Antioxidants help protect immune function

Tuesday, August 18, 2015. An article published online on August 6, 2015, in Cell Reports describes the role of antioxidants in slowing aging of the thymus, a gland responsible for the production of immune cells known as T lymphocytes. The thymus reaches its peak size at adolescence and subsequently begins to atrophy. Decreased T cell production is compensated for by existing T cell duplication; however, this eventually results in memory T cell dominance and a reduction in the ability of the immune system to respond to new pathogens. "The thymus begins to atrophy rapidly in very early adulthood, simultaneously losing its function," explained lead researcher Howard T. Petrie, who is presently affiliated with the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. "This new study shows for the first time a mechanism for the long-suspected connection between normal immune function and antioxidants."

The research, conducted at the Florida campus of The Scripps Research Institute, examined gene activity in the thymus' stromal (connective tissue) cells and lymphoid cells. Dr Petrie's team discovered that stromal cells were deficient in the body's antioxidant enzyme catalase, making them subject to increased damage from reactive oxygen species. "Thus, stromal catalase deficiency, in the context of prolonged exposure to high-level reactive oxygen species, represented a potential mechanism to explain accelerated thymic atrophy," the authors write.

To help confirm the benefit of antioxidant protection, mice were provided with drinking water enhanced with the antioxidant nutrients N-acetylcysteine or L-ascorbate (vitamin C) from the time of weaning. In comparison with mice that received plain water, thymus glands from mice that received either nutrient were larger after ten weeks than those of control animals of the same age, while other organs did not appear to be affected. In another experiment, mice that were genetically modified to overexpress mitochondrially targeted catalase had thymus glands that were twice as large at six months of age as those of normal control animals.

In their discussion, the authors observe that studies involving calorie restriction have also resulted in reduced atrophy of the thymus, further strengthening the association between thymic atrophy and metabolic damage via free radicals.

"Atrophy resulting from accumulated damage is documented in many organs and tissues as part of the 'normal' aging process and is intimately linked to aerobic metabolism and oxygen radicals," the authors write. "However, these are generally slow, progressive processes that do not become apparent until late in life and, with the notable exception of skeletal muscle, often go mostly unnoticed."

The researchers plan to test the effects of antioxidant supplementation on thymus and immune function in aging animals in hope of developing a treatment for age-related thymus atrophy in humans.


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Increased vitamin C linked to reduced risk of early mortality
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The June 2015 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published findings from researchers at the University of Copenhagen of a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death in association with increases in plasma vitamin C and fruit and vegetable intake.

The investigators analyzed data from 87,030 men and women enrolled in the Copenhagen General Population Study and 10,173 participants in the Copenhagen City Heart Study. Plasma vitamin C levels were measured in 3,512 newly recruited subjects and dietary intake data was available for 83,256 subjects.

Ischemic heart disease was documented in 10,123 individuals and there were 8,477 deaths over the studies' follow-up periods. "We can see that those with the highest intake of fruit and vegetables have a 15% lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease and a 20% lower risk of early death compared with those who very rarely eat fruit and vegetables," reported lead author Camilla Kobylecki, who is a medical doctor and PhD student at the Department of Clinical Biochemistry, Herlev and Gentofte Hospital. "At the same time, we can see that the reduced risk is related to high vitamin C concentrations in the blood from the fruit and vegetables."

"We know that fruit and vegetables are healthy, but now our research is pinpointing more precisely why this is so, noted coauthor Boerge Nordestgaard, who is a clinical professor at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at the University of Copenhagen, and a consultant at Herlev and Gentofte Hospital. "Eating a lot of fruit and vegetables is a natural way of increasing vitamin C blood levels, which in the long term may contribute to reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and early death."


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Health Concern

Immune system strengthening

The impact of aging on the immune system is profound. As people age, a number of critical immune system components including cellular response, antibody production, and response to vaccines are reduced or slowed. At the same time, susceptibility to infection and cancer is increased. Some of this increased susceptibility to disease is linked to chronic inflammation, which is associated with many disorders of aging (Ershler 2000; Hamerman 1999; Taaffe 2000).

Because of their ability to scavenge free radicals, antioxidants are important immune-system boosters. Supplementation with antioxidants like vitamins C, E, and B vitamins may improve immune function (Grimble 1997), and supplementation with vitamin A stimulates antibody-mediated immune responses (Cantorna 1995).

Vitamin E is a powerful fat-soluble antioxidant. It protects cellular membranes of the immune system and other cells by trapping free radicals, and enhances the effectiveness of lymphocytes (Kaminogawa 2004).

Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is a key component of the immune system and antioxidant defense (Kagan 1991, 1992; Peters 1993). It prevents the production of free radicals and reduces DNA damage in immune cells. Moreover, vitamin C downregulates the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines and participates in recycling vitamin E (Schwager 1998).

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