Is This the Best Reason to Finally Start Doing Yoga?

Studies find it may have as many benefits as major shifts in diet.

Posted Aug 02, 2015

Source: antoniodiaz/Shutterstock

Have you ever wondered why people who do yoga often look younger than their age or get sick less often? A new study might have some answers.

The study, in the July 2015 Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, found that 12 weeks of yoga amped up the body's natural defense system against toxins. Yoga raised the level of natural antioxidants in the body and strengthened the immune system.

What are antioxidants and why are they important for our health? When we process food for energy or are exposed to toxins like air pollution or ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun, our body produces byproducts called free radicals. These chemicals circulate through our blood and damage DNA, cells, and tissues. Scientists call the harmful process unleashed by free radicals “oxidative stress.” The effect of oxidative stress on the body has been linked to issues like heart disease, cancer, and even eye problems like glaucoma.

Antioxidants like vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene, as well as minerals like selenium and manganese, neutralize free radicals in the body. The list of antioxidants is long and diverse, including proteins, enzymes, and substances like glutathione, coenzyme Q10, lipoic acid, flavonoids, phenols, polyphenols, and phytoestrogens.

Eating foods rich in antioxidants like olive oil, nuts, fruits, vegetables, and even chocolate, has been linked with better memory and heart health. Polyphenols, a type of antioxidant found in green tea, are thought to help prevent cancer. Antioxidants on the skin help prevent the effects of aging caused by UV damage, such as sunspots and wrinkles. Now yoga can be added to your list of natural "antioxidants."

The new study found that 12 weeks of yoga led to higher levels of antioxidants in the body and lower signs of oxidative stress compared to running, cycling, or jumping rope. Not only that, but the immune systems of people who did yoga improved. People in the yoga group did 90 minutes of yoga class weekly with a teacher and 40 minutes at home at least three times a week over 12 weeks.

If you want to try to experience the same effects, make sure to try a well-rounded yoga program that includes more than just yoga postures. The study's weekly class included:

  • 35 minutes of poses (asanas)
  • 30 minutes of yoga breathing exercises (pranayama)
  • 25 minutes of meditation including a loving-kindness (Metta) meditation and a self-awareness exercise focused on a non-judgmental attitude.

Yoga, unlike the other types of exercise, led to lower levels of nitric oxide, a chemical that, in excess, acts as a harmful free radical in the body. Yoga was also uniquely linked to lower signs of harmful oxidative stress in the body, including lower levels of the byproducts malondialdehyde and F2-isoprostane and the stress hormone adrenaline.

Our bodies have natural antioxidant defense systems that combat oxidative stress. Yoga increased these natural antioxidants in the body, including higher levels of the protein glutathione and an enzyme called glutathione peroxidase. Glutathione levels went up for both the yoga group and the regular exercise group, but much more so in the yoga group. In fact, yoga more than doubled the presence of the natural antioxidant protein glutathione in the body. This supports an earlier small study which similarly found higher antioxidant levels after six months of yoga.

Yoga also strengthens your immune system, which has many players, including defense proteins called cytokines. The 12-week study found that yoga led to higher levels of important cytokines (interleukin-12 and interferon-c), supporting the idea that doing yoga regularly reduces stress on the body and builds your immune system.

If you're looking to boost your antioxidants, you can reach for a handful of blueberries and dark chocolate, but you can also roll our your mat and try some daily yoga, too.

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Co-author of The Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga.
Copyright © 2015 Marlynn Wei, MD, PLLC