Articles on Health
Beta Carotene and the Immune System
Beta Carotene and the Immune System
As we age, disease worms its way into our lives. Arthritis,
cardiovascular problems, longer-lasting colds, even
cancer—they seem to sneak up on us at a certain age, doing
their best to ruin the quality of our lives, just when we
should be enjoying a bountiful retirement.
In the past, people accepted this as one of the evils of
growing old; in other words, that age beget disease. Today, we
know that this is not true, and that many of the health
problems traditionally associated with aging have more to do
with the immune system than aging.
Writing in the June, 1996, issue of The American Journal
of Clinical Nutrition, authors Kelley and Bendich note
that ". . .several recent, well controlled human intervention
studies found that clinically important immune responses were
improved when amounts of vitamin C, vitamin E, or beta
carotene higher than the recommended dietary allowance (RDA)
were consumed in healthy populations."
Beta carotene has long been known to be an immune booster,
and recent studies support this contention. The same authors
as quoted above go on to say that, "Beta carotene
supplementation appears to be beneficial for individuals with
compromised immune systems, and does not overstimulate the
immune responses of healthy adults . . ."
Beta carotene may be particular helpful for the immune
system of the elderly. According to Richard Passwater, Ph.D.,
in his book, Beta Carotene and Other Carotenoids, beta
carotene supplementation has been shown to enhance some, but
not all, aspects of cell-mediated immunity in healthy older
Michelle Santos, et al, writing in the November 1996 issue
of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, notes
that beta carotene may increase the activity of natural killer
cells. This is an important point, as natural killer (NK) cell
activity has been postulated to be an immunologic link between
beta carotene and cancer prevention. The article states that,
"Our results show that long-term beta carotene supplementation
enhances NK cell activity in elderly men, which may be
beneficial for viral and tumoral surveillance."
The link between Beta Carotene and Cancer
Last year, Harvard Medical School released research that
indicates that beta carotene can sharply reduce the risk of
prostate cancer in men with low beta carotene blood levels.
(Cancer Weekly Plus, June 9, 1997). In this research,
the diets, lifestyles, and health of more than 22,000 male
doctors were observed. Half of the doctors were given 50 mg
(80,000 IU) of beta carotene every other day. The findings
indicated that physicians with low levels of beta carotene
were one-third more likely to develop prostate cancer. The
doctors who supplemented with beta carotene were 36 percent
less likely to develop prostate cancer than those who ate few
beta carotene-rich fruits and vegetables and did not take beta
The link between cancer and beta carotene is also mentioned
in more recent research. An article in the American Journal
of Clinical Nutrition (August 1997) notes that
epidemiological studies reveal that people with high intakes
of beta carotene or high blood concentrations of this nutrient
have a reduced risk of various diseases, including cancer and
heart disease. The authors note that this is a credible
1) increased consumption of beta carotene is strongly
associated with reduced risk of cancer;
2) beta carotene is a dietary antioxidant and antioxidants
inhibit early stages of carcinogenesis, and
3) beta carotene reduces cancer in experimental animal
It appears that this hypothesis is on the right track, as
doctors may have discovered why beta carotene fights cancer.
Apparently, beta carotene stimulates a molecule that helps the
immune system target and destroy cancer cells. It increases
the number of receptors on white blood cells for a molecule
known as major histocompatibility complex II (MHC II). MHC II
is integral in helping monocytes, a type of white blood cell,
direct killer T cells to cancerous cells (Cancer Weekly
Plus, Jan 6, 1997). In other words, beta carotene is
integral in directing the immune system to kill cancer
The link between Beta Carotene and Rheumatoid
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is another problem linked to
aging, and it occurs when the immune system turns on itself.
This results in inflammation, which in turn triggers the
release of chemicals into the joint lining. This in turn
results in joint damage that makes it hard to manipulate areas
such as the knuckles and knees.
Arthritis experts have known for years that free radicals
(harmful renegade molecules) are present in the fluid of the
joint lining, and that they increase in joints inflamed by RA.
Related research has shown that patients with RA have lower
blood levels of beta carotene than patients without RA.
Now, The Tufts University Health & Nutrition
Letter, (Sep. 1997, Vol. 15 No. 7) reports that a Johns
Hopkins University study suggests that a low level of beta
carotene in the blood may actually increase a person’s risk of
developing RA. Surveys show that among those without this
condition, the pre-disease beta-carotene blood levels were 29
What does all this mean? Beta carotene is important for all
of us to get, especially the elderly. Studies have shown that
pollen extracts reduce prostate inflammation, which in turn
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