Sports Medicine

, Volume 33, Issue 5, pp 347–364

Overtraining, Excessive Exercise, and Altered Immunity

Is This a T Helper-1 Versus T Helper-2 Lymphocyte Response?
Review Article

DOI: 10.2165/00007256-200333050-00002

Cite this article as:
Smith, L.L. Sports Med (2003) 33: 347. doi:10.2165/00007256-200333050-00002


Overtraining syndrome (OTS) occurs where an athlete is training vigorously, yet performance deteriorates. One sign of OTS is suppressed immune function, with an increased incidence of upper respiratory tract infection (URTI). An increased incidence of URTIs is also associated with high volume/intensity training, as well as with excessive exercise (EE), such as a marathon, manifesting between 3–72 hours post-race. Presently, there is no encompassing theory to explain EE and altered immune competence. Recently, it has been conclusively established that T helper lymphocytes (TH), a crucial aspect of immune function, represent two distinct functional subsets: TH1 and TH2 lymphocytes. TH1 lymphocytes are associated with cell-mediated immunity (CMI) and the killing of intracellular pathogens, while TH2 lymphocytes are associated with humoral immunity and antibody production. When TH-precursor cells are activated, the balance is tipped in favour of one or the other. Furthermore, the most appropriate means of determining the TH-subset, is by the prevailing cytokine ‘pattern’. This paper hypothesises that exercise-related immunosuppression is due to tissue trauma sustained during intense exercise, producing cytokines, which drive the development of a TH2 lymphocyte profile. A TH2 cell response results in simultaneous suppression of CMI, rendering the athlete susceptible to infection. Additionally, increased levels of circulating stress hormones (cortisol and catecholamines), as well as prostaglandin E2, support up-regulation of TH2 lymphocytes. Marathon-related data are presented to support this hypothesis. It is concluded that an increased incidence of illness associated with OTS and in response to EE is not due to immunosuppression per se, but rather to an altered focus of immune function, with an up-regulation of humoral immunity and suppression of CMI.

Copyright information

© Adis Data Information BV 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Sport and Physical Rehabilitation SciencesTechnikon PretoriaPretoria, 0001, GautengSouth Africa

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