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Immunodepression and the Role of Some Amino Acids 

L. M. Castell and E. A. Newsholme   

Cellular Nutrition Research Group, University Department of Biochemistry, Oxford OX1 3QU, U.K.

There is considerable evidence that glutamine is “conditionally” essential, and is an important fuel for some key cells of the immune system.  In athletes undertaking prolonged, exhaustive exercise, such as a marathon, there is a 20-25% decrease in plasma glutamine after the race, at the same time as immunodepression occurs.  It is suggested that the decrease, which remains low for about 4-6 hours, may affect the ability of some immune cells to function optimally.  Thus, for several hours after a race, athletes may be vulnerable to opportunistic infections.  Data from several marathon studies have shown a decrease in the incidence of infections in athletes taking glutamine compared with those taking placebo, as well as an effect on some aspects of immune function (Castell et al., 1996).

Evidence that both parenteral and enteral glutamine feeding can have beneficial effects comes from several clinical studies.  In particular, there is evidence that glutamine feeding not only has a beneficial effect upon gut function but also upon the immune system.  Findings include decreased incidence of infections and increased T-cell recovery in bone marrow transplant patients, and enhanced T-cell response in patients undergoing surgery or suffering from acute pancreatitis.  Studies on animals include findings of increased alveolar macrophage phagocytosis, reversal of biliary IgA suppression, and increased numbers and function of lymphocytes during sepsis.

More recently, supplementation of the branched chain amino acids (BCAA) has been shown both to maintain the plasma concentration of glutamine in athletes, and to reduce the incidence of upper respiratory tract infections (Bassit et al., 1999).  

References

Bassit, R.A., Sawada, L.A., Bacurau, R.F.P., Navarro, F. & Costa Rosa, L.F.B.P.  (1999).  The effect of  BCAA supplementation upon the immune response of triathletes.  Med. Sci. Sports Ex.  (in Press).

Castell, L.M. & Newsholme, E.A.  (1998).  Glutamine feeding and the immune response to exercise.  Canad. J. Physiol. Pharmacol.  76:  524-532.

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