Recent trends and developments in the area of animal nutrition have been characterized by an increasing interest in the potential impact of plants, herbs and spices on the immune function of animals.
The prohibited use of antibiotic growth enhancers since the beginning of the year 2006 necessitates to consider alternatives that may help to support the immune function and health status of farm animals.
The maintenance of optimal immune functions is an important prerequisite for the production of healthy food from animal origin.
Problems occur especially in young animals, for instance in piglets around weaning.
The importance of nutrients for the maintenance of optimal immune functions has been considered in the past mainly regarding the role of macro- and micronutrients for the defence mechanisms.
Protein level, specific immuno-active peptides, amino acid intake, dietary fat level and source and the levels and the intake of digestible or fermentable carbohydrates are important cornerstones for the maintenance of adequate immune functions.
Minerals, trace elements and vitamins have been shown to affect the innate and adaptive defence mechanisms. Several "newer" feed additives have been shown to affect the cellular and humoral immunity.
Probiotics are increasingly used not mainly due to a growth promoting potential but due to their stabilizing effects on digestive processes.
During the past years the interest in the potential use of phytogenic feed additives has considerably increased. Herbs, spices or in general botanicals can have a measurable impact on the function and reactivity of the immune system.
Research activities have been intensified in the last years, however, the understanding of the specific mode of action and the functional aspects of phytogenic additives still need much more in depth studies.
This overview focuses on the potential role of herbal feed ingredients in the nutrition of farm animals with special regards to the immune system.
In general, the explanatory power of many studies is rather limited due to the use of blends of different phytogenic feed additives, making it difficult to assess the individual effects.
In addition, more research is warranted on the effects on intestinal physiology, microbiology and immunology. The understanding of gut physiology and disorders will allow to provide a better basis for adequate dietary options.
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Article made possible through the contribution of World Nutrition Forum-Biomin.