We like to think of Nutritional Immunology as a new science— and as a rigorous, scientific study, it is relatively new. However, people have observed the relationship between nutrition and immunity for centuries. Hippocrates (ca. 460 BC – ca. 370 BC), the Greek physician known as the father of medicine, once said, “If we could give every individual the right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little and not too much, we would have found the safest way to health.”
Through history, there are some significant dates for the science that we now call Nutritional Immunology.
James Lind of the British Royal Navy studied limes for the prevention of scurvy. Lind was not the first to suggest that citrus fruit was a cure for scurvy, but he was the first to study their effect by a systematic experiment. It ranks as one of the first clinical experiments in the history of medicine. There after citrus juice was dispensed by the ship’s surgeon as a cure for seamen who had scurvy. Only after 1800 was it regularly issued to prevent scurvy, and British sailors became known as ‘limeys.’
The first modern link between nutrition and immunity was made by J. F. Menkel. Menkel described the atrophy of the thymus in malnourished patients. By linking malnutrition and thymic atrophy Menkel provided the scientific birth of Nutritional Immunology. The thymus is of particular importance to the immune system because it produces hormones that stimulate the production of infection-fighting cells, and because of its importance in the maturation of T cells. In fact, the T in T cells stands for thymus.
J. Simon called the thymus “a barometer of malnutrition, and a very sensitive one.” The anatomical link between nutrition and immunology was recognized long before the immunological importance of the thymus was discovered.
Takaki Kanehiro, a Japanese naval physician, observed that Japanese naval officers, who ate a varied diet, did not get beriberi, while common seamen who lived primarily on white rice did. He conducted an experiment that convinced the Imperial Japanese Navy that poor diet was the prime factor in beriberi, and the disease was soon eliminated from the fleet. Ten years later, Christiaan Eijkman, in Batavia, advanced the theory that beriberi was caused by a nutritional deficiency, and later identified thiamine (vitamin B1) as the culprit, earning him the 1929 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Wilcock and Hopkins showed that the amino acid tryptophan was necessary for the survival of mice. Gowland Hopkins recognized “accessory food factors” other than calories, protein and minerals, as organic materials essential to health but which the body cannot synthesize.
Isolation of thiamine by Casimir Funk led him to form the concept of a vitamine (i.e., vital amine) but the final e was later discarded when it was discovered that other vital compounds were not amines. Amines are organic compounds that contain nitrogen as the key atom. It was recognized quite early that both vitamin A and vitamin C had unique anti-infective properties, but their link to immunological mechanisms remained unknown until decades later.
William Cumming Rose identified essential amino acids, which are those necessary protein components the body cannot synthesize itself.
The first Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) were established by the United States National Research Council.
The discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1929 and gramicidin by Rene Dubos in 1939, ushered in “the antibiotic era,” which was in full swing during the 1950s. The efficacy of antibiotics and other breakthroughs in medical sciences took center stage during this time. In contrast, interest in the supportive and nutritional aspects of medical care reached a low point in the late 1940s and 1950s.
Dr. Jau-Fei Chen founds E. Excel International based on the principles of Nutritional Immunology.
A new publication, The Journal of Nutritional Immunology, makes its debut with Julian E. Spallholz as editor-in-chief.
US patent issued to Dr. Jau-Fei Chen and E. Excel International for the use of ginseng berry and cactus fruit as ingredients in nutritional products and for freeze-dried ginseng berry tea.
A research team from the University of Chicago’s Tang Center for Herbal Medicine Research reported in the June issue of the Journal Diabetes, that an extract of ginseng berries completely , normalized blood glucose levels, improved sensitivity to insulin, lowered cholesterol levels and decreased weight by reducing appetite and increasing activity levels in mice bred to develop diabetes. Dr. Chun-Su Yuan, director of the study said, “We were stunned by how different the berry is from the root and by how effective it is in correcting the multiple metabolic abnormalities associated with diabetes.”
The previous chart outlines significant points in the development of the science of Nutritional Immunology. When this Western scientific approach is combined with the extensive, ancient wisdom of the East’s Traditional Chinese Medicine, which utilizes hundreds of years of observing the reaction of the human immune system to a wide variety of plants and herbs, scientists can discover why certain plants and herbs are so effective in supporting the body’s nutritional needs.
Using Eastern wisdom to direct Western research allows scientists to narrow the focus of their studies to certain species of plants that have already been observed to support the immune system. The researchers begin from an already extensively studied plant to try to understand why the phytonutrients in that particular plant are so valuable to the body’s immune system. Their studies provide invaluable information about which of the possibly thousands of phytochemicals in a plant
are most beneficial and how to most effectively preserve these phytochemicals during harvesting and processing.
In the past years, many researchers around the world have studied many different phytonutrients in many different plant foods, from the ordinary tomato to exotic mushrooms. Significant inroads have been made into the knowledge of how these different phytonutrients affect our bodies. But there are literally thousands of different plant foods and thousands of phytonutrients left to be thoroughly studied. Every day new studies validate the connection between nutrition and a healthy immune system. The Science of Nutritional Immunology is making tremendous strides in research and development to improve health and longevity for people around the world.