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Med Hypotheses. 2015 Dec;85(6):882-6. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2015.09.018. Epub 2015 Sep 16.

My gut feeling says rest: Increased intestinal permeability contributes to chronic diseases in high-intensity exercisers.

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Department of Physiology, Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, MI 48201, United States.
Department of Physiology, Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, MI 48201, United States. Electronic address:


Chronic diseases are the leading cause of death and disability worldwide, and many of these conditions are linked to chronic inflammation. One potential cause of chronic inflammation is an increased intestinal epithelial permeability. Recent studies have demonstrated that parasympathetic stimulation via the efferent abdominal vagus nerve increases the expression and proper localization of tight junction proteins and decreases intestinal epithelial permeability. This finding may provide a novel approach for treating and preventing many chronic conditions. Importantly, physical activity is associated with increased resting parasympathetic (vagal) activity and lower risk of chronic diseases. However, high intensity long duration exercise can be harmful to overall health. Specifically, individuals who frequently exercise strenuously and for longer time intervals have the same mortality rates as sedentary individuals. This may be explained, in part, by longer periods of reduced vagal activity as vagal activity is markedly reduced both during and after intense exercise. We hypothesize that one mechanism by which exercise provides its health benefits is by increasing resting vagal activity and decreasing intestinal epithelial permeability, thus decreasing chronic inflammation. Additionally, we hypothesize that long periods of reduced vagal activity in individuals who exercise at high intensities and for longer durations, decrease the integrity of the intestinal barrier, putting them at greater risk of chronic inflammation and a host of chronic diseases. Thus, this hypothesis provides a conceptual link between the well-established benefits of frequent exercise and the paradoxical deleterious effects of prolonged, high-intensity exercise without adequate rest.

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