OBJECTIVE: The authors' aim was to investigate whether antecedent nutritional routes influence immune responses after surgical insult. SUMMARY BACKGROUND DATA: Total parenteral nutrition (TPN) may influence host responses to infection. To the best of the authors' knowledge, however, no study has focused on the mechanisms underlying the influence of nutritional route on local, systemic, and remote organ (lung) responses after surgical insult. METHODS: Sixty-eight rats were divided into TPN and total enteral nutrition (TEN) groups. The two groups received identical nutrients for 7 days and were then challenged intraperitoneally with 3 x 10(8) Escherichia coli. In the first experiment, the rats were observed for survival. In the second experiment, the rats were killed before (0 hours) challenge or 2 or 6 hours after challenge. Peritoneal exudative cells (PEC) and bronchoalveolar cells (BALC) were harvested and cultured in vitro. Colony-forming units of bacteria in the peritoneal lavage fluid (PLF) were determined. Tumor necrosis factor (TNF), interleukin-1 alpha (IL-1 alpha), interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma) levels in serum, PLF, bronchoalveolar lavage fluid (BALF), and cell culture supernatants were measured. RESULTS: The 48-hour survival rate was higher in TEN than in TPN rats. Local immunity was depressed in the TPN group. Bacterial colony counts in PLF were significantly higher in the TPN group than in the TEN group after challenge. The number of PECs was significantly lower, and at 2 hours, local cytokine (TNF and IL-1 alpha) responses were diminished in the TPN group compared with the TEN group at 2 hours. The number of PECs showed a significant positive correlation with levels of local cytokines in the TEN group but not in the TPN group. Elevation of local IFN-gamma was significant from 0 to 6 hours in the TEN group but not in the TPN group. In vitro production of TNF by PEC was impaired in the TPN rats before challenge. Remote organ (lung) responses were suppressed in the TPN group. The number of BALCs and the TNF levels in BALF declined significantly between 0 and 2 hours in the TEN group but not in the TPN group. Interferon-gamma levels in BALF were higher in the TEN group than in the TPN group at 2 hours. Systemic cytokine responses were disturbed in the TPN group. Production of systemic TNF was greater, but the IFN-gamma response was diminished in the TPN group compared with the TEN group after intraperitoneal bacterial challenge. CONCLUSION: Local, systemic, and remote organ (lung) immune responses to intraperitoneal bacterial challenge are suppressed in TPN-treated animals, leading to poor survival after challenge. Enteral nutrition before surgical insult may enhance host immune responses after the insult as compared to parenteral nutrition.