Boosting Immunity with Yoga
While there is no need for us to be dragging out our winter woollies just yet, the inevitability of change means that, yes, winter will be upon us soon. We still have plenty of glorious late summer and autumn days ahead of us; however, we would be wise to start preparing for the cold and flu bugs common in the winter season, especially now that we have the addition of omicron in our community.
Many yoga practices provide a gentle and natural means of supporting our immune system health. We are now starting to see research studies on the efficacy of yoga for immune system health that also support this idea. While research in this area, or yoga in general, is still in its infancy, it is heartening to see science and yoga agree on such issues.
Our immune system largely relies on a healthy gut. Over 70% of the immune system resides in our gut, the state of which determines how we feel physically and mentally. When we are housing a thriving population of beneficial bacteria here, our immune system is supported and functioning well. Naturally, when immunity is low, we are more susceptible to illness. Digestive issues, immune imbalance, and weight issues can occur, and we can experience bloating, stomach upset, sleep and mood disturbances, and poor sleep.
So, how does yoga help?
Understandably, many people are concerned about the increase in Omicron numbers in Aotearoa; however, did you know that medical experts have found that anxiety and worry can weaken the immune system and make us more susceptible to illness? There is no doubt that a certain amount of stress is good for us; however, once it becomes chronic, stress can play havoc with our health affecting our emotions, digestion, sleep, all of which will lower our immunity.
Stress directly impacts gut health because it impacts the trillions of microbes within our digestive tracts, collectively known as the gut microbiome. It affects the bacterial balance in the microbiome, increasing harmful bacteria and causing a reduction in beneficial bacteria.
One way to improve gut health is to reduce chronic stress, and what more powerful way to do this than practice yoga? At our fingertips, we have access to various yoga practices to help manage stress, and in this current environment, we don’t even have to leave our homes to do them.
Perhaps one of the most powerful tools we have is our breath. When we are under stress, our sympathetic nervous system is stimulated, and we may experience symptoms such as faster breathing, heart rate elevation, irritability, anxiety, body tension, and more. This is the stress response or the fight & flight system.
When we slow down and engage in deep breathing, we are countering the effect of the stress response.
These deep breaths stimulate the vagus nerve, the main nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system (rest & digest). The vagus nerve runs from the brainstem to the abdomen, including the large and small intestines. It has several essential functions, including activating the relaxation response, blocking inflammation, and helping us to overcome anxiety and depression.
Practising relaxation, mindful movement, meditation and breathing exercises help maintain a healthy vagus nerve and, in turn, will help to improve your digestive health and the gut microbiome – i.e. improved immunity.
There is also growing evidence that yoga helps us sleep well; a lack of, or poor sleep, also lowers our immune system response. A quiet, calming practice before bed and other good sleep hygiene practices can make a huge difference not only to being able to sleep but also to the quality of your sleep. If you’d like to understand a little more about sleep science, I can highly recommend the book Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker.
The lymphatic system, an essential component of our immune system, has many functions, including removing toxins and waste from the body, protecting us from illness-causing invaders, absorbing digestive tract fats and maintaining body fluid levels.
Lymph nodes and vessels create a loose sort of webbing throughout the body, providing vital immune support to every part. Lymph nodes are like little immune hubs found all over the body, but three areas are influential in mounting an immune response to foreign invaders that we can target in our yoga practice — the neck, armpit, and abdomen.
The first two areas contain lymph nodes right under the skin, whereas the abdomen houses deeper lymph nodes throughout the digestive tract. These lymph nodes are essential to help trap pathogens so the immune system can promote a defence response. However, research suggests that lymphatic flow is also an important part of a healthy immune response.
The superficial lymph nodes are strategically congregated around the joints to allow the changes in pressure with movement to facilitate lymphatic flow through the nodes. The lymphatic system depends on this changing pressure to pump lymphatic fluid through valves that keep the fluids moving in one direction. The flow through these nodes drives our capacity to both activate an immune response and sound the alarm when we need help from other immune cells.
Any movement practice, including yoga (gentle or vigorous), can act as a vital pump for this system. Yoga gently compresses some of these more superficial lymph nodes to stimulate the circulation of lymphatic fluid and breathing, particularly diaphragmatic breathing and breath-centric movement, help magnify the effects on the lymphatic system – the diaphragm acting as a central pump for the deeper lymphatics.
It is also vitally important to eat a healthy and nutritious diet. When we practice yoga regularly, we begin to connect with interoceptive awareness. As this awareness deepens, we hear what our bodies are telling us; we notice the effect of certain foods on our system – whether they are nourishing or less so.
It’s easy enough to go and seek specialist advice about diet, where there are issues. However, there are some basic common-sense principles around food that we can all try:
- preferably, stay away from the latest diet fad and eat a balanced & nutritious diet
- eating whole fresh foods that are in season and preferably grown locally
- reducing animal protein and adding in more plant-based foods
- chew food thoroughly to allow good absorption of nutrients
- try adding a daily fast of at least 12 hours between dinner and breakfast
- avoid fried, heavy and overly spicy foods
With some minor tweaks to our daily life activities, we can affect the functioning of our immune system, which will give us a natural advantage when faced with seasonal bugs.
Eat well, sleep well, move well, breathe well and be well!