Pathophysiology of Malnutrition

Pathophysiology of Malnutrition
Malnutrition is directly responsible for 300,000 deaths per year in children younger than 5 years in developing countries and contributes indirectly to more than half of all deaths in children worldwide. 


  • Malnutrition affects virtually every organ system. Dietary protein is needed to provide amino acids for synthesis of body proteins and other compounds that have various functional roles. Energy is essential for all biochemical and physiologic functions in the body. Furthermore, micronutrients are essential in many metabolic functions in the body as components and cofactors in enzymatic processes.
  • In addition to the impairment of physical growth and of cognitive and other physiologic functions, immune response changes occur early in the course of significant malnutrition in a child. These immune response changes correlate with poor outcomes and mimic the changes observed in children with acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Loss of delayed hypersensitivity, fewer T lymphocytes, impaired lymphocyte response, impaired phagocytosis secondary to decreased complement and certain cytokines, and decreased secretory immunoglobulin A (IgA) are some changes that may occur. These immune changes predispose children to severe and chronic infections, most commonly, infectious diarrhea, which further compromises nutrition causing anorexia, decreased nutrient absorption, increased metabolic needs, and direct nutrient losses.
  • Early studies of malnourished children showed changes in the developing brain, including, a slowed rate of growth of the brain, lower brain weight, thinner cerebral cortex, decreased number of neurons, insufficient myelinization, and changes in the dendritic spines. More recently, neuroimaging studies have found severe alterations in the dendritic spine apparatus of cortical neurons in infants with severe protein-calorie malnutrition. These changes are similar to those described in patients with mental retardation of different causes. There have not been definite studies to show that these changes are causal rather than coincidental.
  • Other pathologic changes include fatty degeneration of the liver and heart, atrophy of the small bowel, and decreased intravascular volume leading to secondary hyperaldosteronism.

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