A new study has shown for the first time that exercise and protein intake can help guard against disease and boost the immune system by increasing the range of microbes in the gut.

The research, by the Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre at UCC and Teagasc, involved studying the gut bacteria of the Irish rugby team.

Diversity of gut microbes is increasingly being seen as important to health and defence against disease like obesity.

But until now the role of exercise in improving microbe diversity wasn't properly understood.

So scientists at the Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre enlisted the help of 40 members of the Irish rugby team in the run up to the last world cup.

They took samples of the team's gut microbes and compared them to the profile of the general public.

Their results, published in the international journal Gut, found microbes in the players guts were more diverse and more plentiful, due to high levels of exercise and, in particular, protein consumption by the athletes.

The researchers are now testing the impact of exercise on gut microbes in amateur athletes, to see how much of the effect is due to exercise and how much is down to dietary change.