Diet is known to modulate immune functions in multiple ways and to affect host resistance to infections. Besides the essential nutrients, non-essential food constituents such as non-digestible carbohydrates may also have an impact on the immune system, especially in the area of the gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT). Recent data now provide first evidence that prebiotics such as inulin/oligofructose (IN/OF) modulate functions of the immune system. In animal studies IN/OF primarily activated immune cells in Peyer's patches including IL-10 production and natural killer (NK) cell cytotoxicity. Other immune functions modulated by IN/OF included the concentration of secretory IgA in ileum and caecum, splenic NK cell cytotoxicity as well as splenocyte cytokine production. In different tumour models, a lower incidence of tumours was observed, which in the case of colonic tumours was associated with enhanced NK cell cytotoxicity in the GALT. Few human studies so far have investigated the effects of IN/OF alone or in combination with other dietary supplements on immunocompetence. Supplementation of IN/OF resulted in minor changes of systemic immune functions such as decrease in phagocytic activity. No data are available on the effects of IN/OF on the GALT in man. The mechanisms of the reported effects of IN/OF on the immune system are currently investigated and include: (i) direct effects of lactic acid-producing bacteria or bacterial constituents on immune cells; (ii) the production of SCFA and binding to SCFA receptors on leucocytes. In conclusion, the current data suggest that IN/OF primarily modulate immune parameters in the GALT, but splenocytes are also activated by IN/OF. Human studies are needed to find out whether IN/OF have the potential to modulate systemic immunity in wellnourished individuals and to lower the risk of diseases such as colon cancer.
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