Chronic Inflammation and Yoga

If you have ever experienced an unexplained chronic pain, numbness, tingling or burning in the joints, muscles/soft tissue, skin or internally – that may have then just disappeared – you might be suffering from chronic inflammation.

What is Inflammation?

So, what is inflammation, why does it occur, and what are the best, safe and natural options to curb this disorder? Let’s start by defining the term: From the Latin term inflammo (meaning setting alight or igniting), inflammation is part of the body’s immune response, the body’s attempt at self-protection. The objective of inflammation is to remove damaged cells, harmful irritants, or toxic pathogens and begin the healing process. The 4 classic signs of inflammation are –

• Dolor (pain)
• Calor (heat)
• Tumor (swelling)
• Rubor (redness)

When something harmful or irritating affects a part of our body, there is a biological response to try to remove it. This response takes the form of inflammation for the body to heal itself. While inflammation is not infection, an infection caused by bacteria, virus or fungus can trigger an inflammation process.

As a short term response to a threat inflammation is a very useful self protection mechanism.

The Inflammatory Process

Acute inflammation is the initial response of the body to harmful stimuli and is characterised by the release of –

• Specialised chemicals that create a conducive atmosphere for the pro-inflammatory molecules to act and
• Specialised immunity molecules/cells that fight the invaders – such as leukocytes, macrophages, mast cells, bradykinin, histamine, and TNF.

This internal process leads to the removal of pathogens and promote healing of any damaged tissue. Thus, in a perfect world or perfect body the inflammatory process occurs just as it should, releasing pro-inflammatory molecules and immune factors when needed, and then turning them off when the threat has been sufficiently addressed. However …

Chronic Inflammation

Chronic inflammation is characterised by a response that is aberrant, out of control and is not completely turned off or extinguished. In chronic inflammation the inflammatory response continues eve when not needed. With the inflammation switch refusing to turn off, the body operates as if it is always under attack. Inflammation draws on our body’s energy and resources and having a constant, low-grade flow of powerful pro-inflammatory molecules can result in bodily damage over time.

Once this system goes out of control it self-perpetuates and quickly spirals into disease in areas such as blood vessels (atherosclerosis); pancreatic tissue (diabetes); bones and joints (arthritis); digestive system (lactose and gluten intolerance); limbs, muscles and nerves (fibromyalgia); fat tissue (obesity); throat (thyroid issues)—just for starters.

Causes of Chronic Inflammation

There are many factors that can lead to chronic inflammation, these may include –

• Aging
• Genetic disposition
• Hypertension
• Chronic infection
• Chronic physical stress (under/over activity, environmental pollutants, smoking, excess alcohol etc)
• Chronic mental stress
• Poor diet
• Long term medication

Conventional Treatment for Chronic Inflammation

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), that include drugs like aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen are often used together with steroids for more severe cases, such as glucocorticoids which work to calm an overactive immune system and to decrease the level of inflammation in the body.

However all these medicines, although extremely useful, can have serious side effects. Is there anything that is safer?

Yoga as Therapy

There’s also good news for those of us who have a regular yoga practice. Several studies now report that a regular yoga practice –

• Brings down the levels of stress hormones that promote inflammation
• Lowers the levels of a number of pro-inflammatory molecules in the body and brings down inflammation that is beneficial in conditions like arthritis
• Reduces a subset of pro-inflammatory molecules called cytokines thereby relieving severe pain seen in diseases like fibromyalgia
• Inhibits inflammation that in turn weakens and may even kill cancerous cells in people with cancer.

We are still not quite sure how Yoga works (the mechanism), but there is considerable evidence that is does! So get the mat out and start practicing – you will feel the benefits.