Yoga is a wonderful discipline. It stretches and strengthens the body, calms and focuses the mind and centers the spirit. And the benefits don’t end there. When practiced consistently, yoga boosts cardiovascular health, brings down stress and improves overall mood. Several studies have demonstrated that yoga can help control depression and boost immunity.
The more we learn about yoga, the more impressive its effects. But for the most part, we have not understood the biological mechanisms that generate these benefits. How is yoga influencing our cells to make our bodies respond so favorably?
Answers are coming from new genetic investigations. A recent study from researchers in Norway may be pinpointing one of the ways that yoga strengthens the immune system. The scientists wanted to know if genes in immune cells were expressed differently in yoga practitioners. In other words, does the practice of yoga turn specific genes on or off?
To test this, the research team visited a yoga retreat and compared gene expression when participants were practicing yoga and when they were performing other activities, such as walking in nature or listening to calming music. The genetic tests showed that the practice of yoga changed expression in 111 genes, as opposed to 38 genes in the control group. Even more importantly, this was not a delayed reaction; the genetic changes happened during yoga practice.
Intuitively, we suspect that these genetic changes are having a beneficial impact on the immune response. This would dovetail with other studies that have shown that yoga does indeed benefit immunity. For example, one of the genes being activated (AVIL) may play a role in boosting natural killer cells, part of our first line of defense against foreign invaders. Still, more research must be conducted to determine precisely what these gene changes are doing within immune cells.
The Norwegian study is just one more piece of evidence supporting yoga’s overall health benefits, and the list is long. Because yoga and other mind-body exercises, such as tai chi and qigong, focus on breathing, they boost overall cellular health. For example, studies have also shown that yoga benefits mitochondria, the tiny power plants that energize our cells. As a result, practitioners tend to feel energized after yoga, rather than depleted.
Though yoga has its own unique benefits, it’s also important to note that virtually any exercise can bring powerful benefits. Yes, a moderate workout regimen will improve cardiovascular health; but it goes far beyond that. A number of studies have shown that regular exercise improves brainpower, slowing cognitive decline in the elderly and even increasing brain size.
Even with this new evidence supporting yoga’s effects on immune health, the practice is not an isolated activity, but rather part of an overall health plan for longevity. Another key component is diet. Focus on lean protein; organic nuts, seeds and whole grains; healthy cold pressed oils; filtered water; and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. In particular, feast on cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower and kale. These nutrient-dense foods are broken down into a compound called DIM, which benefits both immunity and hormone metabolism.
Another great immune-boosting food is mushrooms. There are a wide variety of medicinal mushrooms, but even more commonplace varieties such as shiitake and oyster, provide significant health benefits. Mushrooms are ideal because they do more than boost the immune system; they actually optimize it. The beta glucans in mushroom cell walls and other active components in the mushrooms seem to train immune cells to function optimally, neither underreacting nor overreacting. That means they are helpful not just for people with reduced immunity, but also for people with autoimmune issues.
For more information about targeted immune solutions, download a copy of my free immune health guide to learn more.
As an integrative practitioner, there is nothing more gratifying than seeing modern science reinforce what people have known for thousands of years. In this case, it’s yoga. But continuing research is showing the health benefits of whole unprocessed foods, meditation and mind-body practices, acupuncture, botanical supplements, and so many other complementary approaches. The message is clear: Ancient wisdom leads to remarkable benefits for our modern lifestyles.
For more health and wellness information, visit www.dreliaz.org.