Vitamin C, Zinc and Immunity: Ancient Wisdom, Modern Science
Author: Dr. Lenton Joby Morrow, M.D.
When you feel a cold coming on, it’s almost second nature to try to boost your immune system with zinc and vitamin C. These two agents have been mainstays of nutritional supplementation of the immune system for many decades, and they have clear benefits for your body.
But when you take them, how do zinc and vitamin C help you? What do they do to help your body fight off intruders? How do they support your body’s natural functions? Here’s a look at what zinc does and how vitamin C helps your immune system.
In order to understand how zinc and vitamin C help with immunity, it is first important to have an idea of how your immune system works. Your immune system operates much like a military, with scouts, engineers, commanders, a vast array of weapons and even spies.
The spies and scouts in your immune system are the cells that are always on patrol for foreign invaders: macrophages, neutrophils, natural killer cells and many others. They have some unorthodox strategies for dealing with microorganisms and wayward cells: eat them, acidify them, or stop them from reproducing. These protective cells make up the innate immune system, which is always active, always on patrol and always ready to defend your body when needed.
Zinc and vitamin C are both necessary components for the cells of the innate immune system to carry out their roles. Macrophages, whose name means “big eaters”, cannot digest microorganisms without the presence of zinc. Natural killer cells, who do exactly what their name implies, are unable to neutralize microorganisms without the help of zinc.
Zinc looks simple, but its immune system role is complex and diverse (Courtesy: Royal Society of Chemistry)
Vitamin C also helps with this branch of immunity. It acts as a sort of Swiss Army knife for the soldiers of the innate immune system, playing a host of roles to maintain day-to-day operations. The body performs many of its daily tasks by moving negative charges around in chemical reactions, and vitamin C is exquisitely good at this task, as all antioxidants are. You may already be familiar with this role of vitamin C, reducing the damage caused by toxins and pollutants. However, vitamin C is fantastically versatile: even though it protects the body from free radical damage and other toxins, it actually helps the immune system eliminate unwanted intruders by using the same destructive free radicals that it protects our bodies from experiencing.
A particularly rich source of vitamin C is the elderberry. One tablespoon of elderberry syrup provides 43% of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin C, so it’s an important food for preserving immune function, or increasing it when needed.
The elders probably didn’t know about vitamin C, but thanks to these they didn’t have to (Courtesy Wiki images)
When your body’s innate immune system is unable to neutralize invading microorganisms, it tries to at least gather information about them so it can plan a response. That response often consists of forming individualized, anti-invasion weapons called antibodies. Your immune system may also call up other cells with advanced powers, such as programming infected cells to deactivate themselves, and creating sophisticated communication networks using radio signals called cytokines. Since this branch of the immune system adjusts its defenses to the level and the type of threat, it’s called adaptive immunity.
Zinc and vitamin C are critical elements of adaptive immunity, helping direct traffic. And there is a lot of traffic. The encounters between the immune system and microorganisms can be thought of as a series of organized battles with a lot of damage, and the antioxidants produced by vitamin C and zinc help prevent healthy cells from becoming injured in the process.
So if, for example, cold viruses enter your mouth, they might be first met by immune cells that try to neutralize them. There may be too many viruses for the immune cells to handle. Zinc and vitamin C can help make the cells function more effectively and in greater numbers, reducing your chance of infection.
If the viruses make it past the scouts, they may settle on the surface of cells in the respiratory system, looking for a way in. If the scouts have managed to identify the virus, the immune system can send specialized antibodies and reinforcements in a great enough number to stop the virus. And if those options don’t work, an even more specialized immune component uses zinc and vitamin C to program those cells to deactivate; taking them offline greatly reduces the opportunity for the virus to spread further.
With zinc, vitamin C and elderberry, we have the wisdom of the elders and of current science to guide us in optimizing our immunity.
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John, E., Laskow, T. C., Buchser, W. J., Pitt, B. R., Basse, P. H., Butterfield, L. H., & Lotze, M. T. (2010). Zinc in innate and adaptive tumor immunity. Journal of Translational Medicine, 8(1), 118. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1186/1479-5876-8-118
Dr. Morrow is a medical consultant, with 11 years as a family medicine doctor and extensive experience in the supplement industry.