Yoga, Nutrition, and Inflammation: Fighting Aging and ‘Diseases of Civilization’

Chronic.InflammationArguably the most far reaching medical development of the last five years has involved our understanding of the links between chronic low-grade inflammation and so-called diseases of civilization and aging.

Diseases now routinely linked to chronic inflammation, which has risen steadily with age in t over the past 70 years, include severe gastrointestinal diseases, including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis; diabetes types I and II; virtually all cancers in all stages, from initiation to progression to metastasis; osteoarthritis (which is no longer viewed as a “wear and tear” disorder or simple adjunct of aging); osteoporosis and osteopenia; all so-called autoimmune disorders; atherosclerosis, hypertension, and other cardiovascular disorders; and, most remarkably, numerous neurological or psychiatric conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, and bipolar disorders.

Even depression and some forms of aggression have now been linked to chronic inflammation, backed by extensive evidence involving a wide range of cytokines and other inflammatory markers. Two reviews of the role of inflammation and dysfunctional immune systems include this brief overview written for molecular biologists, and this technical paper on inflammatory diseases and stress. Both include extensive bibliographies.

Remarkably, all these non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are uncommon in the world’s few remaining hunting and gathering societies, which is the justification for the current practice of labeling them as “diseases of civilization” or “diseases of affluence,” or “diseases of biological, but not chronological, aging.”

Figure 1: Chronic Inflammatory Disorders or ‘Diseases of Civilization’

Dozens of  papers have confirmed that most of the inflammatory diseases noted below are rare in the world’s few last tribal societies, implying that their origins lie modern food supplies or other sides of modern life. To download two reviews of this issue covering it from slightly different angles, click here and here. See also the massive 2010 study Food and Western Disease: Health and Nutrition from an Evolutionary Perspective by the late medical nutritionist & anthropologist (and Avalon collaborator) Staffan Lindeberg, M.D., Ph.D., of Lund University in Sweden. (Write us if you want a pdf copy of this classic book.) On the role of yoga in downregulating inflammation and treating such diseases, see the further links to papers below. 


Figure ©2014-7 Avalon Yoga International, Inc.

Today a common denominator linking dozens of once separate medical fields, from immunology to cancer research to medical nutrition and psychiatry, is the search for effective ways to combat chronic low-grade inflammation, which an increasing number of researchers claim is the key to avoiding or curing nearly all non-communicable diseases (NCDs) or putative “diseases of aging.” The economic and political impact of such claims, which can be expected to become much more common as research in this field increases, rivals even global warming in the extent of its impact on future human civilizations. For discussion of such issues, see eg., the Introduction to this recent collection of studies by prominent European medical nutritionists.

Interestingly, in the same years in which inflammatory models of disease have gained traction in the medical research (if not mainstream physician) community, dozens of studies have independently suggested that every major side of yoga — from its nutritional aspects (which have played a role in yoga since the middle ages) to its emphasis on controlled breathing, balance, stretching, compression, and focused attention (or meditation) — can radically alter inflammatory processes all the way down to the genetic level (see infra for representative papers).

It is precisely this side of yoga and similar body-work traditions that is driving yoga’s rising reputation in integrative or functional medicine — although widespread acceptance of yoga by mainstream physicians continues to be hampered by suspicion of yoga’s New Age past.

A number of causes have been proposed to explain the rising levels of chronic inflammation typical of aging populations in the developed world. All involve what specialists in evolutionary medicine characterize as a genetic “mismatch” between the ecological conditions in which humans first evolved and the radically different conditions of modern life.

One of the most obvious of these mismatches involves massive changes in the last 70 years in dietary practices, accelerating changes that began with the start of the shift from hunting and gathering to agricultural societies roughly 10,000 years ago. This mismatch is illustrated most radically when we compare modern with what is known of premodern ratios of long-chained omega-6/3 fatty acids imbedded in cellular membranes throughout the body, where those ratios help regulate the level of inflammatory responses that occur when the body is wounded or subjected to bacterial or viral insults. 

These issues are discussed in a mass of recent medical studies that we cover with students each term in our Teacher Training Programs — updating that information whenever major new studies appear. Those include this classic paper on the evolution of modern diets in general and this one on the dysregulation of the immune system associated with distorted dietary omega 6/omega 3 ratios in cellular membranes.

A long series of papers over the past few decades by JR Hibbeln and his associates at the National Institutes of Health have identified such dysregulation as a major cause of depression, some kinds of aggression, and more recently other social-psychiatric conditions. Hibbeln’s work in the last few years has been not only confirmed by other groups but explained as well compellingly by studies of levels of common pro-inflammatory cytokines in the brain.

Other papers on the changes modern diets have induced in gut bacteria, which  also help regulate human inflammation, complicate the picture even further. Go here for one of many recent reviews of this problem, which is also covered by medical specialists in our Teachers Training Program.

Discussions of diet have always played a role in yoga, although the dietary recommendations made in premodern texts were wildly inconsistent and have no scientific value.

(The idea that premodern yogic diets had much if anything to do with so-called Ayurvedic medicine is a New Age conceit first popularized in the West in the 1970, and has no support among academic experts on the history of yoga or Ayurvedic medicine.)

What has been consistent in yoga since the middle ages, and does conform with modern research, is the view that what you put in your body has as much of an effect on health as postural practice. Reflecting this, in Avalon’s Training Programs we spend a lot of time discussing means of modulating chronic inflammation with specialists in nutrition and integrative medicine on our Faculty.

Interestingly, as noted earlier, recent studies have shown that all sides of yoga besides nutrition  — including stretching, balancing, controlled breathing, and focused attention (or meditation) —  also downregulate chronic inflammation through a variety of known molecular, hormonal, and neurobiological pathways.

For one early study on this, see this 2010 paper that first systematically discussed yoga and the downregulation of  inflammatory markers. Five years later, such effects following even one yoga practice are being studied at the epigenetic expression (that is, the degree with which specific genes are turned on or off through behavioral interventions). You can download the most important paper yet published on this issue here. Still more research of this type is now in the pipeline from a number of major research groups.

Yoga is evolving rapidly in contradictory directions, as has occurred before many times in the past thousand years. It is interesting to watch the clash today of different forms of yoga — including those that involve serious work in behavioral medicine and the old-style New Age varieties (filled with talk of cakras and doshas and prana and “energy healing”) that still dominate talk about yoga’s benefits in the multibillion dollar (and often crassly exploitative) “yoga industry.”

We think that the evidence suggests that New Age yoga will lose much of its glamour in the next decade, as its practitioners from the 1960s through 1980s age or die, and that yoga will increasingly be accepted in the mainstream medical community as part of behavioral medicine. We will cover this issue in detail in a big book-in-progress, briefly alluded to earlier, whose working title is Evolution and Diseases of Civilization: Surviving in a world of lethal foods, toxic medicines, and inflammatory lifestyles.

©2014-7 Avalon Yoga International, Inc.