The buzz words these days when it comes to metabolic disease prevention are “antioxidant status” and “inflammation.” We extoll the possible benefits of taking antioxidant supplements like vitamin E and alpha-lipoic acid to prevent cardiovascular, eye, and other diseases. We continually hear about how natural antioxidants found in foods and drinks — like resveratrol in red wine — may slow aging and reduce inflammation, thereby helping to prevent the development of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and other diseases. What we hardly ever talk or hear about, though, is the anti-inflammatory effects of physical activity and how exercise naturally boosts antioxidant enzyme status in our bodies.
Just to give you an example of how beneficial exercise is in this regard (albeit a bit of an extreme one), a research study published in the Journal of Sports Science was conducted by Serrano and colleagues to examine the antioxidant defenses and inflammatory responses in professional road cyclists during a four4-day competition. You may be wondering what professional cyclists have in common with most people with diabetes. The connection is that athletic competitions (and overtraining) can increase the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines and potentially be harmful, and so can poorly managed blood glucose levels.
Cycling competitions represent an important physical overload even for well-trained individuals, the consequence being that they may actually be doing themselves some harm if the resulting inflammatory cytokines cannot be managed by the body. In the research under discussion, six professional cyclists were studied to determine the adaptive oxidative and anti-inflammatory response to a four-day road cycling competition and its relationship with melatonin, an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory stress hormone. We usually associate melatonin with sleep and may take supplements of it to combat jet lag, but it is actually a powerful and effective antioxidant, although its effects in that regard have not yet been well studied in humans and particularly not in people with diabetes. Melatonin levels are actually low in many people with type 2 diabetes, though.
For the study, the researchers collected blood and urine samples before and after the competition, which they used to determine lipid peroxidation, cytokines (e.g., interleukin-1-beta, interleukin-6, and tumor necrosis factor-alpha), creatine kinase, melatonin, glutathione in RBCs, and glutathione peroxidase and reductase activity. They reported that lipid peroxidation increased after the competition, along with interleukin-6 (by 216%) and TNF-alpha (by 159%). Plasma melatonin levels were also enhanced by the competition. They concluded that professional cyclists display an adaptative response to the physical overload in competitions for which they are trained, meaning that they are able to more efficiently regulate intracellular oxidative stress and prevent an exaggerated pro-inflammatory cytokines induction, with melatonin playing a modulator role.
I could give you a lot of other examples of how exercise training improves antioxidant status and lowers systemic inflammation, but this example is good because if any athlete could possibly have a negative response to exercise training, circumstances like a four-day competition could provoke it. Although the studies in people with diabetes are lacking, I am positive that they, too, would show that physical activity reduces inflammation in diabetes and lowers risk for cardiovascular and other metabolic diseases naturally.
Why, then, are we so focused on trying to boost antioxidant status with supplements, special foods (like acai berries), or prescribed medications? Maybe it’s time to change our thinking about how we can most effectively reduce levels of systemic inflammation without any negative side-effects and look once again at the voluminous benefits offered in that regard by regular physical activity. Let’s use exercise as medicine whenever possible instead!