Can Yoga Help You Avoid COVID-19?

Can Yoga Help You Avoid COVID-19?

Viral load, post-viral syndrome, herd immunity, antibodies – the language of viral infections and our bodies’ immune defence system that fights them is now in everyone’s lexicon.

My school age granddaughter’s prattle is has lost its easy flow from birthday parties and skipping rhymes to her latest artwork and now is littered with warnings of what we must and mustn’t do, with coronavirus this and coronavirus that. Even the two-year-old holds her hands out flat, without complaint and whenever she’s asked, for a dose of what her elder sister calls ‘hanasiser.’

Masks, distancing and concern over what we can do to stay healthy will continue, I expect, even after a vaccine emerges. So, if the President of the United States can suggest injecting disinfectant into the body to cure the virus, Nanna won’t be shy about suggesting a little regular yoga to boost your defence against it.

Yoga for increased immunity

Harvard Medical School’s report on yoga says it bluntly: A regular yoga practice boosts your immune system – so Nanna is in good company. Harvard cites a 2015 study that showed 12 weeks of yoga (it was a very regular practice: one 90 minute class a week and 40 minutes of home practice on the other days) “strengthened the immune system and raised levels of natural antioxidants in the body.”

In 2018, the Journal of Behavioral Medicine[1] summarized fifteen random controlled trials examining the effect of a regular yoga practice on immune system function. The conclusion was, “Yoga can downregulate pro-inflammatory markers.” The overall results implied, researchers said, “that yoga may be implemented as a complementary intervention for populations at risk or already suffering from diseases with an inflammatory component.”

The strongest evidence in these studies was for a reduction in the cytokine IL-1beta. Cytokines are small signalling proteins crucial to the body’s immune/inflammatory response. One of the studies showed yoga “could mediate inflammation at the genomic level, changing levels of proteins that control the DNA transcription of proinflammatory cytokine genes.” [2]

Reducing the severity of Acute Respiratory Illness

Studies have also shown that a meditation practice can reduce the severity and longevity of Acute Respiratory Illness. ARI is caused by the common cold virus and, as we know, is a symptom of COVID-19 disease. A randomised control trial of 149 adults by the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Wisconsin, Meditation or Exercise for preventing acute respiratory infection showed both the severity of symptoms and the length of time a person suffered from in an ARI was reduced, both  for regular exercisers and regular meditators over the control group, but “meditation fostered larger reductions in illness severity.”[3]

Yoga, being both exercise and meditation – OK, I haven’t done the research, but you know where I’m going with that. And I can say Nanna has not had ARI for decades, speaking as a data point of one.

Study on the effectiveness of exercise and meditation to reduce the severity of Acute Respiratory Illness.

Making the case for COVID-19 prevention and symptom management

A paper on coronavirus in the International Journal of Yoga[4], cites the Wisconsin data as it makes the case for yoga both as a preventative and as clinical support for COVID-19 sufferers.

The researchers, from S-VYASA University in Bengaluru, India, launched a pilot study in a hospital in Milan between March 17 and March 20 this year. Patients were offered a four-minute yogic breathing training video as a “voluntary clinical aid.” The paper quotes a cardiac surgeon from the hospital, who was admitted with severe COVID-19 symptoms during the study, saying: “We have reached scientific evidence that this simplified protocol sent by you is effective and we intend to disseminate to the overall Scientific Community”.

The IJY paper is a compilation of much of the research on yoga and stress, yoga’s capacities in the prevention and management of chronic diseases, plus growing evidence for yoga’s impact on reducing the symptoms of communicable diseases including TB and HIV.

The TB study quoted demonstrated: “At the end of 2 months, the yoga group showed a significantly better reduction in symptom score and an increase in weight and lung capacity with an improved level of infection control and radiographic image as compared to the nonyoga group.”

The HIV study showed: ”significant improvement in the psychological states as well as in the viral loads in patients suffering from HIV-1 infection.” While research on yoga and communicable diseases is scant, the existing results are promising.

This graphic summarises the various avenues through which the Indian researchers suggest yoga can help fight COVID-19:

International Journal of Yoga chart showing how yoga can help us fight COVID-19.

And supporting the supporters

Plus, yoga is being used to help those on the other side of the clinical equation: health care workers. The National Cancer Institute in the US has begun a Phase I trial [5] to investigate breathing techniques and meditation for health care workers during COVID-19 pandemic.

The goal of this trial is to learn if web-based training for breathing techniques and meditation can help to reduce stress and improve lung health in health care workers dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. The protocol is three minutes of breathing and two minutes of meditation, twice daily. I will keep my eyes open for the results of that one.

Until then, there is probably enough evidence to suggest a little daily yoga is a worthwhile investment in your immune system. Think of it as a positive way to use the time you once spent at the cinema, the theatre, restaurants, festivals, public events, markets . . .

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[1] Falkenberg, R.I., Eising, C. & Peters, M.L. Yoga and immune system functioning: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. J Behav Med 41, 467–482 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10865-018-9914-y

[2] https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/urban-survival/201802/new-research-how-yoga-boosts-your-immune-system

[3] Barrett B, Hayney MS, Muller D, Rakel D, Ward A, Obasi CN, Brown R, Zhang Z, Zgierska A, Gern J, West R, Ewers T, Barlow S, Gassman M, Coe CL. Meditation or exercise for preventing acute respiratory infection: a randomized controlled trial. Ann Fam Med. 2012 Jul-Aug;10(4):337-46. doi: 10.1370/afm.1376. PMID: 22778122; PMCID: PMC3392293.

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7336943/

[5] https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/clinical-trials/search/v?id=NCI-2020-04931

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