maturation of T-helper cells. T-helper 1 (Th(1)) cytokines are decreased but T-helper 2 (Th(2)) cytokines are not affected by zinc deficiency in humans. This shift of Th(1) to Th(2) function results in cell-mediated immune dysfunction. Because IL-2 production (Th(1) cytokine) is decreased, this leads to decreased activities of natural-killer cell and T cytolytic cells, which are involved in killing viruses, bacteria, and tumor cells. In humans, zinc deficiency may decrease the generation of new CD4+ T cells from the thymus. In cell culture studies (HUT-78, a Th(0) human malignant lymphoblastoid cell line), as a result of zinc deficiency, nuclear factor-kappaB (NF-kappaB) activation, phosphorylation of IkappaB, and binding of NF-kappaB to DNA are decreased and this results in decreased Th(1) cytokine production. In another study, zinc supplementation to humans decreased the gene expression and production of pro-inflammatory cytokines and decreased oxidative stress markers. In HL-60 cells (a human pro-myelocytic leukemia cell line), zinc deficiency increased the levels of TNF-alpha, IL-1beta, and IL-8 cytokines and mRNA. In these cells, zinc induced A20, a zinc finger protein that inhibited NF-kappaB activation via tumor necrosis factor receptor associated factor pathway, and this decreased gene expression of pro-inflammatory cytokines and oxidative stress markers. We conclude that zinc has an important role in cell-mediated immune functions and also functions as antiinflammatory and antioxidant agent.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antioxidants / pharmacology
  • Cytokines / genetics
  • Dietary Supplements
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Cellular / physiology*
  • Interleukin-2 / metabolism
  • NF-kappa B / physiology
  • RNA, Messenger / metabolism
  • Zinc / deficiency
  • Zinc / pharmacology
  • Zinc / physiology*
  • Zinc / therapeutic use


  • Antioxidants
  • Cytokines
  • Interleukin-2
  • NF-kappa B
  • RNA, Messenger
  • Zinc