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As a result of the European ban of in-feed growth-promoting antibiotics, new strategies are being developed to increase the resistance to disease in farm animals. In pig production, this is of particular importance during the weaning transition when piglets are subjected to major stressful events, making them highly sensitive to digestive disorders. At this time, the development of both innate and adaptive immunity at the mucosal surface is critical in preventing the potential harmful effects of intestinal pathogenic agents. Strategies aiming at stimulating natural host defences through the use of substances able to modulate immune functions have gained increasing interest in animal research, and different bioactive components a priori sharing those properties have been the subject of in vivo nutritional investigations in pig. Among these, yeast derivates (β-glucans and mannans) are able to interact with immune cells, particularly phagocytic cells. However, studies where they have been fed to pigs have shown inconsistent results, suggesting that their ability to target the sensitive immune cells through the oral route is questionable. The plant extracts, which would benefit from a positive image in the public opinion, have also been tested. However, due to a lack of data on the bioactive components of particular plants and the large diversity of species, it has proved difficult to prepare extracts of equivalent potency and thus, the literature on their influence on pig immunity remains inconclusive. In considering piglet immunity and health benefits, the most promising results to date have been obtained with spray-dried animal plasma, whose positive effects would be provided by specific antibodies and non-specific competition of some plasma components with bacteria for intestinal receptors. The major positive effect of spray-dried animal plasma is in reducing the infiltration of gut-associated lymphoid tissue by immune cells, which is likely to be the result of a decreased colonisation by potentially harmful bacteria. This review also highlights the limitations of some of the published in vivo studies on the immunomodulatory activity of certain feed additives. Among those, the lack of standardisation of extracts and the heterogeneity of piglet-rearing conditions (e.g. exposure to pathogens) are likely the most limiting.
The EU ban on in-feed antibiotics has stimulated research on weaning diets as a way of reducing post-weaning gut disorders and growth check in pigs. Many bioactive components have been investigated but only few have shown to be effective. Amongst these, organic acids (OA) have been shown to exert a bactericidal action mediated by non-dissociated OA, by lowering gastric pH, increasing gut and pancreas enzyme secretion and improving gut wall morphology. It has been postulated that they may also enhance non-specific immune responses and improve disease resistance. In contrast, relatively little attention has been paid to the impact of OA on the stomach but recent data show they can differently affect gastric histology, acid secretion and gastric emptying. Butyrate and precursors of butyric acid have received special attention and although promising results have been obtained, their effects are dependent upon the dose, treatment duration, initial age of piglets, gastrointestinal site and other factors. The amino acids (AA) like glutamine, tryptophan and arginine are supportive in improving digestion, absorption and retention of nutrients by affecting tissue anabolism, stress and (or) immunity. Glutamine, cysteine and threonine are important for maintaining mucin and permeability of intestinal barrier function. Spray-dried plasma (SDP) positively affects gut morphology, inflammation and reduces acquired specific immune responses via specific and a-specific influences of immunoglobulins and other bioactive components. Effects are more pronounced in early-weaned piglets and under poorer health conditions. Little interaction between plasma protein and antibiotics has been found, suggesting distinct modes of action and additive effects. Bovine colostrum may act more or less similarly to SDP. The composition of essential oils is highly variable, depending on environmental and climatic conditions and distillation methods. These oils differ widely in their antimicrobial activity in vitro and some components of weaning diets may decrease their activity. Results in young pigs are highly variable depending upon the product and doses used. These studies suggest that relatively high concentrations of essential oils are needed for beneficial effects to be observed and it has been assumed that these plant extracts mimic most of the effects of antibiotics active on gut physiology, microbiology and immunology. Often, bioactive substances protective to the gut also stimulate feed intake and growth performance. New insights on the effects of selected OA and AA, protein sources (especially SDP, bovine colostrum) and plant extracts with anti-bacterial activities on the gut are reported in this review.
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