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Boost your body’s natural immunities with zinc-building antibodies

When asked which specific dietary factor is most essential for immunity, most people would likely respond with either “vitamin C” or “zinc.”

Although the popular responses to questions of this type aren’t always true, they are essentially correct in this case…

Our bodies absolutely need zinc and vitamin C for proper immunity…

Vitamin D and iodide are close contenders.

Folate (vitamin B9) is perhaps fifth on the list of nutrients, minerals, or compounds that enhance immunity…

But an understanding of the unique role of each of these nutrients is more useful than attributing rank orders.

Of course we need all of them for proper immunity…

But their individual nuances and mechanisms imply how much to take and when.

The immune system is so complex that merely stating that a vitamin or mineral “enhances immunity” isn’t saying much at all.

But today we’re talking about zinc, arguably #1.

  1. Zinc (Zn2+)
  2. Vitamin C
  3. Vitamin D
  4. Iodide (I)
  5. Folate (B9)

The specific role that zinc plays in the immune response will certainly surprise you.

Although this mineral is a necessary cofactor for hundreds of enzymes within the body, its specific role in immunity ultimately derives from activating only one of them.

The biochemical processes underlying zinc’s role in immunity is so shocking, so arcane, that stating it without foregoing proof will invite disbelief.

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For these reasons, it’s probably best to start with the experimental evidence:

This study is particularly useful because:

(1) They used humans as subjects

(2) It was conducted in a controlled environment

(3) It lasted for seven months

Zinc intake was, of course, modified during the subjects’ extended stay (28 weeks).

Here are the various diets they gave the subjects over different stages of the study:

  • A hospital diet containing animal protein that gave them an average of 12 mg of zinc per day (the RDA amount)
  • A soy-protein-based diet that gave them only 3 mg of zinc a day (to induce deficiency)
  • After 28 weeks, two cookies per day containing 27 mg of zinc supplement (to give them far more zinc than needed)

They continually monitored plasma levels of zinc, with the incoming data giving reassurance that the dietary adjustments were working.

The concentrations of zinc found in platelets and white blood cells such as lymphocytes (B‑cells and T‑cells) and granulocytes (neutrophils, eosinophils) likewise followed the changes in zinc intake and plasma levels:

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So, with all of that, there is only one variable: the zinc concentration.

But what about immunity?

Well, it would be dangerous to inject the subjects with Candida albicans as rat studies have done.

So instead they instead measured the blood parameters then known to be affected by zinc.

These factors were T‑cells, interleukin‑2 (IL-2), and thymulin.

Thymulin is a peptide hormone consisting of nine amino acids found in the bloodstream.

It has previously been shown to chelate zinc with high affinity, restricting it from microbial invaders while also diverting it inside T‑cells.

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Thymulin is synthesized exclusively by the thymus, as the name implies. It also acts as a growth hormone in T‑cells.

(The thymus is gland in the top part of the chest. It is part of both the endocrine system and the lymphatic system.)

When given to rats complexed with zinc, thymulin has been shown to restore the ability to produce antibodies after stress.

As you might expect, the activity of thymulin in the human subjects decreased along with their zinc intake.

Thymulin activity also reflected plasma zinc levels, platelet zinc levels, and lymphocyte zinc levels of the human subjects:

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They also showed that the specific amounts of thymulin hadn’t actually changed…

It simply had no activity in the absence of zinc.

These changes are intriguing, especially when considering that low thymus weight is the most salient feature of zinc deficiency.

This has been confirmed many times over – mostly in animals.

“The thymuses of the zinc-deficient mice were about one-tenth the normal size” (Fraker, 1978)

Zinc supplementation has even been shown, radiographically, to increase thymus size in malnourished children.

Knowing this, you might expect lower counts of T‑cells (which develop in the thymus) in zinc‑deficient humans.

That’s what is commonly found in animal models.

Low T‑cell counts were in fact found in this study…

But only in the CD4+ or “helper” subset. (This cell type has a leading role in antibody formation.)

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The only meaningful change was in the levels of helper T‑cells – more than doubling on average.

The B‑cells and suppressor T‑cells were completely unaffected by zinc status.

A follow‑up study conducted by a few of the same researchers yielded the same results (Beck & Prasad, 1997).

So zinc doesn’t have a “general” effect on immunity but a very specific one…

And it all has to do with the thymus…

Zinc increases thymus weight, the activity of thymulin, and the concentration of helper T‑cells (thymus cells).

But why on earth does zinc have such specific effects on T‑cell‑mediated immunity?

Is this the universe’s way of punishing those who eat mostly refined foods and rewarding those who eat oysters?

Of course not! That would be ridiculous.

Going back to science…

Since thymulin specifically chelates zinc, you can be sure that it has a unique function inside of T‑cells.

No other cell type has an exclusive zinc‑delivery device.

So what does zinc do inside the CD4+ helper T‑cells?

The study below takes us further in understanding the effect of zinc in immunity – going a step beyond just T‑cell numbers:

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This study focused on stress‑induced immunodeficiency, which is the same type caused by excessive cortisol and by synthetic glucocorticoids.

They confirmed that stress does in fact lower antibody production, an established side effect…

But a new finding showed that thymulin can reverse it.

In this study, thymulin was defined as zinc complexed with the peptide.

They gave it the acronym FTS to match its historical name: facteur thymique sérique.

They showed that thymulin would entirely prevent stress‑induced immunosuppression…

But they also showed that thymulin was considerably more potent than its components (one of which is zinc) when tested individually in isolation:

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Perhaps most surprising is that this happens within days, with no time to observe a change in T‑cell counts.

This might imply that zinc is having a specific effect on antibody production in real time…

This effect thymulin with zinc has on helper T‑cells, the subset involved in antibody production, is essentially what it all boils down to.

Considering the importance of antibodies in immunity, this can explain all studies of zinc in relation to immunity.

It’s been shown that extreme zinc deficiency leads to one‑fourth the amount of antibodies…

What is not known, however, is exactly how this occurs:

“The mechanism of action of thymulin was not elucidated by this study.”

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But, more specifically, it is not commonly known how this occurs.

These researchers had previously shown that the DNA released by T‑cells in response to an antigen encodes for a protein that specifically binds the antigen.

This study was carried out to determine unambiguously whether or not this protein is an immunoglobulin (Ig) class of protein (immunoglobulin being another word for antibody).

“The present study attempts to determine whether, during an immune response, T-cells transmit the code of the antibody which is to be synthesized to B-cells.”

The antigen used in this study was herpes simplex virus (HSV) inactivated by UV light.

They found that the T‑cell supernatant fluid alone could stimulate the production of anti‑HSV antibodies when given to B‑cells.

This was the only thing that worked, as neither T‑cells or B‑cells could produce antibodies themselves.

Furthermore, they extensively purified the T‑cell products and proved that DNA was responsible for transmitting the signal.

How else can a cell produce the same antibody for years without having DNA to encode it?

“It appears from these results that B-lymphocytes synthesize antibodies as a result of a message coming from T-lymphocytes, coding for the antibody or, at least, for part of the antibody.”

This could only mean one thing:

If T‑cells create DNA that encodes a specific antibody corresponding to the antigen used to induce it, it can only do so with the help of reverse transcriptase.

What is reverse transcriptase?

It is an enzyme that takes RNA information and encodes it back into DNA (the “reverse” of the normal state of transcription).

The human genome has actually been found to contain a reverse transcriptase (Mathias, 1991).

And reverse transcriptase activity is routinely found in human spleens and T‑cells (Rho & Gallo, 1981).

Although reverse transcriptase is often assumed to be retroviral in origin (i.e. belonging to an invading microbe), not all scientists believe this.

The demonstration that T‑cells produce DNA from protein is a strong (albeit indirect) piece of evidence that they contain reverse transcriptase enzymes.

This is where zinc comes in…

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Reverse transcriptase needs a zinc cofactor.

This was rigorously proven in the 1970s with the use of a specific zinc chelator, o‑phenanthrene, and isoelectric focusing.

They found that all radioactive 65Zn2+ (an isotope of zinc) was found in the reverse transcriptase fraction.

And the enzyme was completely inactive without it.

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They had also shown that o‑phenanthrene dialysis would almost completely inactivate reverse transcriptase in less than an hour…

The more common DNA polymerases were much less affected.

(DNA polymerases are enzymes that assemble DNA molecules.)

Since then it’s been shown that DNA polymerases aren’t true zinc metalloenzymes and that they are inhibited by o‑phenanthrene only to the extent that it binds DNA (Graham, 1983).

(Metalloenzymes are enzyme proteins containing metal ions that are directly bound to the protein.)

This study avoided that issue by using dialysis, thus keeping the chelator and the enzyme separated by a semipermeable membrane.

In this way, they could see the effect of removing zinc without having its chelator physically interfere with the enzyme or replicating RNA/DNA.

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This data implies that all reverse transcriptases are zinc metalloenzymes, a finding which has only been strengthened since (Wu, 1987).

This is consistent with all the data I’ve come across, and the most realistic way to make sense of it all.

The most sensitive biological index to zinc deficiency is low antibody production…

That’s because T‑cells, the second most sensitive index, are the very cell type that needs zinc to produce antibodies.

Approximately 20 mg per day has been shown to be moderately effective…

That amount is capable of increasing plasma levels from 41 μg⁄dl to 68 μg⁄dl after three weeks. And the average plasma zinc level is generally around 80 μg⁄dl

“It…appears that a mild zinc deficiency may not be an uncommon problem in the general population of the United States, but at present this problem remains unrecognized.”

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) upper limit for people is 40 mg per day, so you could probably safely use 40 mg per day and achieve perfect immunity in less time.

“…the zinc-deficient adult mouse can fully restore the antibody-mediated response within 2 weeks after resumption of a zinc-adequate diet.” (Fraker, 1978)

And don’t forget – you also need these for a perfectly functioning immune function:

  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin D
  • Iodide
  • Folate (B9)

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Matt Cook is editor-in-chief of Daily Medical Discoveries. Matt has been a full time health researcher for 26 years. ABC News interviewed Matt on sexual health issues not long ago. Matt is widely quoted on over 1,000,000 websites. He has over 300,000 daily newsletter readers. Daily Medical Discoveries finds hidden, buried or ignored medical studies through the lens of 100 years of proven science. Matt heads up the editorial team of scientists and health researchers. Each discovery is based upon primary studies from peer reviewed science sources following the Daily Medical Discoveries 7 Step Process to ensure accuracy.


Prasad, Ananda. "Serum thymulin in human zinc deficiency." The Journal of clinical investigation (1988)


Okamoto, Masahiro. "Restorative effect of short term administration of thymulin on thymus-dependent antibody production in restraint-stressed mice." International journal of immunopharmacology (1993)


Anker, Philippe. "The role of extracellular DNA in the transfer of information from T to B human lymphocytes in the course of an immune response." Journal of immunogenetics (1980)


Poiesz, Bernard. "Reverse transcriptase: correlation of zinc content with activity." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (1974)