Ohio: A new scientific study has revealed how the mineral zinc stops the immune system from spiralling out of control, as happens when people develop life-threatening infections.
The researchers say the findings could also explain why taking zinc supplements at the start of a cold can prevent it becoming worse.
The researchers from Ohio State University had shown that zinc-deficiency could lead to excessive inflammation, which is what happens in sepsis, when in response to a severe infection, the body goes into overdrive, with potentially fatal consequences.
Through further experiments in human cells and animal studies the researchers found that a protein called NF-kB lured zinc into the immune cells that responded fastest to fight infection.
Once inside, the zinc then put the brakes on further activity in the NF-kB pathway, slowing down the immune response and limiting the amount of inflammation, the study, in Cell Reports, indicated.
Study leader, Dr Daren Knoell, said: “The immune system has to work under very strict balance, and this is a classic example of where more is not always better.
“We want a robust inflammatory response, which is part of our natural programming to defend us against a bug.
“But if that is unchecked, and there is too much inflammation, then it not only attacks the pathogen but can also cause much more collateral damage.”
He added that the finding narrowed the gap in scientists’ understanding of the role zinc had in fighting infection, but that it was too early to make the leap to zinc as a treatment for sepsis.
Zinc has been shown to reduce the severity of the common cold in humans and possibly shorten its duration.
“Whether this is because of improved balance in immune function, similar to what we report with sepsis, remains to be proven but perhaps requires further study,” Dr Knoell said.