Physiological Effects of Pranayama

The three major areas of physiological mechanisms which are either initiated and/or enhanced by Yoga/Pranayama practices are:

  • Oxygen Metabolism
  • Lymph System
  • Brain and Nervous System

Oxygen Metabolism

The human system will begin to disorganize and die after several minutes without oxygen. It is therefore quite a logical to think that altering oxygen metabolism might be curative for diseases that have an oxygen deficiency component to their etiology. Both moderate and vigorous body movement and the accompanying muscle work increase oxygen demand in the cells. Evidence from research in exercise physiology demonstrates that muscular activity accelerates the rate of oxygen uptake from the blood. It has been shown that training and practice increase ventilitory threshold, anaerobic threshold and mechanical efficiency. This suggests that regular body movement with increased breath activity supports adaptation toward increased functional efficiency in the uptake and utilization of oxygen from the blood.
Recently there has been a tremendous amount of activity in both research and clinical practice which suggests that many deficiency disorders and degenerative diseases are, at least partially, attributable to defective Oxygen metabolism, Oxygen deficiency or hypoxia. This view is supported by many of the great names in research; Albert Szent-Gyorgi, Otto Warburg, Emmanuel Revici and Linus Pauling.
The Indian systems of Yoga/Pranayama proposed this view and developed specific methods for application centuries ago.
The practice of Pranayama Yoga increases oxygen availability which potentially:

Supports energy (ATP, AMP, and ADP) generation.

Generates water as a by product of energy metabolism which contributes a major portion to the lymph supply

Energy Generation

It has been well established that the energy necessary for cell work and body heat regulation is supplied through the reaction of oxygen and glucose to form high energy phosphate bonds. There is a direct relationship between oxygen demand, the impulse to breath and the basal metabolic rate (BMR, the rate that the cells in the body consume oxygen and glucose to produce water, carbon dioxide and energy).
Hydrolysis of adenosine triposphate (ATP) is accompanied by the release of chemical energy for cellular and muscular activity.
The food consumed by us gets converted into glucose. The oxygen received by the cell is utilized to generate the basic energy, pure water and the carbon dioxide as given by the following representative formula
6O2 + C6H12O6 + (BMR) = Ergs + 6CO2 + 6H2O
Air + Food + (BMR) = Energy + carbon dioxide + water
Oxygen (O2) plus glucose (C6H12O6) through BMR yields energy in the form of high energy phosphate bonds (especially ATP) plus water (H2O) which dissolves carbon dioxide (CO2) and facilitates the hydrolysis of energy yielding phosphate bonds. It should be noted that only a portion of the air and food, the essence, is employed in the process: only 20% of air is oxygen and glucose is approximately 60% of food.

Water Production

A second critical benefit of increased oxygen metabolism generated through the practice of Pranayama is linked to the lymph system. Besides the production of energy, in the phosphorylization cycle, there is also the generation of pure water as a waste product or by product.
This water is dramatically and directly increased when oxygen consumption is increased at the cell. Because this water becomes involved with the internal cleansing performed by the lymph it is a major link between the breath and lymphatic system function.

Immune Function

ATP drives the activity of every cell. Therefore, immune function as well as the production of immune resources (white blood cells, lymphocytes, T-cells, natural killer cells, etc) are indirectly dependent on oxygen consumption. These activities become deficient in individuals who are unwell. It has been shown that Pranayama and Yogic exercise can mobilize the effect of natural killer (NK) cells. In individuals who exercise so vigorously that they exceed the aerobic level and cross the anaerobic threshold immune function is decreased. Both suggest that oxygen deficiency leads to decreased immune function and that moderate Yogic exercise and Pranayama increases immune function.

In his research, Nobel Prize recipient Otto Warburg found that oxygen deficiency was typical of cancer cells. There are numerous studies that associate reduced oxygen intake with increased mortality and reduced resistance to disease. In studies with elders, immunodeficiency was found to be one of several consequences of reduced oxygen metabolism.
Oxygen’s effect on the immune function has been demonstrated through research studies on two nutrients that have been shown to have immuno-modulating capability. Germanium, an element that bonds easily with Oxygen, is thought to increase the efficiency of the use of oxygen in the mitochondria of the cell. In addition, it may help to decrease free radicals in the blood.

In a German study it was found that in elderly, injured, stressed and hospitalized individuals the arterial oxygen content is often reduced from normal levels.
Administration of oxygen was found to elevate the arterial oxygen content and increase recovery rates. The experimental addition of germanium to the treatment protocol increased oxygen utilization and further accelerated the healing process.
Blood studies on patients with AIDS revealed, in addition to deficient immune capability, low concentrations of Co enzyme Q10, a co enzyme present in all healthy cells. The patients were administered CoQ10 and their symptoms as well as blood immune factors improved. Co Q10 apparently improves the ability of oxygen to produce ATP. Both germanium and Co Q10 enhance the ability of oxygen to support immune function with the implication that increased oxygen through Yogic exercises/Pranayama may have a direct impact on immune deficiency states.

Free Radical Balance

There are multiple factors that modify oxygen demand and uptake besides the cell work of body movement and organ function. Such factors include the effects of chemical and environmental stress caused by foods, water and airborne pollution. Emotional, relational or career stressors, the stress of injury and the stress of infection also affect the body’s ability to absorb and utilize oxygen. Accumulation of these effects can negatively impact on oxygen metabolism and precipitate functional imbalances in the human system.
The normal activity of energy metabolism creates a certain number of by-products. These molecules are called free radicals. With the impact of the above mentioned stressors greater amounts of free radicals are produced. All normal molecules have paired electrons in their outer electron orbits. Free radicals are unstable molecules with an unpaired electron in their outermost electron orbit. In an effort to return to a stable state these renegade molecules steal electrons from healthy molecules causing tissue damage and aging. The body produces a number of antioxidant enzymes, super oxide dismutase, catalase, glutathione peroxidase and methione reductase, whose job is to neutralize the free radicals produced in normal energy metabolism. However, in an imbalanced or unwell system demand for antioxidant enzymes is high and natural productivity, due to pathology, may be low.
When slow, deep breathing and moderate body motion is activated as in Yogic exercises there is an increased demand for oxygen molecules which are taken up from the blood. The potential for free radicals to bond with this available oxygen, neutralizing the free radical population, can be greatly accelerated when regular Yogic exercise/Pranayama is included in a person’s daily health routine.
There are a number of strategies for resolution of oxygen deficiency disease (ODD). These include the use of antioxidant nutrients (Vitamins A, C, E and selenium), antioxidant enzymes, coenzyme Q10 etc). There is, however, nothing more, inexpensive than oxygen itself taken in maximum daily doses through Yogic exercises/Pranayama.

Lymph System

The lymph fluid is actually part cellular water and part blood plasma. The lymphatic system has been some what neglected in most Western scientific traditions. Compared to the heart, for example, the lymph is relatively unexplored.
In general, the lymphatic system is a network of organs, tissues, vessels, nodes and flow potentials. It collects interstitial fluid, infused with the by products of cellular activity, and transports it centrally where it rejoins the blood system. In this role it regulates endogenous metabolites and waste products. In addition, the lymphatic system is a primary component of the immune system helping to protect the body from a broad range of pathogenic factors. It carries fluids infused with bacteria, virus, and fungus into immuno-active lymph nodes where lymphocytes, reticular cells and macrophages kill or neutralize toxic or enemy cells, substances and organisms. In this role it regulates exogenous disease inducing agents.
The lymphatic system also has a nutritional function wherein it assists in bringing nutritional factors into proximity with the tissues.
In Western science, until recently the nearly invisible lymph, received very little of the focus than it really deserves and very few health generating strategies or modalities were based on its function. In the orient, where science is based on trial and error and the invisible “Prana” is honored; the results of healthy and unhealthy lymphatic function were noted in healthy individuals and compared in unhealthy individuals. Even though the lymphatic function itself was unknown and unnamed, its effects were generally ascribed to the proper action of Prana (energy) and fluids. When we look carefully at Yogic/Pranayam practice in relation to what we now know about lymphatic function and its healing role it appears that Yogic exercises/Pranayama practice were developed specifically with the enhancement of lymphatic function in mind. Breath, movement and posture all have specific effects on the production and circulation of the lymph.
Yoga/Pranayama practice appears to activate a number of mechanisms associated with the lymphatic system such as:

  1. Lymph generation and Propulsion
  2. Immune function
  3. Cerebrospinal fluid circulation

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