A study of firefighters on a punishing training course has revealed clues as to why extreme exercise temporarily weakens the immune system – a phenomenon seen in elite athletes. The findings, published in Military Medical Research, may lead to better ways to support the health of people who undergo extreme exertion, such as firefighters tackling wildfires.
Thirteen firefighters volunteered for the study, average age 25 and male. They went through a rigorous training exercise, carrying 9 to 20kg of gear over hilly terrain during a 45-minute training exercise in the California sun. Gloves, helmets, flashlights, goggles, and more weighted them down as they sprinted through the countryside wearing fire-resistant clothing to show they were ready to serve as wildland firefighters.
After the training, they immediately gave samples of their blood, saliva, and urine for analysis. Two were excluded, one being unable to finish the course and the other arriving to late to provide a sample. The 11 participants who completed the course lost an average of 2.2% of their initial weight.
Then, the scientists from the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) analysed more than 4700 molecules, consisting of proteins, lipids, and metabolites, from each of the firefighters, looking to understand what happens when the body undergoes intense physical exercise. Measuring and interpreting the data from thousands of such measurements is a specialty of PNNL scientists who explore issues related to climate science and human health by analysing millions of sensitive measurements using mass spectrometry each year.
The researchers’ aim was to increase safety for first responders and others.
“Heat stress can be life threatening,” said Kristin Burnum-Johnson, a corresponding author of the study. “We wanted to take an in-depth look at what’s happening in the body and see if we’re able to detect danger from exhaustion in its earliest stages. Perhaps we can reduce the risk of strenuous exercise for first responders, athletes, and members of the military.”
As expected, the team detected hundreds of molecular changes in the firefighters. The differences before and after exercise underscored the body’s efforts at tissue damage and repair, maintenance of fluid balance, efforts to keep up with increased energy and oxygen demand, and the body’s attempts to repair and regenerate its proteins and other important substances.
But in the saliva, the team found some unexpected results. There was a change in the microbial mix of the mouth – the oral microbiome – showing that the body was increasingly on the lookout for bacterial invaders. Scientists also saw a decrease in signaling molecules important for inflammation and for fighting off viral infections.
A decrease in inflammation makes sense for people exercising vigorously; less inflammation allows people to breathe in air more quickly, meeting the body’s eager demand for more oxygen. Having fewer inflammatory signals in the respiratory system helps the body improve respiration and blood flow.
Less inflammation, more inhalation
But less inflammation leaves the body more vulnerable to viral respiratory infection, which other studies observed in elite athletes and others who exercise vigorously. Some studies have shown that a person is up to twice as likely to come down with a viral respiratory infection in the days after an especially energetic workout.
“People who are very fit might be more prone to viral respiratory infection immediately after vigorous exercise. Having less inflammatory activity to fight off an infection could be one cause,” said Ernesto Nakayasu, a corresponding author of the paper. He notes that the work provides a molecular basis for what clinicians have noticed in their patients who do strenuous workouts.
The team hopes that the findings will help explain why come people are more vulnerable to respiratory infection after a workout.