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Endurance Exercise Stress and Immunosupression Response

Updated on February 5, 2013

Immunosuppression in Sport

Immunosuppression and immunodeficiency disorders inhibit the effectiveness of the immune system. Generally when the immune system detects an antigen (Examples of antigens include bacteria, viruses, toxins, as well as foreign blood or tissues from another human or other being) it will produce antibodies to destroy the antigen.

The immune system is made up of the lymphoid tissues which includes, lymph nodes, thymus, the tonsils, and parts of the spleen and gastrointestinal tract as well as the lymph nodes.

Immune System Suppression and Sport

Immune System Suppression due to Endurance Exercise
Immune System Suppression due to Endurance Exercise | Source

Endurance Exercise related Immunosuppressants

  • Physical Stress
  • Environmental Stress
  • Psychological Stress
  • Nutritional Stress


Physical Stress from Exercise

Physical stress from exercise relates to an athlete's management of their training load. Therefore an athletes response to training stresses such as performance, muscle soreness and perception of exercise effort need to be monitored on a regular basis.

Many factors can increase stress hormone response to exercise and therefore have an influence on immunosuppression including

  • Fasting/ inappropriate diet
  • low glycogen stores
  • dehydration
  • sleep deprivation
  • Effect of altitude (hypoxia)
  • Jet Lag
  • Psychological stress
  • Extremes of heat/ cold
  • Weather conditions.

Athletes must manage their training load to balance exercise and recovery to reduce the impact of these factors to a minimum. Therefore it is essential for athletes to periodize their training load.

Environmental Stress

Cold and altitude environmental stress can lead to immunosuppression.
Cold and altitude environmental stress can lead to immunosuppression. | Source

Environmental Stress from Exercise

Athletes are often required to compete in various different environmental extremes- often within the same training session or event!. Environmental extremes can range from;

Environmental Stress from Exercise: Temperature (Hot and Cold)

Exercise performed in extremes of temperature can cause increased immunosuppression when compared to temperate climates.

Temperatures over 30 degrees celsius can be associated with increased adrenaline and cortisol responses.

Environmental stress from exercise due to severe cold causes reduced immune system response by impairing mucus membrane defenses and reduced IgA secretion. Also increased mouth breathing bypasses the warming effect of the nasal passages and exposes the tracheal mucosa to severe cold conditions as well as increased levels of airborne pathogens.

Environmental Stress from Exercise: Altitude

Raises in altitude cause increased plasma cortisol levels and is associated with impaired immune response at high altitude. This may be due to factors including hypoxia, acute mountain sickness, travel and living conditions leading to increased immunosuppression.

Psychological Stress from Exercise

Psychological stress from exercise and life events generally can result in immunosuppression and increased incidence of infection

Athletes face added psychological stress from competition, team pressures, potential commercial pressures, travel, funding as well as majot life events they may face such as family bereavements.

Nutritional Stress from Exercise

Nutrient deficiency can have a severely negative effect on general health and sporting performance depending on duration of the nutritional stress. Mild deficiency of a single nutrient can result in a negative immune response.

Exercise after several days on a low carbohydrate diet has been previously proven to raise stress hormones and increase immunosuppression post exercise. Carbohydrate in isotonic and hypertonic drinks has been shown to increase the rate of fluid uptake during exercise leading to greater hydration levels and warding off dehydration which can also lead to immunosuppression.

Inadequate protein intake also lowers immune system response due to impairing the body's ability to repair itself leading to immunosuppression.

Excessive intake of some nutrients can also have the potential to cause a negative immune system response

  • Vitamin E
  • Iron
  • Zinc
  • Omega-3 polyunsaturated acids

How Can you minimize your risk of immunosuppression? Click the below link to read more.

Minimizing The Risk Of Immunosuppression In Endurance Athletes

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