Your Immunity During Crisis
Plus tips for staying healthy during uncertain and stressful times, like this pandemic!
Feeling strong and often uncomfortable emotions during challenging times is completely natural. And while it may be tempting to suppress anger, sadness, grief, and frustration, mental health experts say that doing so can physically stress your body and negatively impact your immunity and well-being. When your body is under significant physical or emotional pressure, it has to work harder to find and maintain balance. Fortunately, yoga can help us regain equilibrium during stressful seasons and transforms distress into eustress, known as beneficial stress that helps build resilience. So try to embrace feeling unsettled, and rely on your practice to help you navigate these difficult emotions.
Your immune system illustrates your body’s intrinsic ability to heal. It fights foreign invaders by sending an army of white blood cells through the bloodstream and a fluid called lymph through your lymphatic system. If you’ve ever noticed swelling on your neck when you’re feeling unwell, that’s your lymphatic system in action. Lymph nodes become sensitive and swell in response to illness, stress, or infection; this is a sign that your lymphatic system is working to flush out infection-causing bacteria, viruses, dead or diseased cells, and other antigens—substances that trigger an immune response. Asana and pranayama aid this filtering process by encouraging flow and movement of lymph.
Lymph Node: These checkpoints screen lymphatic fluid for foreign invaders. They clean out any that are found, then return the fluid to your blood. Movement in yoga asanas, particularly from Sun Salutations and inversions, can help facilitate lymph flow.
Breaking the Stress Cycle with Yoga
Not all stress is bad. Positive challenges, such as getting a promotion or pursuing a new hobby, help you grow and build resilience in the process.
But when you feel threatened, your fear center is activated, triggering anxiety and the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and norepinephrine, which tax vital organs, activate the fight-or-flight response, and prepare you to react. When your body is regularly in this state, you can experience elevated blood pressure, poor digestion, and lowered immunity. Fortunately, research suggests that you can consciously regulate your stress response, reduce inflammation, and possibly enhance immunity with yoga.
Yoga increases activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex—the part that is responsible for conscious thinking and emotional regulation—which can help reduce stress. Yoga also lessens activity in the amygdala, the part of your brain that works with the prefrontal cortex to identify threats and process fear.
A regular asana practice can regulate both parts of your brain and lessen how often you feel hijacked by real or perceived threats.
Poses, breathwork, and deep relaxation practices like meditation also strengthen your body’s ability to transition from the stress response (sympathetic nervous system activation) to the relaxation response (parasympathetic nervous system activation). Overcoming short-term stress improves the function of your immune system, which boosts your body’s capacity to fight antigens and heal.
Mindful breathing can help you calm down, which in turn can have a positive impact on your immunity. During each exhalation, your heart becomes slightly more relaxed with increased parasympathetic activity. This is why elongating your exhalations in pranayama practices is relaxing.
You have probably heard of homeostasis, which is the dynamic process your body goes through to maintain balance. But, you may not have heard of allostasis: the dynamic process of maintaining homeostasis amidst increased stress. When you are under significant stress, for example, during a significant life change such as a divorce, death, or even a pandemic, your body has to work harder to find and maintain balance. Humans are built to be strong and resilient. Yoga can help to maintain that resilience.
Allostasis is the process of maintaining homeostasis during times of stress.
5 Tips to Build Immunity
Transform your distress into eustress to boost your immunity and thrive during adversity. Here are five research-backed ways to do this:
1. Stay Connected to Others and Share Your Kindness
Humans are social animals, designed for connection. Call your parents, grandparents, an old friend, or someone you haven’t talked to in a while to check in and offer support. Helping others gives you a mission, purpose, and meaning and inhibits the fear center of your brain—a phenomenon Stanford researcher Kelly McGonigal calls “the biology of courage.” This tend-and-befriend approach helps sustain your optimism and shifts your body’s negative response to stress.
2. Do More Yoga
Even a few minutes of poses or inversions carries infection-fighting white blood cells through your system. Lymphatic vessels have one-way valves that prevent backflow. Poses where your head is below your heart, such as Downward-Facing Dog Pose, Supported Headstand, and Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose encourage these valves to open, which eventually returns lymph back into your bloodstream through ducts, maintaining your normal blood volume and pressure.To ease emotional pressure, try practicing yoga to wind down at night or first thing when you wake up. Since dynamic movements and muscle engagement also get your lymph flowing, take mini breaks throughout the day to go into Chair Pose or to do a mini Sun Salutation on the floor or against your desk.
3. Cultivate Calm with Mindful Breathing
Elongated exhalations stimulate your vagus nerve, which gives your heart a signal to slow down and activates your rest, digest, and rejuvenate response. You can start by introducing a simple breathing technique to your daily routine or throughout your day: Simply sit tall and consciously take fuller breaths, doubling the length of the out breath for a 1:2 inhale-exhale ratio. Start with a 2-count inhalation and a 4-count exhalation, and gradually extend as it feels comfortable.
4. Practice Meditation
Meditation trains your brain and body to increase the efficacy of the relaxation response. Here’s a visualization to try: Imagine a light within you that expands with each breath. See it grow beyond your body, home, city, and nation. Envision your light touching the light of others surrounding you. Try to work up to 20 minutes of this visualization. Remember: Feeling connection with others is a particularly powerful way of stimulating the immune response.
3. Rest Up!
Sleep is key to keeping distress down and immunity up. Studies show that quality shuteye is essential for rejuvenating and repairing your body so that it can bolster the production of infection-fighting T-cells and cytokines, a protein that targets infection and inflammation. If you can, log at least seven to eight hours a night. If you can’t, take a twenty-minute nap to help offset the negative effects any sleep deprivation may be having on your immune system. Beyond nightly shuteye, take breaks during the day to meditate and relax. Even five mindful minutes every hour or two can be soothing.