Nutrition and the immune system from birth to old age

Eur J Clin Nutr. 2002 Aug;56 Suppl 3:S73-6. doi: 10.1038/sj.ejcn.1601492.


For millennia, food has been at the center of social events, in times of joy and in times of sorrow. Protein-energy malnutrition is associated with a significant impairment of cell-mediated immunity, phagocyte function, complement system, secretory immunoglobulin A antibody concentrations, and cytokine production. Deficiency of single nutrients also results in altered immune response: this is observed even when the deficiency state is relatively mild. Of the micronutrients, zinc, selenium, iron, copper, vitamins A, C, E and B(6), and folic acid have important influences on immune responses. Overnutrition and obesity also reduce immunity. Low-birth-weight infants have a prolonged impairment of cell-mediated immunity that can be partly restored by providing extra amounts of dietary zinc. In the elderly, impaired immunity can be enhanced by modest amounts of a combination of micronutrients. These findings have considerable practical and public health significance.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aging / immunology*
  • Aging / physiology
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Deficiency Diseases / immunology*
  • Humans
  • Immune System / physiology*
  • Infant
  • Infant, Low Birth Weight
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Micronutrients / administration & dosage
  • Micronutrients / deficiency
  • Middle Aged
  • Nutritional Physiological Phenomena*
  • Protein-Energy Malnutrition / immunology
  • Protein-Energy Malnutrition / physiopathology
  • Vitamins / administration & dosage


  • Micronutrients
  • Vitamins