Harnessing The Power Of Carotenoids For Immunity

Monday, October 21st, 2019

It’s important to understand how carotenoids like beta-carotene, lutein and lycopene support the immune system for better health, says Dr Ute Obermüller-Jevic, Scientific Marketing Senior Manager, Human Nutrition BASF SE. 


The Immune System—Our First Line Of Defence

Our immune system is our body’s protective shield, an important network of defence mechanisms that combats what makes us unwell, to keep us healthy.

Every day, we’re exposed to micro-organisms (microbes) such as viruses and bacteria in our environment, particularly in crowded places like trains, shopping malls, offices or classrooms. Bacteria and viruses may also be present in our food, which if not prepared and stored appropriately, may cause gastro-intestinal problems.

In most cases, we don’t realise how busy our immune system is with identifying, capturing and destroying these and other health threats. But when our body’s defences are not fast or experienced enough, are weakened or in disorder, we experience fatigue, inflammation, infectious diseases, allergies, autoimmune diseases or even cancer.


A Complex Network That Keeps Us Healthy

Our immune system comprises enzymes, signalling molecules and immune cells that act together in a regulated manner—locally in affected tissues as well as systemically in our blood circulation and lymphatic system.

Firstly, there is the “innate immune system” that works from when we are born, ready to combat health threats in a generalised, unspecific manner. It consists of molecules and cells that work via different mechanisms to damage, destroy and remove harmful viruses and bacteria that cause disease, broadly referred to as pathogens. Some of these molecules inhibit the multiplication and spread of pathogens while activating our immune cells.

There is the second part of the immune system, called the “adaptive immune system”. This system develops over time, learns and memorises pathogens and infections that have occurred earlier in life. This defence mechanism acts via lymphocytes, i.e. various types of T-cells and B-cells, that produce antibodies. In a highly specific manner, antibodies recognise, bind and neutralise pathogens.

If the immune system is in disorder, antibodies can be produced, triggered by seemingly harmless substances from the environment leading to hypersensitivity or allergies: it can even attack the body’s own proteins, as in the case of certain auto-immune diseases.

Although generally well-equipped to defend our body, the immune system may not always function properly. We can help support and strengthen it as much as possible through good nutrition.


Carotenoids Are Immune-Active Health Ingredients

Carotenoids are immune-active molecules produced naturally in plants, algae, bacteria and fungi, and are often abundant in fruits and green leafy vegetables. They are primarily known for their strong antioxidant function and their ability to absorb ultra-violet (UV) light, which makes them popular health ingredients in dietary supplements for cardiovascular and skin support. While offering multiple benefits, carotenoids play an even more important role to support the immune system.

Since humans cannot synthesise carotenoids like other immune molecules, we obtain carotenoids through our diets or via dietary supplements. The most prominent carotenoids in our diet and circulation are beta-carotene, lutein and lycopene.

Lutein and lycopene are non-provitamin A carotenoids that are immune active, with functions that include stimulating natural killer cells, increasing production and activity of immune signalling molecules and inhibiting inflammatory processes.

Beta-carotene on the other hand, is a provitamin A carotenoid. Retinoic acid, a metabolite produced in the human body from beta-carotene or vitamin A itself, is the major active metabolite affecting both the innate and adaptive immune systems, to safeguarding balance (homeostasis).


It All Starts In The Gut

Upon consumption, beta-carotene is absorbed in the intestine where retinoic acid is produced. Here, retinoic acid plays a crucial role in stimulating production, programming and migration of immune cells towards the gut. In this process, retinoic acid induces and regulates the extent to which the gut interacts with pathogens, while building tolerance towards harmless foods and microbes, allowing these to pass through. Both mechanisms are very important.

Retinoic acid occurs in different isomers with specific immune-active functionalities. All-trans retinoic acid is produced from the all-trans forms of beta-carotene and vitamin A, while cis-retinoic acid requires cis-forms as precursors. Natural beta-carotene from fruits and vegetables as well as beta-carotene supplements from algae are rich sources of both all-trans and cis-beta-carotene.

Lutein and lycopene support beta-carotene with their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory capabilities and thereby contribute further to good gut health and a balanced gut-associated immune system.


Building A Strong Immune System In Early Life And Beyond

Development of the immune system already begins prior to birth. A concerted interplay of mechanisms that lead to lymphoid organ development takes place in the embryonic phase. This means that sufficient amounts of retinoic acid are required during pregnancy to allow healthy development of the innate immune system.

Beta-carotene and vitamin A intake during pregnancy is therefore of utmost importance for the healthy development of the child, supported by anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory lutein and lycopene with an expected favourable long-term effect on immune system function throughout life.

Beta-carotene is especially important for healthy development in the early life stage. Babies receive the essential nutrient from breastmilk of well-nourished mothers, or through high-quality, fortified infant formulas when breast-feeding is not possible.

Breast-feeding mothers, and adults in general can get beta-carotene from different food sources such as fruits and vegetables like apricots, carrots and spinach. For those of us who may not get sufficient beta-carotene from the diet, carotenoid supplements are a convenient and safe way to enjoy the multi-faceted benefits of beta-carotene.

BASF’s wide range of high-quality, science-based health solutions support our vision of delivering the right nutrients to the right people at the right time. Our long-standing expertise in producing beta-carotene, lutein and lycopene in easy-to-use formulations for applications in dietary supplements, functional nutrition as well as early life nutrition enables customers and consumers alike to harness the power of carotenoids for immunity support across all life stages.


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