5 Reasons Your Immune System Gets Weaker with Age and How Yoga Can Help
Even though I had a flu shot this year, I still managed to come down with bronchitis about two weeks ago (I’ve tended to get that since I was young). The fever and reduced ability to breathe was really debilitating. And here I am, almost two full weeks later, almost but not quite feeling back to normal. At least I’m back to going for walks and practicing gentle yoga again!
Yes, as we age, our immune systems are slower to respond in general, which increases our risk of getting sick (whether from a common cold or a more serious infection) and slows healing from illnesses and from injuries. In general, you can bolster your immune system by practicing active yoga poses to foster physical and stress hardiness, and by practicing restorative poses, meditation, breath work, and conscious relaxation to spend more time in the rest-and-digest state (which turns on your immune system).
Here are 5 reasons your immune function weakens with age, and how yoga might help.
1. Fewer Immune Cells
Because damaged or aging immune cells are not replaced as you age, you have fewer immune cells as you get older. This slows healing from both illness and injuries. You can use yoga to support the healing process by practicing gentle asanas to improve circulation to healing areas and by practicing your favorite types of conscious relaxation to spend more time in the rest-and-digest state.
2. Increased Propensity towards Autoimmune Disorders
Although autoimmune disorders occur in younger people, the frequency of autoimmune disorders (diseases in which the immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys healthy body tissues) increases with age. Examples include rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and multiple sclerosis. If your condition allows it, you may be able to use gentle and restorative asana practices along with quieting pranayama and meditation to support your immune system.
3. Reduced Ability to Detect and Correct Cancerous Cell Defects
As you age, your immune system’s ability to detect and correct cell defects is reduced, resulting in an increase in frequency of cancer. Although yoga can’t treat cancer, you can use yoga for palliative care during treatment and recovery, and to bolster your immune system during the entire process.
4. Chronic Inflammation Gets More Common
As we age our bodies are less able to disarm the inflammatory process, which can lead to chronic inflammation. A healthy immune system uses inflammation to your advantage during acute illness or injury, but chronic inflammation is linked to many serious illnesses, such autoimmune diseases and heart disease. To reduce inflammation or prevent chronic inflammation from recurring, use your yoga practice to manage your stress levels and foster overall good health.
5. Chronic Stress Weakens the Immune System
While your immune system is initially stronger during periods of acute stress, it starts functioning less well if the stress is ongoing. This increases your risk of contracting serious infections and, as some evidence suggests, autoimmune diseases. Furthermore, chronic stress alone can cause life-threatening conditions from heart disease to high blood pressure.
Nina Zolotow, RYT 500, Editor-in-Chief of the Yoga for Healthy Aging blog, is both a yoga writer and a yoga teacher. She trained to be a yoga teacher at The Yoga Room in Berkeley, California, has studied yoga therapy with Shari Ser and Bonnie Maeda, and is especially influenced by the teachings of Donald Moyer. She also studied extensively with Rodney Yee, and is inspired by the teachings of Patricia Walden on yoga for emotional healing. Her special area of expertise is yoga for emotional well-being (including yoga for stress, insomnia, depression, and anxiety) and she teaches workshops and series classes on yoga for emotional wellbeing, stress management, better sleep, home practice, and cultivating equanimity. Nina is the co-author, with Rodney Yee, of two books on yoga: Yoga: The Poetry of the Body and Moving Toward Balance, both of which are widely available, and is currently writing a book with Baxter Bell on Yoga for Healthy Aging for publication in 2017.