New research published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine suggests that yoga can be a helpful way to boost your immune system and decrease inflammation in the body.
Psychological stress can impact many systems in the body, including weakening the immune system and increasing chronic inflammation. Inflammation is a natural part of the immune response and in the short term can be helpful to heal wounds, injuries, and infections, but chronic inflammation can do more harm than good.
Researchers collectively reviewed 15 randomized controlled trials that examined whether the regular practice of yoga postures could strengthen the immune system and reduce chronic inflammation. The average sample size of the trials was 70, and sample sizes ranged from 11 to as many as 140 participants. The majority of studies used Hatha yoga, a general term that indicates a style that includes postures.
Scientists in these yoga trials examined the immune system response by measuring blood or saliva levels of circulating pro-inflammatory markers such as cytokines, a protein called C-reactive protein (CRP), as well as immune cell counts, antibodies, and markers of gene expression in immune cells.
Researchers found an overall pattern that yoga reduces pro-inflammatory markers, with the strongest evidence for the reduction of a cytokine called IL-1beta. There are mixed but promising results regarding other types of pro-inflammatory markers. One study found that yoga increased levels of anti-inflammatory cytokines such as IL-10. Another trial found that yoga could mediate inflammation at the genomic level, changing levels of proteins that control the DNA transcription of proinflammatory cytokine genes.
Overall, the collection of research trials indicate yoga has a promising anti-inflammatory effect in the body.
How often and how long do you need to practice yoga to get this effect? So far researchers do not have a conclusive answer, but most of these research studies implemented yoga programs that lasted from eight to 12 weeks with a frequency between once weekly to daily. Yoga classes in the research studies range from 30 to 90 minutes. As with most mind-body practices, regular consistent practice yields the most promise.
Find out more about yoga and its health benefits in our book The Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga.
Falkenberg RI, Eising C, & Peters ML. (2018)
Yoga and immune system functioning: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. J Behav Med. 2018 Feb 10. doi: 10.1007/s10865-018-9914-y.