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Is Yoga the Next New 'Antioxidant'?

Have you ever wondered why people who do yoga often look a lot younger than their age? A new study on yoga might have some answers.
08/03/2015 05:47pm ET | Updated August 3, 2016
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Have you ever wondered why people who do yoga often look a lot younger than their age? A new study on yoga might have some answers.

A study in the July 2015 Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that 12 weeks of yoga amped up the body's natural defense system against toxins. Yoga raised the level of natural antioxidants in the body and strengthened the immune system.

What are antioxidants and why are they important for our health?

When we process food for energy or when we are exposed to toxins like air pollution or ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun, our body produces harmful byproducts called free radicals. These chemicals circulate through our blood and can damage DNA, cells, and tissues. Scientists call this harmful process unleashed by free radicals "oxidative stress." The effect of oxidative stress on the body has been linked to medical issues like heart disease, cancer, and even eye problems like glaucoma.

Antioxidants neutralize free radicals in the body and come in many forms: vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and minerals like selenium and manganese. The list of antioxidants is long and diverse, including proteins, enzymes, and compounds like glutathione, coenzyme Q10, lipoic acid, flavonoids, phenols, polyphenols, and phytoestrogens.

Eating foods rich in antioxidants like certain beans, nuts, fruits, and vegetables and even chocolate, has been linked to better memory and heart health. Polyphenols, a type of antioxidant found in green tea, are thought to help prevent cancer. Antioxidants on the skin help to slow the effects of aging caused by UV damage, such as sun spots and wrinkles.

Now yoga can be added to your list of natural antioxidant boosters.

The new study found that 12 weeks of yoga led to higher levels of antioxidants in the body and less signs of oxidative stress compared to people who did running, cycling, or jumping rope. Not only that, but the immune system of people who did yoga improved. Women and men in the study did 90 minutes of yoga weekly in a class and 40 minutes at home for at least three times a week over 12 weeks.

If you are looking to experience the same benefits, make sure to try a well-rounded yoga program that includes more than just yoga postures.
The study's weekly class included:
  • 35 minutes of yoga poses (asanas)
  • 30 minutes of yoga breathing exercises (pranayama) and
  • 25 minutes of meditation including a loving-kindness (Metta) meditation and self-awareness exercise that focused on a non-judgmental attitude.

Yoga, unlike the other types of exercise, led to lower levels of nitric oxide, a chemical which, in excess, acts as a harmful free radical. Yoga also lowered signs of oxidative stress in the body, including byproducts like malondialdehyde and F2-isoprostane and the stress hormone adrenaline.

Our bodies have natural antioxidant defense systems that combat oxidative stress. Yoga increased these natural antioxidants in the body, including higher levels of the protein glutathione and an enzyme called glutathione peroxidase. Glutathione levels went up for both the yoga and regular exercise groups, but much more so in the yoga group: Yoga more than doubled the presence of the natural antioxidant protein glutathione in the body. This supports earlier research that 6 months of yoga led to higher antioxidant levels.

Yoga also strengthens the immune system. Your immune system has many important players, including defense proteins called cytokines. The 12-week study found that yoga was linked with higher levels of important cytokines that are responsible for keeping your immune system strong. This supports ongoing studies that show yoga not only reduces stress on the body but also makes your immune system stronger.

So if you're looking to boost antioxidants in your body, you aren't just limited to blueberries or dark chocolate anymore -- you can roll out your mat and do some yoga, too.