Integrative Nutrition Blog

Insights on Autoimmune Health and Inflammatory Conditions

The Exercise and Inflammation Connection

Sep 21, 2022 | All

Did you know that exercise can actually reduce inflammation? Moving your body every day is a great way to feel better and improve your mood. In addition to those benefits, you can reduce your chronic inflammation with exercise. One of the best side effects of exercise is how it impacts inflammation. Why is this important? Because chronic inflammation affects or even causes almost every autoimmune disease. In fact, underlying symptoms of autoimmune diseases improve when we minimize inflammation and oxidative stress. However, too much exercise can actually increase inflammation. If you overdo it, you may end up making your disease worse. I’m breaking down the science behind exercise, it’s anti-inflammatory properties, and why moderate exercise is important.

Exercise Influences Helper T Cell Balance

Helper T cells are an essential part of our adaptive (or acquired) immune system. These cells activate other cells to produce antibodies, attack invaders and infections. There are 2 types of helper T cells – Th1 and Th2. Each of these types of cells release different chemical messengers (called cytokines) that perform a specific immune function.

Th1 and Th2 cells are balanced for most people. However, in autoimmune conditions, there is an imbalance where one type of helper T cell is dominant. Check out this blog post for more detail about these cells and autoimmune diseases.

Now, how does this tie into exercise? Exercise can actually help shift the helper T cell balance to lower Th1 production. This is especially helpful for Th1 dominant diseases including multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease and rheumatoid arthritis. However, if you have a Th2 dominant disease like systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) or Sjogren’s syndrome, exercise can still provide many benefits.

Muscles Release Anti-Inflammatory Compounds

Exercise causes muscles to contract. Contracting muscles release interleukin 6 (IL-6). IL-6 is both an inflammatory cytokine and an anti-inflammatory messenger. However, the IL-6 released during exercise helps reduce inflammation. These anti-inflammatory benefits work for moderate exercise. When exercise becomes more prolonged and intense, IL-6 stimulates cortisol production. Cortisol is our stress hormone, so more cortisol puts more stress on the body.

Exercise Can Lower Oxidative Stress

Oxidative stress refers to the imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants in the body. Free radicals are these nasty little particles that float around in the body and damage cells, tissues and organs. Antioxidants capture these free radicals and stop them from harming our body. Our bodies get stressed when there are more free radicals than antioxidants. This is called oxidative stress. Low to moderate levels of exercise can actually lower oxidative stress. In a 2013 study of elderly people, simply walking 30-60 minutes twice a week lowered oxidative stress levels.

But…Too Much Exercise Is Not Good

Exercise at low to moderate levels is great for our bodies and minds. But, when it starts to get to an intense level and for an extended period of time, that is where things start to break down.

A review from 2017 found that exercise for 2+ hours at 60% of VO2 max (maximum amount of oxygen a person can use during intense exercise) is when things start going in the red. Exercise at this intensity and duration redirects the blood flowing to the intestines to the muscles, heart and lungs where it is needed the most. The redirection of bloodflow injures the intestinal cells. It also weakens the tight junctions in between the cells, triggering a leaky gut. With the intestine now more permeable, lipopolysaccharides (LPS), which are inflammatory endotoxins, can pass through and enter into circulation, causing more inflammation.

Exercise can also increase the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) which can also increase intestinal permeability. In Addition, prolonged and/or intense exercise can increase inflammatory cytokines. Based on one review study, TNF-alpha was elevated after longer and intense exercise sessions (over 1 hour) and IL-6 and Il-1B increase with intense exercise.

Key Takeaways: Moderate Exercise with Recovery

Exercise can either reduce or increase inflammation, depending on the intensity and duration. Now, are you someone who needs a little help motivating yourself to move? My advice is to start off slow. Try walking for 10 minutes a day, or simply park your car far away from the entrance when you are running errands to fit in those extra steps. Once you start building a solid base, you can go up from there. It just takes a little patience, planning and effort. If you are an avid exerciser, recovery is KEY to managing inflammation. Take those days off, rotate your exercise and intensity, and take a break when your body is telling you to do so.

If you need more help getting into an exercise routine, cutting back on exercise or managing inflammation, please reach out to me to discuss your goals. You can also follow me on Instagram and Facebook for ideas on managing your inflammation with both food and lifestyle.

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