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Yoga calms harmful cytokines that promote inflammation and disease

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

Yoga has now been shown to reduce inflammation by reducing cytokine levels in the body that lead to inflammation and implicated for producing a variety of diseases. Researchers from Ohio State University studied yoga practitioners, finding lower levels of cytokine interleukin-6 (IL-6) in the bloodstream of women studied.

Disruption of cytokine interleukin-6 is linked to rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease, osteoporosis, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and various types of cancer. Women in the study who practiced yoga were found to have smaller increases in IL-6 in response to stress compared to women who did not practice yoga, in turn reducing risk of a variety of chronic and life threatening diseases.

According to Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, professor of psychiatry and psychology and lead author of the study, “In addition to having lower levels of inflammation before they were stressed, we also saw lower inflammatory responses to stress among the expert yoga practitioners in the study." She suggests that practicing yoga could help people "eventually learn to respond less strongly to stressors in their everyday lives by using yoga and other stress-reducing modalities.”

For the study, novice yoga practitioners who had either practiced yoga at home with videos or at yoga classes, no more than 12 sessions, were included among women who practiced yoga at least twice weekly for the last year, or at least once a week for at least two years, and also compared to other study participants who walked on treadmills or watching boring videos following tasks designed to increase stress.

The women attended three sessions of yoga at two week intervals, in addition to filling out questionnaires and taking psychological tests to measure mood and anxiety.

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Blood samples were also taken during the study to measure stress levels. Before each session the groups of women were exposed to stress that included solving difficult math problems and immersing their feet in extremely cold water.

The women who were yoga "experts" had lower levels of cytokine IL-6 – novice yoga practitioners had inflammatory cytokine levels that were forty one percent higher. “In essence, the experts walked into the study with lower levels of inflammation than the novices, and the experts were also better able to limit their stress responses than were the novices,” Kiecolt-Glaser explained.

Co-author Lisa Christian, an assistant professor of psychology, psychiatry and obstetrics and gynecology suggests, “The yoga poses we used were chosen from those thought to be restorative or relaxing. We had to limit the movements so those novices could perform as well as experts", explaining the lack of physiologic response among novice yoga practitioners.

“Part of the problem with sorting out exactly what makes yoga effective in reducing stress is that if you try to break it down into its components, like the movements or the breathing, it’s hard to say what particular thing is causing the effect,” says Christian.

Ron Glaser, a co-author and a professor of molecular virology, immunology and medical genetics says, “We know that inflammation plays a major role in many diseases. Yoga appears to be a simple and enjoyable way to add an intervention that might reduce risks for developing heart disease, diabetes and other age-related diseases.

Yoga is an easy way to reduce risk of disease, and can be practiced as a solution to the current health care crisis Glaser adds. The researchers are planning studies to see of yoga can reduce fatigue among breast cancer survivors, and they are seeking volunteers for a study funded by the National Cancer Institute. The study shows that yoga is an alternative for disease prevention that can reduce harmful cytokine levels in the body by physiologically reducing stress. The study authors say "People need to be educated about this."