Selected vitamins and trace elements support immune function by strengthening epithelial barriers and cellular and humoral immune responses.Br J Nutr 2007; 98 Suppl 1:S29-35BJ
Adequate intakes of micronutrients are required for the immune system to function efficiently. Micronutrient deficiency suppresses immunity by affecting innate, T cell mediated and adaptive antibody responses, leading to dysregulation of the balanced host response. This situation increases susceptibility to infections, with increased morbidity and mortality. In turn, infections aggravate micronutrient deficiencies by reducing nutrient intake, increasing losses, and interfering with utilization by altering metabolic pathways. Insufficient intake of micronutrients occurs in people with eating disorders, in smokers (active and passive), in individuals with chronic alcohol abuse, in certain diseases, during pregnancy and lactation, and in the elderly. This paper summarises the roles of selected vitamins and trace elements in immune function. Micronutrients contribute to the body's natural defences on three levels by supporting physical barriers (skin/mucosa), cellular immunity and antibody production. Vitamins A, C, E and the trace element zinc assist in enhancing the skin barrier function. The vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D, E and folic acid and the trace elements iron, zinc, copper and selenium work in synergy to support the protective activities of the immune cells. Finally, all these micronutrients, with the exception of vitamin C and iron, are essential for antibody production. Overall, inadequate intake and status of these vitamins and trace elements may lead to suppressed immunity, which predisposes to infections and aggravates malnutrition. Therefore, supplementation with these selected micronutrients can support the body's natural defence system by enhancing all three levels of immunity.