Skeletal muscle adaptation to critical illness includes insulin resistance, accelerated proteolysis, and increased release of glutamine and the other amino acids. Such amino acid efflux from skeletal muscle provides precursors for protein synthesis and energy fuel to the liver and to the rapidly dividing cells of the intestinal mucosa and the immune system. From these adaptation mechanisms, severe muscle wasting, glutamine depletion, and hyperglycemia, with increased patient morbidity and mortality, may ensue. Protein/amino acid nutrition, through either enteral or parenteral routes, plays a pivotal role in treatment of metabolic abnormalities in critical illness. In contrast to energy requirement, which can be accurately assessed by indirect calorimetry, methods to determine individual protein/amino acid needs are not currently available. In critical illness, a decreased ability of protein/amino acid intake to promote body protein synthesis is defined as anabolic resistance. This abnormality leads to increased protein/amino acid requirement and relative inefficiency of nutritional interventions. In addition to stress mediators, immobility and physical inactivity are key determinants of anabolic resistance. The development of mobility protocols in the intensive care unit should be encouraged to enhance the efficacy of nutrition. In critical illness, protein/amino acid requirement has been defined as the intake level associated with the lowest rate of catabolism. The optimal protein-sparing effects in patients receiving adequate energy are achieved when protein/amino acids are administered at rates between 1.3 and 1.5 g/kg/day. Extra glutamine supplementation is required in conditions of severe systemic inflammatory response. Protein requirement increases during hypocaloric feeding and in patients with acute renal failure on continuous renal replacement therapy. Evidence suggests that receiving adequate protein/amino acid intake may be more important than achieving the target energy requirement in order to maintain nitrogen balance and, possibly, improve patient outcome.
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