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Do carbs boost immune system recovery after exercise?

male athlete running up a flight of stairs


We all know that exercise is good for our health. Science has proven that moderate to intense exercise is good for our heart, muscles and bones. It boosts our immune system and is good for our mental health, slowing the ageing process and improving longevity.

But after a prolonged session of an intense workout, the body’s immune system gets strained causing extreme physiological stress. This stress opens up a window of immunodepression which is linked to a high risk of infections. Repeated sessions of intense workouts without sufficient recovery can greatly increase the risk of illness.

Scientific evidence shows that regular moderate exercise protects the body from upper respiratory diseases but regular intense physical workouts can increase the risk of upper respiratory diseases.

In a new study from the Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation at Queensland University of Technology in Australia, scientists studied the effect of exercise on the immune system and how to recover the effects of an intense workout, based on the review of existing studies on exercise and immunity.

Various nutritional strategies are usually used to counteract immune depressions and taking carbohydrates has proved to be effective.

The analysis confirmed that in the post recovery stage after an intense exercise session there is a brief period of immune depression and that repeated periods of intense physical activity can cause a risk of illness to the body.

The research also points out that except for salivary Immunoglobulin A (IgA), there are no clear and consistent markers to indicate immunodepression.

Exercise increases levels of circulating neutrophil and monocytes and reduces the levels of circulating lymphocytes during recovery.

The research lead also explains that people have fewer natural killer white cells after a workout, which was thought to be destroyed by exercise. But now scientists say that they move to another part of the body.

Exercise is a form of stress and an intense session of physical activity causes many biological and physiological changes. This leaves the body vulnerable to infections with longer workout sessions taking longer for the immune system to return back to normal.

To combat these changes in the body after exercise white blood cells or immune cells move out of the blood stream into another part of the body.

The relocation of immune cells caused by changes in the immune function was noticed by assessing isolated cells ex vivo and in the blood. There is some evidence pointing to the same results in vitro, but the researchers warn that more evidence is required to verify this.

The research review showed that the most effective way of combating exercise-induced immunodepression is by consuming carbohydrates which helps the body recover.

This is particularly beneficial to people undertaking high intensity workouts of over 90 minutes.

About 50 to 60 grams of carbohydrates very hour during exercise helps to support the immune system.

Consuming carbohydrates during exercise helps, because carbs stabilize the body’s blood sugar levels. This reduces the body’s stress response and moderates undesirable movement of immune cells.

Various examples of carbohydrates that can be consumed during exercise are carbohydrate-containing fluids, gels and bars consisting of different carbohydrates such as glucose and fructose. Otherwise bananas are a good supplement of carbohydrates.

But before embarking on any nutritional strategies during strenuous exercise, it is good advice to consult with your healthcare professional.

Source: Journal of Applied Physiology


Meena Azzollini

Meena is passionate about holistic wellbeing, alternative healing, health and personal power and uses words to craft engaging feature articles to convey her knowledge and passion. She is a freelance writer and content creator from Adelaide, Australia, who draws inspiration from family, travel and her love for books and reading.

A yoga practitioner and a strong believer in positive thinking, Meena is also a mum to a very active young boy. In her spare time, she loves to read and whip up delicious meals. She also loves the smell of freshly made coffee and can’t ever resist a cheesecake. And she gets tickled pink by anything funny!