Yoga & Immune System Functioning
Updated: Feb 8
Increasingly, Yoga is recognised as having health benefits in clinical (hospitals, clinics, outpatient facilities etc.) and non-clinical (supportive, non-diagnostic or treatment) settings. We looked at research that investigated whether there was a real effect of Yoga on immune system functioning, and real effect in this context means and effect that can be established through "randomised controlled trials". Randomised controlled trials seek to reduce certain sources of bias when testing the effectiveness of new treatments; this is accomplished by randomly allocating subjects to two or more groups, treating them differently, and then comparing them with respect to a measured response. One group—the experimental group—has the intervention being assessed, while the other—usually called the control group—has an alternative condition, such as a placebo or no intervention. The groups are followed under conditions of the trial design to see how effective the experimental intervention was. Why is this important? It's important as in a world of websites with fake news, vague sources and hazy research we need to rely on facts. Scientific research can give us facts better than anything else, there is black and white, and we can interpret black and white as such. The validity of those facts increase if scientific experiments are repeated under the same conditions, and the results stay the same. An example: At standard atmospheric pressure, water boils at approximately 100 degrees Celsius. Every single time. It's a scientific fact.
So, back to Yoga and the question, is there scientific evidence that Yoga has an impact on our immune system functioning, and what is that impact.
In 2018, Ruth Falkenberg and her team, a researcher at the University of Vienna, set out to find many pieces of scientific research that would look at these questions. They found 15 trials that they could compare and this is what they found sound scientific evidence for:
Yoga can downregulate pro-inflammatory markers
Yoga increases levels of anti-inflammatory agents
Yoga can mediate inflammation
Yoga practice can enhance cell-mediated and mucosal immunity
Longer time spans of Yoga practice are required to achieve consistent effects on circulating inflammatory markers
Whilst we are currently experiencing an unprecedented wave of uncertainty and even fear due to a new virus posing a risk to our health, the following advice on staying well is true at any time, and in particular during the winter months, the flu & cold season and of course, this recent corona virus outbreak:
Develop or keep a healthy lifestyle and good nutrition at the top of your "be well agenda". This means eating healthily, less fat, less processed food, less sugar, less alcohol. Stop smoking, too.
Adequate hydration is key. Your urine should be light in colour. Being adequately hydrated means that any viral load already in your body is literally diluted, lessened and of course flushed out. So the GP telling you to rest and drink plenty is absolutely the correct advice. Flush the buggers out!
Exercise is vital to our health and wellbeing. If you cannot make it to the gym, or, as the case may be, the gym is closed for the time being, go for a walk, get your heart rate up, even walking up and down the stairs is better than nothing and of course yoga is so good for you physically, but also mentally. If you are shying away from group classes, ask for private, or small group classes in a studio that you can trust to be on top of hygiene requirements during the flu season. Don't forget the more meditative practices. This is a very stressful time at the moment and many of us feel a sense of overwhelm. Meditation is a truly powerful way to offset this stress and manage your stress response. Similarly, Restorative Yoga works to switch on your parasympathetic nervous system and down regulate your stress levels. This can be a game changer during stressful times.
Get enough sleep. Sleep hygiene is important (reading about yet more danger and fear before you hit the pillow will decrease your sleep quality with some certainty). Also a Yoga Nidra practice can be very beneficial before you head off to sleep.
Hygiene has to be on top of your "be well agenda". Follow the official advice on hand washing, cleaning, staying home when unwell, as well as avoiding large gatherings of people will go a long way in keeping you healthy - and if or when you get ill, you will have a strong immune system ready to combat the attack with some probability!
New Research On How Yoga Boosts Your Immune System, Psychology Today, 2018: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/urban-survival/201802/new-research-how-yoga-boosts-your-immune-system
Falkenberg, R.I., Eising, C. & Peters, M.L. Yoga and immune system functioning: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. J Behav Med 41, 467–482 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10865-018-9914-y
(Unwind Yoga Studio is located in Cookham, Maidenhead, in Berkshire)