More MS news articles for Jan 2002

Ring of truth to old wives' tale?

'Feed a cold, starve a fever' may make sense, say immunologists.

11 January 2002

There may be some wisdom in the traditional British maxim: 'feed a cold, starve a fever'. The balance of two chemicals that regulate the relevant branches of the immune system seem to shift markedly after a meal, preliminary research suggests.

"There appears to be a parallel between our data and this saying," comments Gijs van den Brink, a cell biologist at the Academic Medical Centre in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, who led the small study.

Van den Brink, who heard about the old wives' tale from a British colleague, found that eating and fasting cause brief fluctuations in the amount of two chemical messengers called cytokines in healthy volunteers. Why this happens is not clear.

After a meal, the average level of the cytokine gamma interferon (INF-g) in the blood of six volunteers increased by 450 per cent. INF-g stimulates the body's defence against chronic infections by helping to trigger the release of killer white blood cells, which destroy infected cells.

Starved volunteers, on the other hand, had low INF-g levels but far higher concentrations of another cytokine called interleukin-4 (IL-4). IL-4 is associated with the production of antibodies, the protein molecules that form the front line defence against acute infections.

Fevers, argues van den Brink, are often associated with swift-acting infections, whereas 'cold' in the ancient adage could refer to less serious, longer-lasting ailments. "There might be something underlying the folk tale," he says.

"That's stretching it a bit far," says David Hughes, who studies the effects of nutrition on immunity at the Institute of Nutrition Research in Norwich, UK. But evidence that food consumption may have a fleeting effect on a person's immune status is interesting, he says, as previous work has focused only on long-term effects.

Kent Erickson, a cell biologist at the University of California, Davis is surprised that levels of cytokines were found to fluctuate so much. A larger-scale study is required before any conclusions can be drawn, he says.

van den Brink, G. R., van den Boogardt, D. E. M., van Deventer, S. J. H. & Peppelenbosch, M. P. Feed a cold, starve a fever? Clinical and Diagnostic Laboratory Immunology, 9, 182 - 83, (2002).

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