Protein catabolism and requirements in severe illness

Int J Vitam Nutr Res. 2011 Mar;81(2-3):143-52. doi: 10.1024/0300-9831/a000058.


Reduced total body protein mass is a marker of protein-energy malnutrition and has been associated with numerous complications. Severe illness is characterized by a loss of total body protein mass, mainly from the skeletal muscle. Studies on protein turnover describe an increased protein breakdown and, to a lesser extent, an increased whole-body protein synthesis, as well as an increased flux of amino acids from the periphery to the liver. Appropriate nutrition could limit protein catabolism. Nutritional support limits but does not stop the loss of total body protein mass occurring in acute severe illness. Its impact on protein kinetics is so far controversial, probably due to the various methodologies and characteristics of nutritional support used in the studies. Maintaining calorie balance alone the days after an insult does not clearly lead to an improved clinical outcome. In contrast, protein intakes between 1.2 and 1.5 g/kg body weight/day with neutral energy balance minimize total body protein mass loss. Glutamine and possibly leucine may improve clinical outcome, but it is unclear whether these benefits occur through an impact on total body protein mass and its turnover, or through other mechanisms. Present recommendations suggest providing 20 - 25 kcal/kg/day over the first 72 - 96 hours and increasing energy intake to target thereafter. Simultaneously, protein intake should be between 1.2 and 1.5 g/kg/day. Enteral immunonutrition enriched with arginine, nucleotides, and omega-3 fatty acids is indicated in patients with trauma, acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), and mild sepsis. Glutamine (0.2 - 0.4 g/kg/day of L-glutamine) should be added to enteral nutrition in burn and trauma patients (ESPEN guidelines 2006) and to parenteral nutrition, in the form of dipeptides, in intensive care unit (ICU) patients in general (ESPEN guidelines 2009).

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acids / administration & dosage
  • Amino Acids / metabolism
  • Body Composition
  • Critical Illness*
  • Dietary Proteins / administration & dosage*
  • Dietary Proteins / metabolism
  • Dietary Proteins / therapeutic use
  • Energy Intake
  • Humans
  • Muscle, Skeletal / metabolism
  • Muscle, Skeletal / pathology
  • Muscular Atrophy / metabolism
  • Muscular Atrophy / pathology
  • Muscular Atrophy / prevention & control
  • Nutritional Requirements*
  • Practice Guidelines as Topic
  • Protein Biosynthesis
  • Proteins / metabolism*
  • Stress, Psychological / diet therapy
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism


  • Amino Acids
  • Dietary Proteins
  • Proteins