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Can Yoga Lower Your Risk Of Getting Sick?
Could a few sun salutations, a hot yoga class, or some calming yogic breathing keep you from catching a cold, flu, or even the coronavirus? Claims like this one abound across social media and other digital spheres. But they do have some merit, according to published research and to healthcare professionals who practice, teach, and study this ancient mind-body practice. Practicing yoga can help protect against the threat of infection and support recovery by bolstering overall good health. But you’re going to have to take other measures, too.
“Yoga is an exciting and beautiful part of an overall approach to lowering risk for infections, but you cannot just do breathing exercises or a yoga routine and say, ‘Okay, this will prevent them,’” says cell biologist and yoga therapist Sundar Balasubramanian, PhD, an assistant professor at the Medical University of South Carolina who studies cancer therapeutics and yoga. “You still have to stay healthy, wash your hands, and — for coronavirus — protect yourself and others by wearing a mask, maintaining social distance, and quarantining if you’ve been exposed.”
... no proof behind overblown claims that yoga “filters out” specific pathogens or provides “unique protection” against viral threats like the coronavirus, adds Holger Cramer, PhD, research director in the department of internal and integrative medicine at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany, where he studies the safety and effectiveness of yoga in medicine. “And there of course is no evidence that yoga can reduce infection rates or help recovery from COVID-19,” he says. The virus and the disease are too new to have any sound research investigating that question.
9 Ways Practicing Yoga Benefits Your Health and Well-Being
What the evidence does show, he explains, is that yoga supports the healthy functioning of the immune system and helps people manage chronic conditions, like obesity and high blood pressure. Research also shows that these chronic conditions may worsen COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
What the Research Says About Yoga and Immune Function
In two studies, Balasubramanian and his colleagues from the Medical University of South Carolina found that after volunteers did yogic breathing exercises for 20 minutes levels of specific molecules associated with healthy immune function actually increased.
In a 2015 study in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, this benefit was seen in eight proteins critical for immune function (measured via saliva samples), Balasubramanian explains. Levels of those proteins rose as much as 7- to 11-fold in seven of the ten volunteers.
“These [proteins] act as a first line of defense in mucosal tissue, which is inside the nose,” he says. Those proteins don’t necessarily protect against any specific virus or bacteria, he adds — it means overall the yogic breathing appeared to help that part of the immune response work the way it should.
And an August 2016 study in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine shows that markers of inflammation decreased in individuals after a 20-minute yoga class. “Inflammation is part of the body’s immune response but can be harmful if it is not regulated,” Balasubramanian says about that second study from his group.
Uncontrolled inflammation is associated with problems like heart disease, diabetes, and autoimmune conditions (like multiple sclerosis). The research suggests therefore that yoga is something that can help protect against those risks.
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