Poor diet, excess weight, and stress are three common struggles for Americans, all of which can cause and exacerbate inflammation. While the heat, pain, redness, and swelling caused by acute inflammation is an essential part of our biological response to fighting off disease and healing our body, when inflammation becomes chronic, it becomes harmful rather than helpful. Chronic inflammation can result in eventual cellular destruction and cause inflammatory disorders and non-infectious diseases. Happily, there are exciting new ways to alleviate chronic inflammation—a recent study has shown that a daily yoga and meditation practice may be effective at lowering chronic inflammation as well as helping with depression, anxiety, and physical complaints.
A recent study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience showed that regular practice of yoga and meditation may alter the body’s biochemical markers of inflammation. These biochemical changes also correlate to improved emotional regulation, decreases in anxiety, stress levels, and depression as well as increases in mindfulness and overall well-being.
The study comprised a small group of 38 subjects who participated in a three-month yoga and meditation retreat. The retreat included a daily practice of yoga postures, kriyas, pranayama, and seated meditations. Participants learned three types of traditional yogic meditations (Samyama, Shoonya and Linga sanchalana) and practiced for 1-2 hours a day. They also practiced 1-2 hours of hatha yoga poses and about one hour of mantra chanting each day.
Before beginning the retreat, participants gave samples of their blood and saliva to measure control levels of biological stress and inflammatory factors (brain-derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF), inflammatory cytokines and circadian salivary cortisol levels). Participants also completed three psychometric questionnaires. After the retreat, these tests and questionnaires were repeated to detect any measurable differences.
While there were some mixed and unexpected results, the study did find a significant three-fold increase in BDNF plasma levels, which inversely correlated with participants’ self-reported anxiety levels. Further, the participants showed improvements in psychological functioning, neurotrophic pathways, HPA axis activity, and inflammatory pathway signaling. These measurements correlate to enhanced stress resilience and an overall sense of well-being. The study participants gained significant improvements in depression, anxiety, physical complaints, increases in mindfulness, and a small but significant decrease in BMI.
While these results are promising, this study did not include a standard control group which makes it difficult to form firm conclusions and correlations. This also makes it impossible to rule out the effects of other factors present in the retreat setting (i.e., social dynamics, yogic diet, ashram environment, and studying under a revered spiritual teacher). As most do not have the luxury to spend 4-5 hours each day practicing yoga and meditation, it would also be helpful to see if shorter practice times yield similar results. Even with these caveats, this fascinating study sheds new light on the biochemical and healing effects that can be activated through yoga, pranayama, meditation, and chanting.