A Band-Aid... for Your Lungs
It's spring. Which means that along with flowers blooming and "beach body" resolutions looming, allergies are hitting. Hard.
As rates of asthma and allergies rise each year, so does the amount of money put into treatment. Breathing is about the most basic function needed for survival, so it's not surprising that there are thousands of medications available, from sophisticated inhalers to all manner of nasal sprays and antihistamines. But the numbers of asthma attacks and allergies continue to rise, which shows that these medications are just a Band Aid for a larger problem. They aren't targeting the root cause of asthma and allergies: inflammation.
Fanning the (In)Flame
Here's where inflammation and asthma tango: Inflamed bronchial tubes restrict airways as much as the contraction of the bronchial muscles (what happens during an asthma attack). Acute inflammation of the bronchial tubes can also happen during asthma attacks, along with mucus secretion, which further clogs the airway. Many asthmatics also experience chronic inflammation of the bronchial tubes even when they aren't having an attack; this doesn't typically restrict breathing but it does make bronchial tubes predisposed to spasms, contraction, and acute inflammation.
Long story short: Inflammation bad. Breathing good.
Imbalance = Inflammation
Asthma causes distress in the body, which leads to elevated cortisol. Can you imagine a more stressful situation than struggling to get oxygen into your lungs?
Making matters worse, persistent stress -- from asthma attacks, a crazy job, mothering young children -- leads to cortisol resistance and increased inflammation throughout the body, including your bronchial tubes and muscles. In fact, imbalanced hormones, whether from high cortisol, low thyroid or out-of-whack estrogen and progesterone, contribute to higher rates of inflammation all throughout the body.
Recent medical thought has put forth the idea that inflammation is the root cause of all chronic diseases. You know how much I love root causes, so let's dive headfirst into tackling this one.
While inhalers and allergy medication are very important for the health and wellbeing of many, there is another way to reduce body-wide inflammation that doesn't require a trip to the pharmacy. It's yoga.
Yoga has been shown to decrease inflammation as measured by IL-6, an interleukin that is both a pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokine. This one's just common sense: In one study regular yoga participants, especially those who practiced hatha yoga, showed lower stress levels and reduced inflammatory responses. Another randomized trial showed that Iyengar yoga helps distressed women; allergies cause distress and distress worsens allergies. Talk about a vicious cycle! Many women with asthma and allergies also have anxiety -- When will my next attack happen? Did I remember my medication? -- and yoga reduces anxiety in women.
Yoga doesn't just lower things; it's also been shown to increase DHEA, a key component of a healthy immune response. Yoga improves HRV (Heart Rate Variability), a major factor in stress "suppleness." I describe HRV in detail in my book, if you want to learn more about this totally awesome way to measure and manage your stress response. Lastly, yoga raises serotonin and lowers monoamine oxidase, two neurochemicals involved in stress and depression.
Not only will the stress-reducing effects of yoga help reduce inflammation throughout your body and improve your breathing ability, yoga also places special awareness on the breath. Timing movements brings special focus to your inhale and exhale, making you more in tune with your body and one of its most important functions.
But Dr. Sara, I HAVE NO TIME!
If you've got five minutes, you've got time for a yoga pose. I used to think this too, until I hit the wall in my 30s. Now I know that the people who feel they have no time are the ones who most desperately need just five minutes for just one pose.
That's right, just one pose is all I'm asking for. Pepper in a few minutes here and there over the course of the day, and you'll be amazed at the number of poses you can get through. Or just do one pose. I predict you'll also be amazed at how alive and awake you feel!
This is definitely a "baby steps" approach to adding exercise to your daily life, and I love it when people tackle their problems using baby steps. It's been proven to be super-effective in the long run when it comes to developing healthy habits.
If you're like most people, especially women of a certain age, a workout session is a serious time commitment. Driving to the gym, an hour of weights or treadmill or spinning class, then the much-needed shower... it can eat up entire chunks of your day!
Those of us who need it the most are the ones who put it off the most often -- because we don't have time, we're too tired, or because we'd rather drink a glass of wine and check Facebook. So skip the time-suck of Facebook and join me for a quick Uddiyana session: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ytRJndnnUSs
If you want more quick yoga pose ideas, check out the rest of my Just One Pose series.
Let's face it: The only reason I want you breathing hard is from some butt-kicking interval training or a good romp in the bedroom. So if you're a chronic wheezer and puffer, add some yoga to your exercise routine. Let me know how it goes on Facebook and Twitter -- I'm always interested in your feedback!
Sara Gottfried, M.D., is a practicing integrative physician and author of The Hormone Cure (Scribner/Simon & Schuster, 2013). You can follow Dr. Sara on Twitter, connect with her on Facebook, watch her videos on Youtube, and subscribe to her newsletter.
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