Thursday, April 14, 2005

Answering the Call

A friend of mine who grew up in Montpelier, Vermont, recalls a time when emergencies in the small capital city were announced by blasts on a powerful horn near the center of town. Back then, the local volunteer firefighters knew the coded series of blasts to listen for that signaled the need to drop everything and report to the fire house. In a sense, this is what happens in your body after surgery; a series of complex immune and inflammatory changes send out the signal that special resources are urgently needed. Time to send in the immunonutrients. Specifically, there are five nutrients that have been shown to improve immune system function after surgery, according to a special report in the British Medical Journal (BMJ). The overall result: fewer infections and shorter hospital stays. You don't have to be in need of surgery to reap the benefits of immunonutrients, which also provide natural defenses against common viral and bacterial infections. So with some helpful insights from panelist Allan Spreen, M.D., we'll take a look at the five immunonutrients featured in the BMJ report, along with notes on the best sources of each. I'll begin with the nutrient that needs no introduction to our readers: omega-3 fatty acids. We've written about this key nutrient so often in our alerts that I'm not going to delve into this very familiar information again here. And in the recent alert "Sensitive Side", I told you about L-arginine, a remarkable amino acid that's known to play a role in a number of important functions, including: blood vessel dilation, reduction of inflammation, thymus gland regulation and repair of skin and connective tissue. The other three immunonutrients are L-glutamine, branched chain amino acids, and nucleotides. After looking over this list, Dr. Spreen told me that even though Europeans tend to be less biased than the U. S. medical establishment, he was impressed that the BMJ spoke so highly of these healing nutrients. The BMJ report highlighted the successes of using post-surgical L-glutamine (or simply "glutamine") intravenously to combat toxins and reduce the incidence of pneumonia. Dr. Spreen said, "I'm STUNNED at the comments (and progress) made with intravenous glutamine. I had no idea they'd gone so far at trying such things. It's pretty detailed when you're putting it in an IV and fixing up intestinal mucosae and stimulating the immune system." Dr. Spreen also explained this additional benefit of L-glutamine: "It seems the brain uses glutamic acid almost as well as glucose for energy, and with less stress in doing so. The problem is, it doesn't cross the blood-brain barrier into the brain directly. However, glutamine DOES cross, and then the brain can convert it to the utilizable form and burn it. It makes sense that easy-energy fuel for the body's processes would make everything work better." L-glutamine is one of the precursors of the highly effective antioxidant glutathione, which I've written about many times. There are a number of good dietary sources of L-glutamine, including meats, fresh fruits and vegetables. L-glutamine supplements are also widely available. Dr. Spreen tells me that branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) are apparently the easiest form of protein for the body to use for repair, and that's why this nutrient is popular with many body builders. "BCAAs are readily available for incorporating into new proteins, both stuctural and enzymatic." The three BCAAs (leucine, valine, and isoleucine) are essential amino acids, which are also precursors of glutamine. Without BCCAs in our diets, we literally couldn't live. About BCCAs, Dr. Spreen says, "I've always felt that anything that makes it easier for the body to 'do its thing' is immunologically beneficial. If it has easy access to energy, readily available components for fixing whatever's damaged, and ways to move the body's biochemical processes around without having to worry about 'rationing' what's available, that HAS to make it easier to go out and eat invading organisms and fix whatever's broken." BCAAs are available in supplement form, but are easily obtained from meat, whey protein, egg protein and other dairy products. As for our last of the big five immunonutrients - nucleotides - Dr. Spreen says they've been mentioned in articles for years as immune system enhancers, but he's never had the occasion to use them. Nucleotides (the basic unit of nucleic acids) are the building blocks of DNA, and they help make cell division possible. When the immune system is under stress, new cells are needed to help fight infection. White blood cells, bone marrow cells, and the mucous cells of the intestine all require sources of nucleotides. Breast milk is perhaps the richest source of nucleotides. Formula-fed infants are generally more prone to infection than breast-fed children, and researchers believe that nucleotides are primarily responsible for this difference. Organ meats such as liver and kidney are rich in nucleotides, as are legumes and seafood. Nucleotides and nucleic acids supplements are also available. One final note from Dr. Spreen: "If amino acid supplements (which can be expensive) are taken with protein foods, the protein receptor sites are flooded with competition from the protein in foods. So if you're trying to get a predominance of one amino acid for some reason (L-glutamine for energy, arginine for growth hormone production, etc.) you'd be wasting money to take them with other proteins."

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