Americans struggle with poor diet, excessive weight, and stress, which can cause or exacerbate inflammation. The heat, redness, swelling, and pain caused by acute inflammation are important to our body’s biological response in fighting disease and healing itself. However, chronic inflammation can be harmful and not helpful. Chronic inflammation may lead to cellular destruction, inflammatory and non-infectious diseases. There are new and exciting ways to reduce chronic inflammation. A recent study showed that daily meditation and yoga can help with depression, anxiety, and physical complaints.
Recent research published in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience shows that regular yoga and meditation practice may alter biochemical markers of inflammation. These biochemical changes are also associated with improved emotional regulation, decreased anxiety, stress, and depression, as well as increased mindfulness and well-being.
The study involved a group of 38 participants who took part in a 3-month retreat that included yoga and meditation. The retreat consisted of seated meditations, pranayama, and yoga poses. The participants learned and practiced three traditional meditations, Samyama, Shoonya, and Linga Sanchalana, for about 1-2 hours daily. They also performed 1-2 hours of mantra and hatha poses each day.
Participants gave blood and saliva samples before the retreat to determine control levels of biological stress, inflammatory factors, and circadian salivary cortisol. The participants also filled out three psychometric questionnaires. These tests and questionnaires were repeated after the retreat to determine if there were any differences.
While the results were mixed, and some unexpected, there was a three-fold increase of BDNF in plasma, which was inversely correlated to participants’ self-reported anxiety levels. The participants also showed improvement in their psychological functioning, HPA activity, and signaling of the inflammatory pathways. These measurements are correlated with enhanced stress resilience and a general sense of well-being. Participants in the study experienced significant improvements in depression and anxiety. They also reported fewer physical complaints. Mindfulness increased, as did mindfulness.
While promising results, this study did not have a control group. It is, therefore, difficult to draw firm conclusions or make correlations. It is also impossible to exclude the influence of other factors in the retreat environment (social dynamics, yogic nutrition, ashram environments, and studying with a revered teacher). It would be useful to know if shorter practices yield the same results, as most people do not have 4-5 hours to devote to yoga and meditation each day. Despite these caveats, this fascinating study sheds light on the biochemical effects and healing that yoga, pranayama meditation, and chanting can activate.