Cell-mediated immunity in nutritional deficiency

Prog Food Nutr Sci. 1984;8(3-4):193-228.


Dietary deficiencies of specific nutrients profoundly alter cell-mediated immune responses in man and experimental animals. Both moderate and severe deficiencies are associated with significant changes in immunocompetence. Diets with inadequate levels of protein, calories, vitamin A, pyridoxine, biotin and zinc result in loss of thymic cellularity. Secondary to thymic atrophy, the production of thymic hormones critical for the differentiation of T lymphocytes is reduced, especially in protein-calorie malnutrition and zinc deficiency. Confirmation of a T cell maturational defect in nutritional deprivation comes from the observations of decreased total (T3 and rosette-forming) T cells in the peripheral blood of children with kwashiorkor and marasmus, with preferential loss of helper/inducer (T4) T cell subsets. Reduced number and in vitro function of T cells have also been reported in experimental deficiencies of iron, zinc, copper, and vitamins A and E. Loss of cutaneous hypersensitivity to mitogens and antigens is a consistent sequela of dietary deficiencies of protein, vitamins A and C, pyridoxine, iron and zinc. Cell-mediated immunity directed against allogeneic histocompatibility antigens (e.g. mixed leukocyte cultures, graft versus host, skin graft rejection) may actually be enhanced by experimental protein and polyunsaturated fat deficiencies. Alternatively, pyridoxine, ascorbate and biotin deficiencies resulted in delayed rejection of skin allografts. Cytotoxic T lymphocyte (CTL) activity is impaired in zinc-, iron- and copper-deficient mice, as well as in scorbutic guinea pigs. Natural killer (NK) cell function may be either enhanced or depressed, depending upon the nutrient and its effects on interferon production. Several authors have demonstrated normal or enhanced macrophage activity in a variety of experimental deficiencies. The extrapolation of these observations to infectious disease resistance is not straightforward, and depends upon the nature of the microbe, its own nutrient needs, and the relative importance of innate, as opposed to immunologic, defense mechanisms.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Ascorbic Acid Deficiency / immunology
  • Deficiency Diseases / immunology*
  • Deficiency Diseases / pathology
  • Deficiency Diseases / physiopathology
  • Fetus / immunology
  • Folic Acid Deficiency / immunology
  • Histocompatibility Antigens / immunology
  • Humans
  • Hypersensitivity, Delayed
  • Immunity, Cellular
  • Iron / deficiency
  • Killer Cells, Natural / immunology
  • Listeriosis / immunology
  • Macrophages / immunology
  • Malaria / immunology
  • Mycobacterium Infections / immunology
  • Parasitic Diseases / immunology
  • Protein Deficiency / immunology
  • T-Lymphocytes / cytology
  • T-Lymphocytes / immunology
  • T-Lymphocytes, Cytotoxic / immunology
  • Thymus Gland / immunology
  • Thymus Gland / pathology
  • Thymus Hormones / metabolism
  • Trypanosomiasis / immunology
  • Vitamin A Deficiency / immunology
  • Vitamin B 6 Deficiency / immunology
  • Zinc / deficiency


  • Histocompatibility Antigens
  • Thymus Hormones
  • Iron
  • Zinc