Exercise, Healthy Diet Can Give Your Immune System a Boost

Athletes show you can improve your gut bacteria

Diet and Exercise

Boosting your immune system may be as simple as getting more exercise and eating healthier food.

Advertising Policy

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

Increased exercise combined with proper nutrition can have a positive impact on the diverse range of beneficial microorganism that naturally inhabit your intestine, a recent study published in the journal Gut says. That in turn helps your immune system.

The study  compared microorganisms, called gut microbiota, in the intestines of 40 professional Irish rugby players to those in a group of people matched by age, gender and — for half of the subjects —  body mass index.

Results showed the athletes’ higher amounts of exercise from training and playing rugby plus their enhanced diet created greater biodiversity in the microbiota, or beneficial bacteria, in their intestines.

“They found that the rugby players had a more diverse gut microbiota than the control group,” says dietitia and researcher Gail Cresci, PhD, RD. “They also considered the fact that their diet differed, as well, because they ate a lot more calories and significantly more protein, which you would expect from someone who was an elite athlete.”

[Tweet “Increased exercise, nutritious diet help improve the good bacteria in your intestines for a healthier #immune system”]

The increased protein intake, she adds, also correlates positively with gut biodiversity.

Advertising Policy

The study was the first to report that exercise increases the richness and diversity of gut microbiota. It also underscores the importance of exercise’s role in the complex relationship among your body, your immune system and the microbiota.

Why is gut microbiota so important?

Humans have trillions of bacteria in their intestines that do good things, such as enhance the immune system.

“We’re finding out more and more about our gut microbiota,” Dr. Cresci says. “This study supports what a lot of other studies have shown, that while gut microbiota composition is fairly stable, there are certain things that can alter it.”

For example, Dr. Cresci says, taking antibiotics destroys pathogenic bacteria, but the drugs also deplete the good bacteria in your gut.

“The composition also can change as you age or if you make changes in your diet,” Dr. Cresci says.

Another recent discovery indicates that the microbiota also make a byproduct known as TMA from choline/phosphatidylcholine  in the diet.

Advertising Policy

Choline and phosphatidylcholine are found in diets high in animal products such as eggs, milk and red meat. If the TMA in the blood changes to TMAO, that can serve as a warning. TMAO is a biomarker linked to cardiovascular disease.

In the study’s results, the athletes had lower levels of inflammatory markers – indications of internal inflammation that can cause heart or vascular damage, for example – than any of the men in the comparison group.

How diet can impact our gut microbiota

If you eat properly, you and microbiota can have a symbiotic relationship, since as you feed yourself, you feed the gut microbiota. Our gut microbiota use the food that we can’t digest, such as soluble fermentable fiber, as an energy source. They ferment that material to produce other fermentation byproducts that are beneficial to us, including essential vitamins and short-chain fatty acids.

The reverse happens, though, when you don’t eat nutritious foods. Then the microbiota can ferment byproducts that are not beneficial to us as the host.

“We’re seeing an association with alterations in the gut microbiota in different disease states and chronic diseases,” Dr. Cresci says. “So that’s why it’s important for you to try to maintain healthy gut microbiota, because it does make things for us that we need every day.”