My research into the science of yoga (asana, yoga nidra and meditation) has re-ignited my love of immunology. It’s been over 10 years since I left the lab and also around 10 years since I stopped being active in the field as an editor (but I suppose there was a bit of that while I worked at Nature Reviews Microbiology). And although I do a lot of work with patients living with autoimmune conditions, I am definitely not as up-to-date as I used to be.
With this revived immuno-love, I thought it might be interesting to have a look at whether, in the flurry of COVID-19 papers, there has been any research looking at the use of mind–body practices in this context.
Why would yoga be relevant here?
The immune response is inextricably linked with our minds. Ours brains speak to all of the systems in our body and instruct them on what to do, and the immune system is no exception. For example, when we are stressed, our brains send the signal to our immune system that something is not right and that we need to preserve our resources, which means not mounting an immune response (do you find you get sick straight after a period of overworking or excess going out? That could be why). To make things more complicated, chronic stress can also lead to chronic inflammation, where the immune system is overly active. In essence, different types of stress can wreak havoc with our immune system.
Yoga and other mind–body practices work to counter these stress pathways, and there is a growing body of evidence to support this. I’ve written before about how:
- Yoga may alleviate depressive symptoms in a range of mental health conditions
- Yoga nidra may reduce perceive stress, anxiety and depression
- Kundalini yoga can help to reduce anxiety
Therefore, it stands to reason that yoga can help to maintain balance between an overly active and underactive immune system – some hints of that here, and more research ongoing.
So, what’s the evidence?
Not a lot actually (although some cool studies like this one are planned, and I can’t wait to see what they find!). It’s not exactly surprising though given the timeframe we are talking about. However, two studies did catch my eye and are worth mentioning here:
Mindfulness-style interventions can help to alleviate COVID-19-related anxiety
When the pandemic started, most of us were lost. This was a completely new reality that we did not understand, and the lack of control meant increased mental health impact, especially anxiety. You won’t be surprised to know that a study looking at Google search trends found a spike in the search for anxiety-related symptoms. But, interestingly, the same study found an increase in the search for digital solutions with techniques like deep breathing and body scan (or, as I like to call it, yoga nidra, yay!).
Reassuringly, one study found that a mindfulness-based programme similar to MBSR helped to reduce anxiety and improve wellbeing among teachers in Italy (interestingly, the study started before the pandemic, but they quickly switched gears and were able to evaluate the impact of the intervention in the context of COVID-19). The usual caveat of tiny sample size applies.
PMR improves anxiety and sleep in patients with COVID-19
PMR, or progressive muscle relaxation, is a process whereby you tense different parts of your body in sequence and then relax (so, first your face, then your shoulders, your hands and so on). Does this sound familiar? Yes, it’s a little bit like a body scan meditation or a yoga nidra, and in fact some protocols include PMR instead of body scan.
After 5 days of PMR, participants, who were patients with COVID-19, reported feeling less anxious and experiencing better sleep compared to those who had no intervention. Which hopefully helped their immune system too and put them on the road to the recovery. I’m not getting too excited because, as usual, the study was incredibly small, but still, pretty cool, no?
Of course, it’s not going to cure COVID-19
Clearly, no one is claiming that, and if they are you know to ignore them. But any act of self-care (and to be honest that also includes other types of exercise and relaxation) is likely to give us a better chance of staying healthy in both body and mind.