How Yoga Helps You Stay Young Longer - Study Shows Stress Relief Helps Reduce Inflammation

You know yoga can make you feel like a million bucks, but most people don't realize that million-dollar-feeling might actually help you stay young and healthy longer, reduce the risk of chronic disease, and even slow aging.

How?  A study conducted at the Ohio State University College of Medicine set out to find the physiological markers for improved health through yoga.  Numerous studies have demonstrated that yoga does improve health in many areas. For example, yoga may prevent or counteract coronary artery disease, because a regular yoga practice can help lower blood pressure, heart rate and body mass. The benefits of yoga as therapy for those struggling with anxiety, stress, and depression are also well documented. However, no previous studies had studied changes in the immune response because of and during yoga practice.

This study, published in the Psychosomatic Medicine Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine in 2010 set out to find out what exactly in the endocrine system produces the great feeling of well-being after yoga, and the physiological signature associated with these.

The study in particular looked at markers of inflammation in the body. The amount and duration of inflammation in the body is increasingly considered to be a strong and reliable way to predict the overall decline and mortality of older adults.  Inflammation is thought to play a role in the development of cardiovascular disease, Type II diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s disease, periodontal disease, frailty and general decline.  Also, inflammation is thought to be a risk factor for most cancers, as increasing evidence links inflammation to all stages of tumor inception, growth and spread.  Even obesity can be characterized as an inflammation response, because the fat cells help to produce the pro inflammatory cytokines (proteins) that stimulate the inflammatory response.

What triggers inflammation in the body? In one word: stress.  The presence of higher levels of cytokines means the body is experiencing higher levels of stress.  Yoga, the Ohio State researchers posited, may help us stay younger because it helps us relax, reducing physiological reactivity to stressful encounters. in other words, yoga may help us stay younger, because it reduces the inflammatory stress response, minimizing the wear and tear on the body.

To test this, the researchers looked at 50 healthy women between the ages of 30 and 65.  The women were divided into two groups, well-matched for weight, height, age and cardiovascular health, but one group was beginners to yoga and the other group was characterized as experts.  All the women were subjected to stressors and then tested for the presence of cytokines before, during and after practice of hatha yoga, and two other control practices, during three visits.

While yoga clearly had more positive subjective results, including better sleep, better eating habits, and better mood, the researchers found no evidence that the protein markers changed during individual yoga sessions.  But they did find that the ‘yoga experts,’ i.e. those with a long-term practice, had much better pro-inflammatory cytokine levels than the beginners, and their response to stressors also involved lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines. 

The researchers concluded that regular practice of yoga can substantially improve a person’s reactions to stress, and in turn minimize inflammation levels in the body, which can otherwise trigger many of the diseases of aging.   In other words, hitting your yoga mat every day doesn’t just make you feel like a million bucks, it might just help you live longer, and remain healthier and happier.

Stress, Inflammation, and Yoga Practice
Janice K. Kiecolt-Glaser, Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research, The Ohio State University College of Medicine

For more about the use of yoga as therapy for chronic diseases, see Dr. Loren Fishman and Ellen Saltonstall’s interview on Yoga for Osteoporosis.

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