Oats and Inflammation

Exercise can cause significant changes within immune system cells. Studies have shown, in particular, that moderate exercise can increase neutrophil activity and vigorous exercise can suppress neutrophil activity.

Neutrophils play an important role in inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis. An exaggerated neutrophil response results in them being the predominant cell in the synovial fluid of joints with active rheumatoid arthritis. Even when the disease is quiet, neutrophils remain in an activated state.

Various nutrition and supplement strategies have been employed to regulate these immune system changes. β-glucans – a carbohydrate derived from the cell walls of yeast, fungi, algae and oats – have been shown in studies to enhance immune system activity.

What Problem Was Studied?

A team of researchers from University of South Carolina in Columbia – including Arthritis Foundation-funded scientist Adrienne S. Brown, PhD – sought to determine the effect of oat β-glucan on neutrophil activity after repeated days of moderate or vigorous exercise. This particular study was focused on exercise effects on neutrophils with the ultimate goal of learning to preserve the body’s ability to fight off infection during intense exercise training and competition. However, what was learned in this experiment can add to our knowledge of arthritis and inflammation and how exercise and nutrients may effect the disease.

What Was Done in the Study?

Mice were randomly assigned to one of six groups: exercise to fatigue with water; exercise to fatigue with oat β-glucan; moderate exercise with water; moderate exercise with oat β-glucan; control with water; control with oat β-glucan. The amount of oat β-glucan the mice received per day was roughly equal to a person eating three bowls of instant oatmeal per day.

Exercise to fatigue was accomplished by running the mice on a treadmill until they were unable to maintain pace. Moderate exercise was accomplished by running the mice on a treadmill for one-hour each day. After six days, the mice were injected with a chemical that acted as an inflammatory stimulus and initiated a neutrophil response. The number and activity of the neutrophils found in the area of the
injection were then measured.

What Were the Study Results?

The researchers found fatiguing exercise increased the number of neutrophils mobilized, but it did not increase the activity of those neutrophils. Moderate exercise increased the function of neutrophils, but not the number. Oat β-glucan increased both the number and activity of neutrophils, but the increase was not enhanced by the addition of exercise (neither moderate nor fatiguing). These results indicate that taking oat β-glucan may help preserve the body’s ability to fight off infection during intense physical training.

What Does this Mean for People with Arthritis?

The actions of neutrophils make these cells key players in the inflammatory response in rheumatic diseases. It is known that stress can affect the severity of rheumatoid arthritis. By examining components of the inflammatory response, such as neutrophil function, and using a quantifiable stressor, such as exercise stress, scientists can begin to better understand the roles of neutrophils in inflammation.

Studies suggest that, in general, exercise in people with arthritis increases joint range of motion and muscle function without harmful effects on disease severity. This study suggests that – in an animal model – short-term exercise stress does effect neutrophil number/function. However, Adrienne Brown warns that future studies are needed to examine the mechanisms associated with these changes, including how moderate, intense, and long-term exercise effect neutrophils. She concludes, “Successful elucidation of these mechanisms may suggest novel strategies to control the inflammatory process during rheumatoid arthritis and reduce symptom severity experienced by patients with chronic rheumatic disease.”

Murphy EA, Davis JM, Brown AS, et al. Oat β-glucan effects on neutrophil respiratory burst activity following exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2007;39:639-44.

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