It’s that time of year again — cold and flu season. Chances are, you are sick right now, or maybe you have already gotten sick this season and are hoping to prevent it from happening again, or perhaps you have been b-lining it out of the room whenever someone with a sniffle walks in, hoping to avoid it entirely. If not, you probably know someone who is or has been sick this season. Let’s get real — there’s no avoiding colds and flus this dark and chilly time of year.
But why is it called “cold and flu season,” anyway? What makes this particular season so outrageously contagious?
The answer lies in long hours, life on the go, poor diet, and lack of sleep, coupled with cooler weather. Increasingly, science is finding that lifestyle factors, not just environmental contagions are the cause of immune failures during the cooler months. Research indicates that the cold you caught may not have been from your child’s preschool class yesterday or the guy with the cough in the catty-corner cubicle, but may have actually been contracted months prior. Studies show that many bacteria and viruses can reside in their host dormant for extended periods of time, until the body’s homeostasis is compromised by cold, stress, inactivity, poor diet, or lack of sleep. When one or many of these elements shift the balance of the immune system, the dormant virus or bacteria summons itself and attacks while the body is compromised.
If this is so, then running for the door when the sniffling fellow enters might not be your best approach at staying healthy this winter. This information indicates that lifestyle habits, not simply avoidance of contagions is key to conquering the common cold or flu.
So what will be your secret weapon?
Why, its yoga of course! Any longtime yoga practitioner can attest to the immune-boosting effects of yoga.
Research shows that yoga helps reduce stress levels and nourishes the endocannabinoid, endocrine, and immune systems which help maintain our natural state of homeostatic bliss. Stress hormones such as cortisol can compromise the immune system, making us more vulnerable to disease, particularly in circumstances where highly acute stress or chronic stress are present (Pirsi, 2017). Yoga has been shown to decrease not only stress levels, but also levels of biological markers of stress such as inflammation and cortisol, helping to prevent weakening of the immune system as a response to stress (Lim & Cheong, 2015). This is likely due to the fact that yogic practices most likely inhibit the activity of the paraventricular nuclei of the hypothalamus, an area of the brain which is responsible for sending messages to the anterior pituitary gland to produce less adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) which is responsible for the regulation of levels of the steroid hormone cortisol. The decrease in ACTH reduces the amount of the synthesis of cortisol synthesized and released from the adrenal glands, resulting in an overall reduction of cortisol in the body. This decrease in cortisol levels with yoga has been observed and replicated in various studies, as has the beneficial effects of reduced levels of cortisol released into the body on the immune system (Arora, & Bhattacharjee 2008).
Not only does yoga protect the immune system in this way, it also helps to refine the function of the parasympathetic nervous system, helping reduce hyperactivity and to calm the body more efficiently. Yoga practice helps train the central nervous system, particularly brain structures, to regulate the stress response more consciously, giving us more control over how we respond to stressors by strengthening the neural pathways of the relaxation response and downregulating pathways related to the fight-or-flight response. (Arora, & Bhattacharjee 2008). Yoga practice initiates increased inhibition of the posterior, sympathetic (arousing area associated with fight-or-flight) area of the hypothalamus. This helps to restore the body’s unconscious regulatory reflex mechanisms, thus, optimizing the body’s sympathetic responses to stressful stimuli. In addition, some studies actually show not only down-regulation of the body’s natural stress-response system, but also increased activation of the body’s relaxation response system. Yogic practices inhibit the limbic system, brain areas responsible for fear, aggressiveness, and rage, while simultaneously stimulating the reward centers in the median forebrain and other areas, producing a state of bliss and pleasure. This results in lower anxiety, heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, and cardiac activity in yoga practitioners (Arora, & Bhattacharjee 2008) all of which support overall health and immune function.
Respiration and Circulation Rx
Yoga and particularly the practices of pranayama also help to support the immune system by improving respiratory function and helping to expel toxins from the lungs and potentially harmful germs from the body (Pirisi, 2017). Chest and heart opening poses such as camel pose also helps to increase lung mobility and open the lungs so that lingering toxins can be flushed out on the breath. Inversions and forward bending postures such as Downward Facing Dog improve the flow of the sinuses and help clear mucus, which often houses bacteria and viruses from the lungs (Arora, & Bhattacharjee 2008).
Breathwork practices also help to support immunity by bringing oxygenated blood to the various organs to ensure their health and ability to withstand disease (Pirisi, 2017). Yoga poses which involve twisting also help to clear toxins from the organs, wringing out the blood and allowing for a rush of freshly oxygenated blood to flood the twisting areas upon releasing the pose (Arora, & Bhattacharjee 2008).
Thymus Support and Immune Cell Production
Other poses enhance the immune system via improving thymus function, such as tortoise pose. The thymus gland is responsible for the production of Thymosin, which is the hormone responsible for the stimulation of the development of disease-fighting T-cells.
Additionally, many studies involving yogic practices and similar techniques have shown favorable results in immune-system mediated disorders, including cancer! One study on cancer patients revealed that the practices of pranayam and particularly Sudarshan Kriya, significantly increased the number of Natural Killer Cells at 12 and 24 weeks of the practice. Natural Killer cells are a type of white blood cells which are an important component of our innate immune system because they play the role of combating against viral infections and tumor growth. (Arora, & Bhattacharjee 2008).
C-reactive protein (CRP) is made by the liver and released into the blood to combat inflammation. Levels of CRP in the blood are measured in order to monitor the course of chronic conditions, as well as to detect inflammation due to acute conditions. Research shows that yoga practitioners have lower levels of CRP in their blood, indicating the body is fending off inflammation and disease with less effort. This is an additional factor indicating yoga supports optimal immune function (Morgan, N., Irwin, M. R., Chung, M., & Wang, 2014). This evidence indicates yoga practice may ward of illness by enhancing cell-mediated and mucosal immunity.
Additionally, research shows a general pattern of results suggesting that yoga can downregulate pro-inflammatory markers including decreases in IL-1beta, as well as indications of a reduction in IL-6 and TNF-alpha, which are important for the resistance of cancers and infections, respectively (Falkenberg, Eising, & Peters, 2018). Yoga practice also significantly increased immune-related cytokines (immune system messenger), such as interleukin-12, and interferon-γ. These results imply that yoga may be implemented as an immune boosting practice for those at risk for or already suffering from diseases both with and without an inflammatory component (Lim, & Cheong, 2015).
Rest and Restorative
The practice of Yoga also helps generate balanced energy levels in the body. When compromised, this is vital energy required by the immune system. Practices such as Yoga Nidra and Restorative Yoga (when supported and gravity-based) can provide needed restoration of energy levels and immune supporting benefits during low periods of energy.
Yoga supports healthy immune function on multiple levels including: stress reduction, improving respiratory, organ, and circulatory function, supporting the thymus gland, stimulating the production of immune cells, and helping the body restore itself from fatigue. In the words of Kathleen Fry, M.D., president of the American Holistic Medicine Association “Yoga is unlike other forms of exercise that focus only on certain parts of the body, yoga works on everything,” (Pirisi, 2017).
Cold and flu season teaches us that this time of year there are additional stressors, whether physical, mental, or environmental tends to team up to have a negative impact on the immune system, making a person more susceptible to disease. Managing immune function through lifestyle methods, such as yoga may not only help people avoid the common cold, but may also lead a better quality of life even during periods of stress.
Pirisi, A. (2017). Support your immune system: Yoga for Wellness. Yoga Journal. https://www.yogajournal.com/lifestyle/support-your-immune-system
Arora, S., & Bhattacharjee, J. (2008). Modulation of immune responses in stress by Yoga. International journal of yoga, 1(2), 45–55. doi:10.4103/0973-6131.43541
Morgan, N., Irwin, M. R., Chung, M., & Wang, C. (2014). The effects of mind-body therapies on the immune system: meta-analysis. PloS one, 9(7), e100903.
Falkenberg, R. I., Eising, C., & Peters, M. L. (2018). Yoga and immune system functioning: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Journal of behavioral medicine, 41(4), 467-482.
Lim, S. A., & Cheong, K. J. (2015). Regular yoga practice improves antioxidant status, immune function, and stress hormone releases in young healthy people: a randomized, double-blind, controlled pilot study. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 21(9), 530-538.