Vitamin E and zinc are essential nutrients with antioxidant properties, and they support human immune system function by suppressing the action of free radicals in the body. Found naturally in a variety of foods, vitamin E and zinc can also be taken as supplements for enhanced immune support. Research suggests that vitamin E and zinc might play a role in preventing or delaying the onset of some cancers and other diseases associated with free radical activity and in reducing the effects of viruses such as the common cold. High levels of supplementation, however — particularly of vitamin E — might be harmful.
There are eight antioxidant-rich compounds that share the name "vitamin E," and they appear to protect cells from the damaging effect of free radicals. Of these, alpha tocopherol is the only form that can be maintained in human blood plasma. A fat-soluble compound, vitamin E is retained in the body's lipocytes, or fat storage cells.
Vitamin E is found naturally in foods such as wheat germ, sunflower seeds, almonds and other nuts, broccoli and tomatoes. Although a varied diet that includes vitamin E-rich foods generally provides a sufficient amount of this compound, it also can be purchased as part of a general multivitamin supplement or as a single product in doses as high as 400 International Units (IU) for additional antioxidant support. Supplementation might be beneficial, especially during periods of stress or illness, but regular consumption of more than 400 IU daily of vitamin E might contribute to a higher overall risk of death because it is not flushed regularly from the system.
Like vitamin E, zinc plays a key role in immune system health and is needed throughout the human lifespan. Found in cells throughout the body, zinc supports normal growth and development. The body has no natural mechanism for storing zinc, so regular consumption of this mineral at all ages is essential. A healthy diet that includes foods such as oysters, whole grains, dairy products, meat and fortified cereals can provide adequate amounts of zinc. Animal protein, however, provides the most efficient source, because compounds in plants called phytates tend to bind zinc and limit its bioavailablity.
Zinc also is included in most multivitamins, and single-dose supplementation can provide additional support during illness, stress and pregnancy. This mineral also is included in some cold lozenges and nasal sprays. It helps combat the effects of free radicals and supports the functioning of a healthy immune system, so some studies suggest that it might reduce the length of illnesses such as colds and flu. Taking vitamin E and zinc can help reduce the risk of oxidant-related diseases such as age-related macular degeneration, an eye disease that leads to reduced vision and blindness.