Skip to main content

Effects of dietary antioxidants on the immune function of middle-aged adults

  • David A. Hughes (a1)

The immune system is highly reliant on accurate cell–cell communication for optimal function, and any damage to the signalling systems involved will result in an impaired immune responsiveness. Oxidant-mediated tissue injury is a particular hazard to the immune system, since phagocytic cells produce reactive oxygen species as part of the body's defence against infection. Adequate amounts of neutralizing antioxidants are required, therefore, to prevent damage to the immune cells themselves. Many antioxidants can be obtained directly from the diet (e.g. ascorbic acid, α-tocopherol, carotenoids and polyphenolic flavonoids) or require micronutrients as integral components (e.g. Se in the metalloenzyme glutathione peroxidase (EC Numerous epidemiological studies have found strong associations between diets rich in antioxidant nutrients and a reduced incidence of cancer, and it has been suggested that a boost to the body's immune system by antioxidants might, at least in part, account for this. Although more striking effects have been observed in the elderly, there is also evidence that antioxidant nutrients can modify cell-mediated immune responses in younger individuals. Indeed, it might be essential to have an adequate intake of antioxidant nutrients from an early age in order to help prevent the development of, or at least delay the onset of, several degenerative disorders. The present paper will review the effects of specific nutrients on immune function in young to middle-aged human subjects, focusing on the antioxidant vitamins C and E, and on Se. A further review, dealing more specifically with the effects of carotenoids on human immune function, will be presented at a forthcoming meeting of the Nutrition Society.

    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      Effects of dietary antioxidants on the immune function of middle-aged adults
      Available formats
      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      Effects of dietary antioxidants on the immune function of middle-aged adults
      Available formats
      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      Effects of dietary antioxidants on the immune function of middle-aged adults
      Available formats
Corresponding author
Corresponding author: Dr David A. Hughes, fax +44 (0)1603 255237, email
Hide All
Anderson R (1982) Effects of ascorbate on normal and abnormal leucocyte functions. International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research 23, Suppl., 2334.
Anderson R & Lukey PT (1987) A biological role for ascorbate in the selective neutralisation of extracellular phagocyte-derived oxidants. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 498, 229247.
Anderson R, Oosthuigen R, Maritz R, Theron A & Van Rensburg A (1980) The effect of increasing weekly doses of ascorbate on certain cellular and humoral immune functions in normal volunteers. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 33, 7176.
Anderson R, Smith MJ, Joone GK & Van Straden AM (1990) Vitamin C and cellular immune functions. Protection against hypochlorous acid-mediated inactivation of glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate dehydrogenase and ATP generation in human leukocytes as a possible mechanism of ascorbate-mediated immunostimulation. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 587, 3448.
Baker KR & Meydani M (1994) Beta-carotene in immunity and cancer. Journal of Optimal Nutrition 3, 3950.
Beach RS, Mantero-Atienza E, Shor-Posner G, Javier JJ, Szapocznik J, Morgan R, Sauberlich HE, Cornwell PE, Eisdorfer C & Baum MK (1992) Specific nutrient abnormalities in asymptomatic HIV-1 infection. AIDS 6, 701708.
Beck MA (1998) The influence of antioxidant nutrients on viral infection. Nutrition Reviews 56, S140S146.
Bendich A (1994) Recent advances in clinical research involving carotenoids. Pure and Applied Chemistry 66, 10171024.
Bendich A (1996) Antioxidant vitamins and human immune responses. Vitamins and Hormones 52, 3562.
Bendich A, Burton GW, Machlin LJ, Scandurra O & Wayner DDM (1986) The antioxidant role of vitamin C. Advances in Free Radical Biology and Medicine 2, 419444.
Blackwell TS & Christman JW (1997) The role of nuclear factor-kB in cytokine gene regulation. American Journal of Respiratory and Cell Molecular Biology 17, 39.
Boxer LA (1986) Regulation of phagocyte function by α-tocopherol. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 45, 333334.
Boxer LA, Watanabe AM, Rister M & Besch HR (1976) Correction of leucocyte function in Chediak-Higashi syndrome by ascorbate. New England Journal of Medicine 295, 10411045.
Chavance M, Brubacher G, Herbeth B, Vernes G, Mistacki T, Deti F, Fournier C & Janot C (1985) Immunological and nutritional status among the elderly. In Nutrition, Immunity, and Illness in the Elderly, pp. 137145 [Chandra RK, editor]. New York: Pergamon Press.
Coulehan JL, Reisinger KS, Rogers KD & Bradley DW (1974) Vitamin C prophylaxis in a boarding school. New England Journal of Medicine 290, 610.
Devaraj S & Jialal I (1997) Alpha-tocopherol inhibits IL-1β from human monocytes. FASEB Journal 11, 3753.
Devaraj S, Li D & Jialal I (1996) The effects of a-tocopherol supplementation on monocyte function. Journal of Clinical Investigation 98, 756763.
Favier A, Sappey C, Leclerc P, Faure P & Micoud M (1994) Antioxidant status and lipid peroxidation in patients infected with HIV. Chemico-Biological Interactions 91, 165180.
Frei B, England L & Ames BN (1989) Ascorbate is an outstanding antioxidant in human blood plasma. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 86, 63776381.
Gruner S, Volk H-D, Falck P & Baehr RV (1986) The influence of phagocytic stimuli on the expression of HLA-DR antigens; role of reactive oxygen intermediates. European Journal of Immunology 16, 212215.
Halliwell B & Aruoma OI (1991) DNA damage by oxygen-derived species: Its mechanisms and measurement in mammalian systems. FEBS Letters 281, 919.
Hughes DA, Haslam PL, Townsend PJ & Turner-Warwick M (1985) Numerical and functional alterations in circulatory lymphocytes in cigarette smokers. Clinical and Experimental Immunology 61, 459466.
Hughes DA, Wright AJA, Finglas PM, Peerless ACJ, Bailey AL, Astley SB, Pinder AC & Southon S (1997) The effect of beta-carotene supplementation on the immune function of blood monocytes from healthy male non-smokers. Journal of Laboratory and Clinical Medicine 129, 309317.
Jackson MJ, McArdle A & McArdle F (1998) Antioxidant micronutrients and gene expression. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 57, 301305.
Jacob RA, Kelley DS, Pianalto FS, Swendsein ME, Henning SM, Zhang JZ, Ames BN, Fraga CG & Peters JH (1991) Immunocompetence and oxidant defense during ascorbate depletion of healthy men. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 54, 1302S1309S.
Jacques PF, Taylor A, Hankinson SE, Willett WC, Mahnken B, Lee Y, Vaid K & Lahav M (1997) Long-term vitamin C supplement use and prevalence of early age-related lens opacities. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 66, 911916.
Johnson JD, Houchens DP, Kluwe WM, Craig DK & Fisher GL (1990) Effects of mainstream and environmental tobacco smoke on the immune system in animals and humans: A review. CRC Critical Reviews in Toxicology 134, 356361.
Lesourd BM (1999) Immune response during disease and recovery in the elderly. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 58, 8598.
McKenzie RC, Rafferty TS & Beckett GJ (1998) Selenium: an essential element for immune function. Immunology Today 19, 342345.
Mangels AR, Holden JM, Beecher GR, Forman MR & Lanza E (1993) Carotenoid content of fruits and vegetables: an evaluation of analytical data. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 93, 284296.
Meydani SN & Beharka AA (1996) Recent developments in vitamin E and immune response. Nutrition Reviews 66, S49S58.
Pacht ER, Kasek H, Mohammad JR, Cromwell DG & Davis WB (1986) Deficiency of vitamin E in the alveolar fluid of cigarette smokers: Influence on alveolar macrophage cytotoxicity. Journal of Clinical Investigation 77, 789796.
Passi S, Picardo M & Morrone A (1993) Study on plasma polyunsaturated phospholipids and vitamin E, and on erythrocyte glutathione peroxidase in high risk HIV infection categories and AIDS patients. Clinical Chemistry and Enzymology Communications 5, 169177.
Pauling L (1970) Vitamin C and the Common Cold. San Francisco, CA: W.H. Freeman.
Prasad JS (1980) Effect of vitamin E supplementation on leukocyte function. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 33, 606608.
Pryor WA & Stone K (1993) Oxidants in cigarette smoke. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 686, 1228.
Rebora A, Dallegri F & Patrone F (1980) Neutrophil dysfunction and repeated infections: influence of levamisole and ascorbic acid. British Journal of Dermatology 21, 4956.
Rice-Evans C (1995) Plant polyphenols: free radical scavengers or chain-breaking antioxidants? Biochemical Society Symposium 61, 103116.
Richards GA, Theron AJ, Van Rensburg CEJ, Van Rensberg AJ, Van Der Merwe CA, Kuyl JM & Anderson R (1990) Investigation of the effects of oral administration of vitamin E and beta-carotene on the chemiluminescence responses and the frequency of sister chromatid exchanges in circulating leukocytes from cigarette smokers. American Review of Respiratory Disease 142, 648654.
Roy M, Kiremidjian-Schumacher L, Wishe HI, Cohen MW & Stotzky G (1994) Supplementation with selenium and human immune functions. I. Effect on lymphocyte proliferation and interleukin-2 receptor expression. Biological Trace Elements Research 41, 103114.
Sen CK & Packer L (1996) Antioxidant and redox regulation of gene transcription. FASEB Journal 10, 709720.
Serfass RE & Ganther HE (1975) Defective microbicidal activity in glutathione peroxidase-deficient neutrophils of selenium-deficient rats. Nature 255, 640641.
Siegel BV (1993) Vitamin C and the immune response in health and disease. In Nutrition and Immunology, pp. 167196 [Klurfeld DM, editor]. New York: Plenum Press.
Spallholz JE, Boylan LM & Larsen HS (1990) Advances in understanding selenium's role in the immune system. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 587, 123139.
Thomas WR & Holt PG (1978) Vitamin C and immunity: An assessment of the evidence. Clinical and Experimental Immunology 32, 370379.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Proceedings of the Nutrition Society
  • ISSN: 0029-6651
  • EISSN: 1475-2719
  • URL: /core/journals/proceedings-of-the-nutrition-society
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 281 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 328 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 22nd November 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.