Sickle cell disease (SCD) is an inherited condition that causes red blood cells to sometimes deform into a crescent shape. It affects an estimated 100,000 Americans, typically those of African descent.

However, doctors say far more people have sickle cell trait (SCT), caused when individuals carry just a single copy of the disease-causing mutation in their genes. Rather than all their red blood cells being affected, those with SCT carry a mix of affected red blood cells and normal ones.

Previously, researchers and physicians had assumed that those with SCT didn't have anything to worry about, that they were immune from the increased burden of sickness and death that those with SCD carry.

However, they may not be the case. Recent research suggests that the same problems that follow SCD patients at an increased rate also affect those with SCT to a lesser extent.

Oxidative stress

The problem is oxidative stress, a condition in which free radicals overwhelm the body’s natural antioxidants.

In healthy individuals, oxidative stress has been linked with conditions including cancer, heart disease, and simply aging; in sickle cell disease patients, oxidative stress is thought to play a role in causing the inflammation, problem with the linings of blood vessels, and blood cell blockages that cause complications from this disease.

French researchers now say regular exercise may be an effective way to minimize these adverse effects. Scientists have long known that exercise increases the level of antioxidants present in the body, defending against oxidative stress.

Regular exercise is the key

In a new study, researchers compare the effects of exhaustive exercise on people with SCT who exercise regularly with those who don’t. They found that training regularly seems to offset the burden of exhaustive exercise by lowering the levels of molecules associated with oxidative stress, increasing antioxidant molecules, and increasing nitric oxide, a molecule important for opening blood vessels which could play a role in preventing the blood vessel occlusion that sometimes occurs in SCD and SCT.

“We think that regular physical exercise that’s controlled by a physician and performed at low intensity could be a strategy to limit the disease burden in SCD patients,” said Dr. Vincent Pialoux, of the University of Lyon.

He and his colleagues are currently testing this strategy in animal models of the disease, with plans to eventually test human subjects.

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