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Is your immune defense getting all the minerals it needs?

Is your immune defense getting all the minerals it needs?Minerals are involved in countless functions of vital importance to the immune defense. That is why lack of one or several minerals can increase your risk of infections or perhaps trigger unwanted inflammation that can damage healthy tissue. In a new review article that is published in Nutrients, a group of scientists look at magnesium, selenium, zinc, iron, and copper and their role in the immune system. They also look at the fact that vegans, older people, chronically ill, pregnant women, and elite athletes often have nutrient deficiencies that call for supplementation. The agricultural soil in Europe and many other parts of the world is selenium-depleted, which makes it challenging to get enough selenium from our diets. But it is also important not to overdose on minerals. In this article, you can read more about how to optimize your nutrient intake for your immune health.

Minerals are vital compounds in our food that serve as important building blocks and support functions that are important for bones, muscles, nerves, hormones, and the fluid balance. A large group of minerals is called trace elements, and these nutrients are only required in microscopic quantities. Despite their limited presence, they are of crucial importance to numerous enzyme processes.
Magnesium, selenium, zinc, iron, and copper are extremely important for our immune defense, which includes the innate immune defense that tackles most germs and infections without us knowing about it, and the adaptive immune system that is more specific and actually has a memory function.
Zinc and selenium also serve as antioxidants that protect cells and tissues. Although most of us are theoretically able to get enough minerals from a healthy and balanced diet, more and more people risk lacking one or several minerals. This is the case with vegans, vegetarians, menstruating women, seniors, chronically ill people, pregnant women, and elite athletes. What makes matters worse is that the soil in Europe and certain other parts of the world is low in selenium, and that makes it difficult to get enough from the diet. The purpose of this review article is to list the importance of magnesium, selenium, zinc, iron, and copper for the immune defense and to describe how to get enough of the nutrients from dietary sources and supplements.

  • The innate immune defense consists of proteins and white blood cells such as macrophages and monocytes, granulocytes, and natural killer cells (NK cells) that handle most germs and infections without us noticing anything
  • Macrophages pass on information to the adaptive immune defense if assistance is needed
  • The adaptive immune system that develops after birth consists of T cells, B cells, and antibodies
  • The adaptive immune defense is characterized by having a memory function and by launching more intense immune attacks
  • The immune cells communicate by way of various cytokines that are able to either initiate or halt inflammation

Magnesium’s role in the immune defense

We need magnesium in higher quantities than most other minerals. We have most of our magnesium inside our cells where it is involved in hundreds of different enzyme processes. Magnesium is highly important for muscles, nerves, blood pressure, fluid balance, blood sugar levels, and calcium distribution. Magnesium is also needed to activate vitamin D.
According the review article, magnesium’s role in the immune defense is mainly concentrated around interactions with vitamin D and numerous enzyme processes.
Broadly speaking, magnesium is important for the innate immune system, the macrophages, and their response to cytokines.
Magnesium also plays a role in the adaptive immune defense, for instance by being involved in T cell maturation and by helping these cells divide explosively and form a targeted army in connection with infections. When the T killer cells are needed for their chemical warfare against germs and abnormal cells such as cancer cells, they are activated by the LFA-1 protein that needs magnesium. If there is too little magnesium in the blood it impairs the immune defense’s ability to attack.
A magnesium deficiency also appears to overstimulate the innate immune defense, which leads to chronic low-grade inflammation. With reference to this, elevated levels of proinflammatory compounds like CRP (C reactive protein), TNF (tumor necrosis factor-α, and IL-1 (interleukin-1β) have been observed.
The risk of chronic low-grade inflammation that follows in the wake of magnesium deficiency also increases the risk of oxidative stress caused by free radicals. Moreover, too little magnesium can cause blood platelets to aggregate, which tends to affect the circulatory flow in the capillaries.
It has also been observed that lack of magnesium disrupts the release of histamine from mast cells and that affects the immune defense and different allergic reactions.
Most data is based on animal studies where it has been seen that magnesium deficiency increases the risk of infections and disturbances in the inflammatory processes.
It is also worth mentioning that magnesium helps to limit the calcium concentrations inside the cells of soft tissues such as nervous tissue, muscle tissue, and blood vessels. If there is too little magnesium, the cells risk being flooded by calcium ions that stress the cells and cause cramps or inflammation.

Magnesium from the diet and from supplements

Some of the best magnesium sources are coarse and green foods such as whole grains, kernels, almonds, nuts, seeds, beans, cabbage, etc. The reference intake (RI) level for magnesium in Denmark is 375 mg. Some experts recommend as much as 500 mg. Low magnesium intake typically occurs as a result of eating a diet that is not properly balanced and by getting too many refined foods. A large calcium intake, stress, stimulants, and medicine can increase your need for magnesium.
If you take a magnesium supplement, make sure to choose one that is organic and has good absorption. Magnesium oxide, an inorganic magnesium source sold in supplement form and used in Magnesia for treating constipation, has poor absorption and primarily works in the intestine.

  • The immune defense launches inflammatory attacks that generate free radicals
  • Antioxidants neutralize free radicals in order to protect healthy tissue
  • Oxidative stress is an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants
  • Chronic low-grade inflammation is seen with many chronic illnesses
  • When sepsis or virus infections like coronavirus and influenza become life-threatening it is a result of cytokine storm, hyperinflammation, and oxidative stress

Selenium’s role in the immune defense

Selenium is a trace element that supports around 25 different selenoproteins with functions that relate to energy turnover, metabolism, fertility, etc.
Selenoproteins are important for both the innate and the adaptive immune systems. It helps regulate different cytokines that control inflammatory processes in the body. Selenium is also a constituent of different antioxidant systems such as GPX (glutathione peroxidase) and TXNRD (thioredoxin reductase) that protect healthy cells against oxidative stress.
Furthermore, selenium prevents virus from mutating and becoming increasingly dangerous.

Lack of selenium weakens the immune defense and makes you more prone to infections.

It also increases the risk of cytokine storm, hyperinflammation, and oxidative stress that has the potential to make virus infections life-threatening.
Selenium supplementation has been used in connection with polio vaccines and it has ben shown to increase the T cell response and reduce polio virus mutations.
Studies show that patients who suffer from influenza A infections, tuberculosis, and HIV benefit from high-dosed selenium supplements. Recent studies from China even show that the risk of dying of a COVID-19 infection is far greater in regions with low selenium content in the soil and the crops.

  • The agricultural soil in Europe is low in selenium. The same goes for large parts of China and Africa
  • The selenium content in the soil is reflected in the selenium in crops and throughout the entire food chain
  • American wheat contains around 10 times more selenium than British wheat

Selenium from the diet and from supplements

There is selenium in e.g., fish, shellfish, offal, eggs, mushrooms, and Brazil nuts. An estimated one billion people worldwide are believed to lack selenium because of the widespread problems with selenium-depleted farmland.
Selenoprotein P is used as a marker of the body’s selenium status. Studies show that the recommended selenium intake of between 50 and 70 micrograms daily is not enough to properly saturate selenoprotein P. This requires around 100 micrograms of selenium per day, which is considerably more than the recommended intake.
Infections may increase the need for selenium even more because the immune defense needs extra selenium to carry out attacks and to defend the body against free radicals.
Most human studies have been conducted with selenium doses of around 100-200 micrograms daily. Selenium yeast that contains a variety of different selenium species provides a blend of different selenium types like you get by eating a balanced diet.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has set the safe upper intake level for selenium at 300 micrograms per day.

Zinc’s role in the immune defense

Zinc is a trace element that stabilizes the cell membranes. It also controls different genes and is involved in over 300 different enzyme processes that are of importance to growth, fertility, and numerous other functions. Zinc is also necessary for an antioxidant called superoxide dismutase (SOD).
Zinc plays a role in the innate immune defense by contributing to the maturation and activation of macrophages, monocytes, granulocytes, and NK cells (natural killer cells). Zinc also has a regulatory role in cytokines and their complementary system that destroys germs by piercing their cell membranes. Zinc is even involved in the adaptive immune system where it is needed for the maturation of T cells and to help them function properly.
Zinc is involved in the production of proinflammatory cytokines that are needed for normal immune response. Zinc deficiency weakens the cell membranes and that can affect the innate immune defense and make us more susceptible to infections.
As goes for the adaptive immune defense, a zinc deficiency is especially likely to impair the T helper cells (CD4+) that control the rest of the immune defense by helping it attack microbes effectively and retracting once the infection has been combated.
A zinc deficiency can also result in an imbalance between T helper cells (CD4+) and T killer cells (CD8+), which causes the immune system to either react too passively or too aggressively with chronic inflammation or extreme inflammation.
There are many similarities between zinc deficiency and age-related dysfunctions of the immune defense. According to a Finnish meta-analysis, high-dosed zinc supplementation can help the body fight a cold much faster. The majority of cold-ridden participants who took 80-92 mg of zinc per day had recovered after five days – in contrast to participants who did not take a supplement. Numerous studies suggest that zinc supplements can strengthen the immune response, especially in older people. It appears to be best to start taking zinc in the early phase of acute respiratory infections.

  • Around 15 percent of the US population is believed to lack zinc, and 35-45% of the zinc-deficient people are seniors
  • A similar picture is expected to be seen in other Western countries
  • Our ability to absorb zinc is reduced with age
  • Using diuretics may increase your need for zinc

Zinc from the diet and from supplements

Zinc is primarily found in meat, shellfish, dairy products, nuts, kernels, and beans. Zinc from animal sources has better absorption. We need zinc every day because our body does not store the nutrient in any tissues.
The daily reference intake (RI) level for zinc (in Denmark) is 10 mg. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has established a 25 mg per day safe upper intake level for zinc. If you have an infection you can easily take higher quantities for brief periods of time, according to various studies. Prolonged intake of zinc in high quantities may block the body’s uptake of iron and copper.

Iron’s role in the immune defense

Iron binds oxygen in the hemoglobin of red blood cells that carry oxygen to the body’s cells. Iron is highly important for our energy turnover, vitality, and growth. Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient shortage worldwide. Studies show that iron deficiency can impair the function of T cells, B cells, and antibodies, whereas iron supplements can correct this problem.
It has also been observed that iron supplements have the potential to reduce iron deficiency-induced mortality and sick days in children from low-income regions with poor dietary habits.
However, iron supplementation of populations that do not suffer from iron deficiency have the opposite effect and can increase morbidity and mortality caused by malaria, diarrhea, and tuberculosis (TB). It is assumed that the different microorganisms use surplus iron to promote their own growth.
Also, it appears that the human body reduces microbial access to iron in plasma in connection with infections. This becomes increasingly difficult if we get too much iron. It is generally not good to get too much iron because the mineral catalyzes free radicals.

Iron from the diet and from supplements

There is iron in liver, meat, fish, pumpkin seeds, beans, stinging nettle, spinach, broccoli, whole grains, and red beets. Iron from animal sources (heme iron) has better absorption than iron from vegetable sources (non-heme iron). Vitamin C increases the uptake of iron in the body.
Iron deficiency can be linked to a number of things but is normally a result of blood loss caused by heavy menstrual bleeding, hemorrhaging, and blood donation. Low stomach acid, too much calcium, excess consumption of black tea, or prolonged use of tetracyclines or NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) can impair the uptake and utilization of iron. Endurance sport and pregnancy can also increase the need for iron.
The reference intake (RI) level for men and non-menstruating women is 9 mg. Menstruating women are advised to get 12-18 mg of iron daily. Avoid taking iron supplements unless a deficiency has been detected by the physician.
Many commercially available multivitamins do not contain iron for the very same reason.
The body absorbs and utilizes iron supplements far better if they are taken in combination with vitamin C. Also, when you take an iron supplement, make sure to allow 3-4 hours to pass before you ingest dairy products, calcium supplements, and medical drugs, as these reduce the uptake of iron

  • Around 15 percent of the US population is believed to lack zinc, and 35-45% of the zinc-deficient people are seniors
  • A similar picture is expected to be seen in other Western countries
  • Our ability to absorb zinc is reduced with age
  • Using diuretics may increase your need for zinc

Copper and its role in the immune defense

Copper is a trace element. Most of our copper is stored in our liver, brain, kidneys, and heart. Copper is a co-factor of the energy turnover and supports the superoxide dismutase (SOD) antioxidant in combination with zinc. Copper and zinc should always be properly balanced.
Copper is involved in cellular energy turnover and antioxidant defense and is therefore also important for the innate and adaptive immune defenses. Copper is believed to have antiviral properties that are potentially useful against COVID-19. On the other hand, microbes also need copper to grow, but the body can prevent this process by limiting microbes’ access to copper.
With regard to the immune defense and its ability to fight infections, one must make sure to get plenty of copper without getting too much. Copper and iron are very similar in that way.

Copper from the diet and from supplements

Copper is found in most foods iron-containing foods. The best sources are liver and offal, meat, nuts, whole grains, shellfish, beans, and dark chocolate. It has not been established exactly how much copper we need. The reference intake (RI) level is 1 mg. Deficiency symptoms are very rare but include things like an increased tendency to get infections and poisoning.
Menkes disease is a congenital deficiency disease that is caused by impaired copper uptake from the gastrointestinal tract. Wilson’s disease is another congenital disease that causes excess copper stored in various body tissues. Copper supplements are only recommended if an actual copper shortage has been detected.

  • Minerals are vital and help the immune defense attack microbes and abnormal cells quickly and effectively
  • Magnesium, selenium, and zinc counteract unwanted inflammation that has the potential to become life-threatening
  • Selenium and zinc support powerful antioxidant systems that counteract oxidative stress
  • Deficiencies of magnesium, selenium, zinc, and iron are very common
  • Only take supplements of iron and copper if a deficiency has been detected


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Qiyuan Liu et al. Selenium (Se) plays a key role in the biological effects of some viruses: Implications for COVID-19. Environmental Research. 2021

Olivia M. Guillan et al. Selenium, Selenoproteins and Viral Infection. Nutrients 2019

Aparna Shreenath. Selenium Deficiency. StatPearls. May 6, 2019

Jones GD et al. Selenium deficiency risk predicted to increase under future climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2017

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