We know that critically ill patients suffering from undernutrition with a limited nutritional reserve have a poorer outcome. Furthermore, having a low body mass index has been shown to be an independent predictor of excess mortality in multiple organ failure. Therefore, nutritional support has gained increasing interest in critical illness with the hope of preventing or attenuating the effects of malnutrition. A negative nitrogen balance is the characteristic metabolic feature in critical illness, with the major protein loss derived from skeletal muscle. In particular, glutamine concentrations are rapidly reduced in plasma and muscle.
Over the last 20 yrs or so, increasing evidence is emerging to support the use of glutamine supplementation in critical illness. Clinical trials have found a mortality and morbidity advantage with glutamine supplementation. The advantage appears to be greater the more glutamine is given and greater again when given parenterally. Various modes of action have been postulated. Glutamine seems to have an effect on the immune system, antioxidant status, glucose metabolism, and heat shock protein response. However, the benefit of exogenous glutamine on morbidity and mortality is not universally accepted. This review critically appraises the current clinical evidence regarding glutamine supplementation in critical illness.