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Sports Med. 1994 Nov;18(5):340-69.

Exercise and the immune system. Natural killer cells, interleukins and related responses.

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School of Physical and Health Education, University of Toronto, Canada.


The main methods for the evaluation of natural killer (NK, CD16+ CD56+) cells, interleukins and related subsets of lymphocytes are briefly described. Moderate endurance exercise causes either no change or an increase in lymphocyte and NK cell counts, total T cell (CD3+) count, the ratio of T helper (CD3+ CD4+) to T suppressor (CD3+ CD8+) cells, mitogen-induced lymphocyte proliferation, serum immunoglobulin levels and in vitro immunoglobulin production. Plasma levels of interleukin-1 increase but interleukin-2 (IL-2) levels generally fall. Decreases in plasma IL-2 levels reflect increased expression of beta (CD122) receptors for IL-2, and thus increased binding of IL-2, changes in cell distribution or a lesser production of IL-2 by peripheral blood mononuclear cells. Exercise to exhaustion induces adverse changes in many of these indices of immune function, particularly if the physical activity is accompanied by psychological or environmental stress. Moderate, appropriately graded training reduces the adverse reactions initially associated with a given bout of exhausting exercise, and cross-sectional comparisons show an increased expression of beta IL-2 receptors on the peripheral blood mononuclear cells of trained individuals. However, excessive training, nutrient deficiency and/or muscle damage has adverse consequences for both the production of interleukins and the response of the immune system to these cytokines.

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