Dietary deficiencies of specific nutrients profoundly alter cell-mediated immune responses in man and experimental animals. Both moderate and severe deficiencies are associated with significant changes in immunocompetence. Diets with inadequate levels of protein, calories, vitamin A, pyridoxine, biotin and zinc result in loss of thymic cellularity. Secondary to thymic atrophy, the production of thymic hormones critical for the differentiation of T lymphocytes is reduced, especially in protein-calorie malnutrition and zinc deficiency. Confirmation of a T cell maturational defect in nutritional deprivation comes from the observations of decreased total (T3 and rosette-forming) T cells in the peripheral blood of children with kwashiorkor and marasmus, with preferential loss of helper/inducer (T4) T cell subsets. Reduced number and in vitro function of T cells have also been reported in experimental deficiencies of iron, zinc, copper, and vitamins A and E. ... Natural killer (NK) cell function may be either enhanced or depressed, depending upon the nutrient and its effects on interferon production. Several authors have demonstrated normal or enhanced macrophage activity in a variety of experimental deficiencies. The extrapolation of these observations to infectious disease resistance is not straightforward, and depends upon the nature of the microbe, its own nutrient needs, and the relative importance of innate, as opposed to immunologic, defense mechanisms.
Infections, no matter how mild, have adverse effects on nutritional status. The significance of these effects depends on the previous nutritional status of the individual, the nature and duration of the infection, and the diet during the recovery period. Conversely, almost any nutrient deficiency, if sufficiently severe, will impair resistance to infection. Iron deficiency and protein-energy malnutrition, both highly prevalent, have the greatest public health importance in this regard. Remarkable advances in immunology of recent decades have increased insights into the mechanisms responsible for the effects of infection. These include impaired antibody formation; loss of delayed cutaneous hypersensitivity; reduced immunoglobulin concentrations; decreased thymic and splenic lymphocytes; reduced complement formation, secretory immunoglobulin A, and interferon; and lower T cells and T cells subsets (helper, suppressor-cytotoxic, and natural killer cells) and interleukin 2 receptors. The effects observed with single or multiple nutrient deficiencies are due to some combination of these responses. In general, cell-mediated and nonspecific immunity are more sensitive than humoral immunity.
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