Even mild immune reactions have significant energy costs, evolutionary anthropologist finds

Jul 16, 2010
IU evolutionary antrhopologist Michael Muehlenbein studied the resting metabolic rates and testosterone levels of 25 young adult men infected with respiratory tract pathogens. Above, one of the study's participants undergoes monitoring at the Norris Health Center located at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

The energetic costs of fighting off simple respiratory infections result in heightened resting metabolic rates and lower testosterone levels in men, an Indiana University anthropologist shows in research pointed toward quantifying how immunological burdens and trade-offs play a role in human evolution.

In a study that involved 25 young adult men infected with pathogens, IU Assistant Professor of Anthropology Michael Muehlenbein found that in the most extreme cases testosterone levels fell by more than 30 percent while resting metabolic rates (RMR) jumped by 14 percent. On average, the group experienced increased RMR rates of 8 percent and testosterone declines of 10 percent.

"The results document elevated RMR and lowered testosterone following natural pathogen exposure in adult humans, demonstrating that even mild immune reactions elicit significant increases in energy expenditure," Muehlenbein said of the research published in the July-August issue of the . "Understanding the costs of immunity and the immunomodulatory actions of hormones are central to understanding the role of immunity in human life history evolution."

RMR reflects the amount of energy used to maintain basic cell function and, while it is the largest component of daily , it does not take into account physical activity, digestion, responses to stress, or other additional activities. Sharp increases in RMR are often associated with equilibrium disturbances like surgery, trauma, certain types of vaccinations, and diseases like sickle and .

Muehlenbein said human RMR typically increases from 7 percent to 15 percent for every one degree Celsius rise in body temperature during fever, and his research suggests that metabolic expenditure is "significantly increased" even when no fever accompanies infection.

"The metabolic responses to mild, acute infections and injury in humans have been relatively unexplored, despite the fact that much work in evolutionary anthropology relies on the assumption that immune maintenance and activation impose costs," Muehlenbein noted.

To better understand those costs could provide a string of benefits, including the use of RMR changes as biomarkers for quantifying disease severity and recovery, improving treatment plans for poorly modulated metabolism suffered during illness, and benefiting doctors who use hormone supplements in medical treatment.

Muehlenbein said the study lends some credence to the saying "feed a cold, starve a fever," in that different infectious agents require different responses.

"Given the energetic requirements of mounting immune responses against respiratory tract infections, as illustrated in this study, the proverb to 'feed a cold, starve a fever' may be appropriate advice," he said. "That is, fighting different pathogens may require plasticity (variation) in host behaviors."

Explore further: Study finds guidance improves food safety practices at school, community gardens

More information: "Toward quantifying the usage costs of human immunity: Altered metabolic rates and hormone levels during acute immune activation in men," American Journal Of Human Biology: The Official Journal Of The Human Biology Association [Am J Hum Biol] 2010 Jul-Aug; Vol. 22 (4), pp. 546-56.

Related Stories

Postmenopausal women with higher testosterone levels

Nov 04, 2009

Postmenopausal women who have higher testosterone levels may be at greater risk of heart disease, insulin resistance and the metabolic syndrome compared to women with lower testosterone levels, according to a new study accepted ...

Fever in mice linked to shorter life span

Nov 01, 2007

Mice with shorter life spans use fever to fight infections more than longer living mice, said U.S. researchers who had expected the opposite finding.

Recommended for you

Just like humans, dolphins have social networks

19 minutes ago

They may not be on Facebook or Twitter, but dolphins do, in fact, form highly complex and dynamic networks of friends, according to a recent study by scientists at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute (HBOI) ...

Norway plans to slash subsidies to fur farms

23 minutes ago

Norwegian fur farmers denounced Tuesday a government proposal to slash financial support to the controversial industry and warned that it could lead to farm closures in vulnerable rural areas.

Hitting the borders of expansion

4 hours ago

Why does a species not adapt to an ever-wider range of conditions, gradually expanding its geographical range? In their paper published on May 5 in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), Jitka Polecho ...

Fire linked to dieback spread

5 hours ago

Fire has the potential to increase the range and severity of Phytophthora dieback in native plant communities infected with the disease, suggests a study at the Stirling Range National Park near Albany.

How mixing light with salt makes a smolt?

5 hours ago

For decades, researchers have tried to find out what regulates changes in salmon when they transform from being freshwater to saltwater fish. Now they have come a little closer to an answer.

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jul 17, 2010
Reduction in testosterone is to be expected. It's not good for the individual to engage in fighting, mating, or even aggravated mindsets while ill.

Loss of apetite during fever should not be considered an unfortunate result (as in "You really need to eat something, dear, please!") of fever. Rather, it should be considered a well founded strategy, that did not only develop ages ago, but which also has stood the test of time ever since.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.