Cold and flu season is approaching, and the sooner you begin your immune-boosting regimen, the better your chances of staying vibrant and healthy all year long. We all know the commonsense measures: Get enough sleep, practice good hygiene and healthy stress reduction, eat lots of fruits and vegetables, and take immune-boosting supplements. But now research shows there’s another practice to add to this list: Do yoga.
A recent study by Norwegian researchers, published in the journal PLOS One, examined gene expression in a group of yoga practitioners to see how yoga affects genes that control the activity of immune cells. The scientists took genetic samples from participants both before and after they did yoga, as well as from a control group of people performing other calming activities, such as walking in nature and listening to music.
The results were impressive. The practice of yoga beneficially altered expression in 111 genes. Specifically, yoga increased the activity of certain genes that influence components of the immune system, such as NK cells (natural killer cells), thereby increasing NK cell activity and other immune functions. By comparison, the control activities only altered 38 genes.
Genetic Expression: The New Frontier
On one hand, this data is not entirely surprising. Traditional medical systems have long known there is a relationship between immunity and mind-body practices like meditation, tai chi, and yoga. Furthermore, numerous published studies have demonstrated the remarkable health benefits of these practices, mainly through the process of stress reduction, which can in turn reduce numerous disease risks. However, this new study offers us a compelling look at how yoga is actually working to benefit us on the genetic level. This is the exciting new field of science called “epigenetics,” which examines the way external influences like diet, environment, lifestyle, thought patterns, and more can change the way certain genes—and we—function, for better or worse.
More Ways to Bolster Immunity
Perhaps the best take-home message from this study is how easy it is to significantly influence immunity. Practicing yoga is just one approach.
Diet is another. For example, we can protect the immune system by eating foods that have a low glycemic (low sugar) index, which minimize blood sugar spikes that impair the immune response. One study showed that high blood sugar in diabetics can actually stunt the immune system’s ability to detect invading bacteria.
Other studies point to the abilities of green leafy vegetables (chard and collards, for instance) and cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli and cabbage) to support digestive immunity at the genetic level. For optimal immune health, emphasize these nutrient rich, high-fiber vegetables, along with fermented foods like sauerkraut and miso, which have immune-boosting probiotics, and beans (preferably soaked and sprouted). Limit or avoid simple carbohydrates, processed grains, cereals, refined sugars, white enriched pastas, and white potatoes.
We can also assist immunity with targeted botanicals and nutrients. Modified citrus pectin (MCP) for example, does an excellent job of safely removing heavy metals like lead and mercury, which can impair the immune system and have been shown to negatively impact gene activity. In addition, MCP binds to galectin-3, a protein implicated in inflammation, heart disease, and cancer. Lastly, research shows that MCP significantly increases the activity and functionality of human NK cells as well as other components of the immune system.
Medicinal mushrooms, such as maitake, coriolus, tremella, reishi, and cordyceps, are also excellent for immunity. Medicinal mushrooms contain an abundance of immune-supporting nutrients, including beta-glucans, which stimulate different types of immune cells. Specifically, beta-glucans support macrophages, neutrophils, and NK cells, latching onto these immune cells and acting as fuel. The remarkable thing about mushrooms is their ability to both enhance immunity and rein in the autoimmune response. Essentially, they train the immune system to find the ideal level of activity, and as such they’re useful for both suppressed immunity and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Other important immune-supporting supplements to help fight against both acute and long-term illness include:
Vitamin A: Found in both animal and plant sources, it supports numerous functions of immune activity, particularly against infections. Vitamin A helps activate specific genes related to immunity, offers powerful antioxidant support, helps heal inflamed mucus membranes, and supports optimal tissue repair.
Vitamin B complex: B6 and B12 help support the actions of white blood cells. B vitamins provide essential co-factors for hundreds of cellular reactions.
Vitamin C: This essential nutrient improves NK cell activity and helps fight harmful invaders. It offers powerful antioxidant support, reduces inflammation, reduces the severity of illnesses, and helps protect against infections.
Vitamin D3: This super nutrient boosts immunity against colds, flus, and long-term conditions including cancer. Vitamin D3 also supports immunity at the genetic level.
Selenium: This mineral offers antioxidant support and helps protect against infections.
Zinc: This is one of the most important minerals for boosting immunity. At 15 to 30 milligrams per day, zinc helps protect against viruses and bacteria, and supports tissue repair.
Astragalus root: The root of the astragalus herb has been used in traditional Asian medicine for millennia. It helps to protect the body against physical and mental stress and other external factors, while supporting long-term immunity against colds, flus, and even cancer. It also has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial benefits. Research suggests that astragalus contains compounds that influence our DNA for the better, to enhance vitality and longevity over time.
We live in a wonderful age when new information is constantly refreshing our understanding of how the body works. New findings in genetic research are demonstrating how we can influence health at the very core of our existence, with immunity being one of the key cornerstones. As an integrative practitioner, I am inspired each time a new study comes out showing how we can build on this foundation to optimize long-term wellness. The power is in our hands, and research continues to expand our medicine chest of safe, natural therapies that offer long-lasting benefits at the molecular level to help build our immunity and overall health.
Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, integrates Western medicine with his extensive knowledge of traditional Chinese, Tibetan, Ayurvedic, homeopathic, and complementary medical systems. With more than 25 years of clinical experience and research, Dr. Eliaz has a unique holistic approach to the relationship between health and disease, immune enhancement, detoxification, and cancer prevention and treatment. For more information about his work, visit dreliaz.org.