Could yoga, tai chi and mindfulness reduce the risk of inflammatory disease?


By Jade Bruce, Second year, Cellular and Molecular Medicine

The benefits of activities such as yoga, tai chi and quigong may have farther-reaching impacts than we think.

Today, it is well known that psychological stress can have a physical impact, triggering or aggravating conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Yet, the idea that the mind plays a role in physical illness and healing is not new. Recognition of this ‘mind-body phenomenon’ dates back to Ancient Greek medicine which embraced the ‘healthy mind, healthy body’ concept. Modern research now suggests that mind-body practices like yoga and tai chi can reduce the risk of inflammatory disease.

Inflammation is a vital part of the body’s response to harm and is characterised by heat, pain, redness, swelling, and loss of function. Acute inflammation is short term and plays a crucial role in protecting our bodies from infection and healing wounds. Without inflammation we’d struggle to heal a cut or fight freshers’ flu when it inevitably hits. However, not all inflammation is protective. Chronic or abnormal inflammation can be harmful and has been linked to a range of diseases including cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

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Research suggests that stress can trigger inflammation. Persistent social and academic pressures mean students tend to be all too familiar with stress, but stress isn’t always an enemy; sometimes it can push us to work hard and prepare for challenges. It’s when stress becomes chronic or severe that it can negatively impact mental health and increase the risk of developing an inflammation-related disease. But how exactly do our bodies translate this stress into inflammation?

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It’s all to do with a protein complex called NF-kB, which is key in controlling the expression of inflammatory genes. When we are stressed the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated to produce NF-kB, which then converts this stress into inflammation by ‘switching on’ genes that code for inflammatory molecules, called cytokines. It follows that stress-reducing activities, which lower the activity of NF-kB, may not only improve mental health but reduce the risk of inflammatory disease as well.

One study looked at the effect of mindfulness in breast cancer survivor patients. After practicing two hours of yoga a week for a total of six weeks, participants showed lower levels of NF-kB and other inflammatory molecules. They reported decreased stress, fatigue and depression. Other studies have shown that activities ranging from mindfulness to Qigong can alleviate the symptoms of a variety of inflammatory diseases including irritable bowel disease as well as reducing blood pressure.

The extent to which mind-body interventions reduce the risk of inflammatory-related diseases is uncertain, with some studies giving conflicting results. Indeed, it’s hard to tease apart the effect of activities like yoga from other important lifestyle interventions such as a balanced diet and exercise.

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Scientists are continuing to explore the molecular changes which underpin the benefits of mind-body interventions and the role they have in inflammation. Nonetheless, studies have shown a clear overall pattern that mind-body therapies may reduce the risk of inflammatory disease. So, whether you feel the urge to take up Tai Chi or just want to dust off that yoga mat, it may well be worth it!

Featured image: Epigram / Vilhelmiina Haavisto

Do you practice mind-body activities? Let us know!