When we hear the word malnutrition, the initial image that comes in our minds is a starving child who is all skin and bones. But there is a hidden reality behind malnourished children. It is not always starvation or an unhealthy diet that causes this condition. With the right mix of genes passed down from parents, a child could experience malnourishment even while consuming a healthy diet.
How is this possible? With new tools to study immunodeficiency, scientists are quickly realizing that immune defects cause malnutrition just as much as malnutrition causes immune defects. The dysfunction is recorded in the DNA through epigenetic marks, so that if malnourished people have offspring, their children inherit an altered immune system (even after multiple generations). This altered immune system may then cause malnutrition even if children have an adequate diet. This effect is due to the inheritance of immune and metabolic genes, the expression of which has changed from a lifestyle of malnourishment.
Over half of all deaths of children five years old and younger are due to under nutrition. Researchers have found that the first thousand days of a baby’s life are extremely sensitive to diet and other environmental factors. With a new understanding how malnutrition can be seen as an immune disorder, scientists are hopeful that reducing the prevalence of malnourished generations can help to reduce child mortality.
Malnutrition is a big problem today. According to the latest study, it is possible to look healthy and eat a well-balanced diet and still be malnourished due to altered immune function. These findings also explain why malnourished children are more likely to die of infection rather than starvation. Although the link between immune system and malnutrition isn’t quite clear, these results pave the way for scientists to find a way to target immune pathways to deal with this problem.