Understanding athletes’ immune function to optimise performance

Dr Nic West

With the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games looming in 2018, a key concern for athletes will be how to prevent illness from interfering with their training and performance.

This is the focus of new research at Griffith University. Partnering with the Australian Institute of Sport to examine the effects of exercise on the immune system in order to help athletes compete at their best, the research team say that illness during competition can destroy years of effort and dedication.

“On average, highly trained athletes spend 8 to 12 years training to compete at their best,” says Professor David Pyne from Griffith’s Menzies Health Institute Queensland (MHIQ).

“Given the time, effort and financial considerations made by athletes, their coaches and support staff, there is a need to find ways to keep athletes healthy during heavy training, travel and competition.”

Susceptibility to illness

Professor Allan Cripps, a leading immunology researcher at MHIQ has worked with Professor Pyne and Dr Nic West in a bid to understand why athletes seem prone to illness during heavy training and competition.

“There is evidence that endurance exercise compromises immune function and increases illness in some athletes,” says Dr West. “Intensive exercise, particularly endurance exercise, such as triathlon, long distance swimming and ironman events, can be associated with exercise-induced immune suppression where the number and function of immune cells is decreased and their ability to respond to challenge is lowered.”

For the current study the research team is seeking highly trained male triathletes and iron men between the ages of 18-35 years who undertake 12 hours or more exercise per week.

Athletes will have their immune, gut microbiota and metabolic systems profiled and compared with non-athletes.

A significant benefit of the study is that participants will receive information regarding the status of their own immune function that can be used to tailor individual training programs.

The study is taking place at Griffith University’s Gold Coast campus. For further information please contact Dr Nic West at immunology-research@griffith.edu.au

“We hope that participation and knowledge gained from this study will help elite and non-elite athletes to attain their performance goals,” says Professor Pyne.