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Chances are you’ve heard someone say that those who regularly practice yoga rarely get sick. Or perhaps a teacher told your class that yoga can ward off colds or the flu.
There’s no shortage of claims that yoga or other lifestyle interventions can improve your immunity. But the science behind those assertions is less emphatic.
How Your Immune System Works
Your immune system is designed to offer a more-than-adequate defense against disease-causing microorganisms. The body guards against these pathogens in different ways, using mucous, tears, sweat, gastric juices. and white blood cells .
Inflammation is the body’s immune system activation. Acute inflammation occurs in an almost immediate fashion. Think of the symptoms you experience when you have the cold or flu.
Although some inflammation is an essential part of immune functionality, too much can be seriously problematic. If your immune response was constantly stimulated, you would feel permanently unwell with a runny nose, fever, and lethargy. Persistent inflammation can linger in your body for months or even years. This can eventually lead to chronic inflammatory diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, and multiple sclerosis. Persistent inflammation has also been linked to depression.
How Yoga Can (And Cannot) Support Your Immunity
Exercise is one of the most widely researched lifestyle interventions related to immune system function. Significant evidence indicates that regular physical activity—including dynamic styles of yoga such as vinyasa—can support your immune system so it works optimally. But there is no evidence that it will enhance immunity to a level beyond what your normally functioning immune system would provide.
However, a regular yoga practice has been shown to downregulate inflammation. Exactly how this occurs isn’t fully understood, although scientific literature suggests that stress reduction plays a role. As such, yoga can be considered a complementary intervention for people who are at risk for or suffering from diseases with a persistent inflammatory component.
But yoga, or any form of physical activity, is not a cure-all capable of bestowing you with a superhuman immune response.
This article has been adapted from The Physiology of Yoga.
About our contributor
Andrew McGonigle has studied anatomy for more than 20 years. After initially studying to become a doctor, he moved away from Western medicine to become a yoga and anatomy teacher. He shares his knowledge of the body and the ways it moves in yoga teacher training courses throughout the world and leads his own Yoga Anatomy Online Course. His second book is The Physiology of Yoga. To learn more about Andrew, check out doctor-yogi.com or follow him on Instagram @doctoryogi.