There is a huge interest in research to discover what athletes can do to help recover quicker after intense exercise, and now, according to DR Jonathan Peake and Dr. Oliver Neubauer from the QUT’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, the best way to avoid unfavorable changes in the immune system post-workout is to supplement with carbohydrates during, or immediately after, exercise.

Their paper, which was published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, states their findings that among various nutritional strategies to counteract negative immune responses to exercise, carbohydrates have proven to be the most effective. Dr. Peake says, “Ingesting carbohydrates during vigorous exercise may help because carbohydrates maintain blood sugar levels.

Having stable blood sugar levels reduces the body’s stress response, which in turn, moderates any undesirable mobilisation of immune cells. However, more research is warranted to verify that this also helps to prevent infections and illnesses.” Dr. Peake believes that exercises can either increase or decrease the number of immune cells in the blood but that studies did not support the long-held belief that exercising regularly without allowing sufficient time for the immune system to return to normal increased the risk of a weakened immune system. “People often have fewer natural killer white blood cells after a workout but we now believe they move to other parts of the body, rather than being destroyed.

Exercise is a form of stress and more vigorous exercise creates more physiological stress which causes physiological and biochemical changes in the body. To tackle the potential threats these changes highlight, the immune cells may simply move out of the bloodstream to the lungs, for example. This still leaves our bodies vulnerable to infections and, generally speaking, the more strenuous the exercise, the longer it takes for the immune system to return to normal” says Dr. Peake.

“Epidemiological evidence suggests that regular moderate exercise protects against upper respiratory illnesses, like the common cold, whereas regular intense exercise increases the risk of upper respiratory illnesses.”

According to Dr. Neubauer, research suggests that most people only need carbohydrate supplementation during high-intensity or prolonged exercise which is 90 minutes in duration or longer. Dr. Neubauer says, “The consumption of carbohydrates before and during strenuous exercise not only improves endurance performance, but it can also minimise exercise-related immune disturbances.”

He says that 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour of exercise are optimal to support immune function. The best sources of supplemental carbohydrates include fluids, gels, and bars which contain dextrose, maltodextrin or highly-branched cyclic dextrin. The best food alternative is bananas. The researchers say that consuming carbohydrates within the first few hours after intense exercise will also aid in the restoration of the immune system. For individuals and athletes who train within short succession, post-workout carbohydrate intake is extremely important if they are to maintain optimal immune function and performance.


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