a1 Department of Nutrition, Diet and Health, Institute of Food Research, Norwich Research Park, Norwich NR4 7UA, UK
The immune system is highly reliant on accurate cell–cell communication for optimal function, and any damage to the signalling systems involved will result in an impaired immune responsiveness. Oxidant-mediated tissue injury is a particular hazard to the immune system, since phagocytic cells produce reactive oxygen species as part of the body's defence against infection. Adequate amounts of neutralizing antioxidants are required, therefore, to prevent damage to the immune cells themselves. Many antioxidants can be obtained directly from the diet (e.g. ascorbic acid, α-tocopherol, carotenoids and polyphenolic flavonoids) or require micronutrients as integral components (e.g. Se in the metalloenzyme glutathione peroxidase (EC 220.127.116.11)). Numerous epidemiological studies have found strong associations between diets rich in antioxidant nutrients and a reduced incidence of cancer, and it has been suggested that a boost to the body's immune system by antioxidants might, at least in part, account for this. Although more striking effects have been observed in the elderly, there is also evidence that antioxidant nutrients can modify cell-mediated immune responses in younger individuals. Indeed, it might be essential to have an adequate intake of antioxidant nutrients from an early age in order to help prevent the development of, or at least delay the onset of, several degenerative disorders. The present paper will review the effects of specific nutrients on immune function in young to middle-aged human subjects, focusing on the antioxidant vitamins C and E, and on Se. A further review, dealing more specifically with the effects of carotenoids on human immune function, will be presented at a forthcoming meeting of the Nutrition Society.