Adventures in fascia – and how stretching may resolve inflammation (plain language summary)

At the start of the year, I went on a mission to better understand the role of the fascia in yin yoga. I had had that fall from the clouds that yoga teachers get as they do more training, and was bathed in shame of not using my scientific brain and questioning what my teachers had told me. You can read more about that here.

As part of that quest, the most interesting thing I discovered about fascia is that it isn’t just the connective tissue that surrounds muscles and other organs (the narrative you normally hear in a class). It also includes other types of mesoderm-derived tissue like adipose (fat tissue) but also lymph and blood (in the form of liquid fascia). Apparently, as an immunologist, I am a fascia specialist.

So, could there be immune benefits to working on the fascia?

Maybe (yes, I am very good at these non-committal answers!). There is in fact some research showing a link between stretching and inflammation of connective tissue.

In this study, the authors found that stretching for 10 minutes a day reduced inflammation in connective tissue of the lower back (which would include fascia) in rats and also reduced back pain. The same group directly observed a reduction in the presence of immune cells called neutrophils to the area of inflammation after stretching.

In a parallel follow-up study, they wanted to see whether the same stretching regimen could reduce the size of tumours, given that exercise like yoga and tai chi has been shown to be beneficial for patients with cancer. They used a mouse model of breast cancer to investigate this.

Here kitty demonstrates how to stretch your back

They found that the mice that had gone through a daily regimen of 10 minutes of stretching a day had smaller tumours than those that had not been stretched. The stretched mice had more active T cells (the immune cells that kill pathogens and other ‘invaders’ like tumours) and also higher levels of the molecules that resolve inflammation. The authors propose that stretching of the connective tissue around the tumour resolves inflammation while promoting the activation of the cells that can destroy the tumour. 

Huge huge caveats!

  • All studies were done in rodents (rats and mice), so it’s too early to tell how relevant this is to humans
  • Two of the studies were published in low-impact journals – that means that these journals accept a wider range of papers for publication and don’t have as strict criteria

Nevertheless…

I still think they are interesting. There is a growing body of evidence out there for a role for yoga in reducing inflammation in the body (more on that another time), so stay tuned for more on how fascia and immunity are connected.

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