The aim of this study was to investigate whether or not the human immune system can be activated by a noninfectious stimulus, thereby improving the physiological status of the individual. The effect of a single cold water immersion (14° C for 1 h) on the immune system of athletic young men, monitored immediately after immersion, was minimal. With the continuation of the cold water immersions (three times a week for a duration of 6 weeks) a small, but significant, increase in the proportions of monocytes, lymphocytes with expressed IL2 receptors (CD25) and in plasma tumour necrosis factor alpha content was induced. An increase in the plasma concentrations of some acute phase proteins, such as haptoglobin and haemopexin, was also observed. After 6 weeks of repeated immersions a trend towards an increase in the plasma concentrations of IL6 and the amount of total T lymphocytes (CD3), T helper cells (CD4), T suppressor cells (CD8), activated T and B lymphocytes (HLA-DR) and a decrease in the plasma concentration of α1-antitrypsin was observed. Concentrations of IL1β, neopterin, C-reactive protein, orosomucoid, ceruloplasmin, macroglobulin, immunoglobulins (IgG, IgM, IgA) and C3, C4 components of the complement, as well as the total number of erythrocytes, leucocytes, granulocytes and neutrophils showed no significant changes after the repeated cold water immersions. It was concluded that the stress-inducing noninfectious stimuli, such as repeated cold water immersions, which increased metabolic rate due to shivering the elevated blood concentrations of catecholamines, activated the immune system to a slight extent. The biological significance of the changes observed remains to be elucidated.
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