Practitioners of Tai Chi often feel as if they are healthier and less prone to coughs and colds than non-practitioners, but it is difficult to assess this objectively. Skeptics might suggest that it is not that Tai Chi is making people more resistant to sickness, but that the people who are likely to practice Tai Chi regularly are simply those who are more naturally healthy and resistant to disease. However, science would have to disagree with these skeptics. Proof is mounting up that points to the fact that practicing Tai Chi can help to boost the immune system, even in those people who are most at risk of infection.
The short-term effects of the practice of Tai Chi on the immune system have been examined by scientists. A study of the immune system activity of a group of inexperienced practitioners of Tai Chi found that participating in regular Tai Chi sessions for 12 weeks was able to significantly affect their immune systems. Blood tests before and after the program of Tai Chi showed that participants has experienced a decrease in their monocyte counts and a significant increase in the ratio of T helper cells to suppresor cells. There was also an increase in the number of regulatory T cells, although there was no significant change in the total number of white blood cells. Practicing Tai Chi was able to improve the function of the immune system by making the regulatory T cells more active. (Yeh 2006)
The long term benefits of practicing Tai Chi on the immune system have been examined by scientists studying experienced Tai Chi practitioners. The study included two groups of senior citizens. One group was composed of people who had been regularly practicing Tai Chi for at least four years. The other group included people who lacked Tai Chi training. The study found that the Tai Chi practitioners has significantly higher levels of T cells, including active T lymphocytes, in their bloodstreams than the non-practitioners. The study also found that there was a significant increase in the number of active T lymphocytes following a session of Tai Chi. (Sun 1989)
Research has also been undertaken to assess how the practice of Tai Chi can affect the body’s immune response to vaccinations and viruses.
One study took two groups of older adults, a control group and a group that practiced Tai Chi for five months. At the beginning of the study, both groups received an influenza vaccine. Blood tests before and after the study showed that the people in the Tai Chi group had a significantly stronger and longer antibody response to the vaccine than those who had not been practicing Tai Chi. Practicing Tai Chi made the influenza vaccine more effective. (Yang 2007)
Another study examined the effects of Tai Chi on immunity to the virus that causes shingles, the varicella zoster virus. The study involved some older adults, in whom an infection with this virus could be very serious. Participants took part in either a health education program or a Tai Chi program over a period of 25 weeks. They were vaccinated against the virus at the 16 week point. The people in the Tai Chi group showed a significantly stronger immune response to the virus, both before and after the vaccination. The increase in the response of the people in the Tai Chi group before and after the vaccination was given was also significantly stronger. The increase in their response was twice that of the control group. (Irwin 2007)
Research has also been conducted into the ability of Tai Chi to enhance immune function in people who are undergoing medical treatment for conditions in which the immune system has become even more important than normal.
This study suggested that the immune benefits of Tai Chi might be linked to the relaxation and stress management functions of the exercise.
The study included three groups of people. One group practiced Tai Chi, while the others took part in cognitive behavioral relaxation training and spiritual growth activities. All of the participants were HIV positive and most were receiving treatment with antiretroviral drugs. Each group met for 90 minutes once a week for ten weeks. The researchers took blood samples to monitor the function of the immune system. All three of the groups showed a significant improvement in the number of lymphocyte white blood cells in their systems, indicating that Tai Chi and other relaxation methods can help to boost the immune system. These techniques also offer other important benefits, such as stress reduction, for people who are undergoing treatment for conditions such as HIV, as well as for healthy people. (McCain 2008)
More research is needed in order to understand the effects of Tai Chi on the immune system, and scientists are pursuing further investigations into this area. The benefits that Tai Chi appears to be able to produce in the function of the immune system could prove to be very important, not just for the people who want to improve their general health and avoid the common cold, but also for patients whose immune systems are coping with serious diseases. Tai Chi can help people to enjoy greater benefits from vaccinations and it can boost the immune system even in people who are dealing with stressful conditions that affect the immune system.
Irwin, MR. Olmstead, R. Oxman, MN. (2007) Augmenting Immune Responses to Varicella Zoster Virus in Older Adults: A Randomized, Controlled Trial of Tai Chi. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. 55(4):511-7 Available online at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1532-5415.2007.01109.x/abstract Accessed 21/01/2011
McCain, NL. Gray, DP. Elswick, RK. Robins, JW. Tuck, I. Walter, JM. Rausch, SM. Ketchum, JM. (2008) A randomized clinical trial of alternative stress management interventions in persons with HIV infection. J COnsult Clin Psychol. Jun 76(3):431-41 Available online at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18540736 Accessed 21/01/2011
Sun, XS. Xu, Y. Xia, YJ. (1989) Determination of E-rosette-forming lymphocytes in aged subjects with Taichiquan exercise. Int J Sports Med Jun 10(3):217-9 Available online at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2789200 Accessed 21/01/2011.
Yang, Y. (2007) Effects of a Taiji and Qigong Intervention on the Antibody Response to Influenza Vaccine in Older Adults. The American Journal of Chinese Medicine 35(4):597-607 Available online at http://www.worldscinet.com/ajcm/35/3504/S0192415X07005090.html Accessed 21/01/2011
Yeh, SH. Chuang, H. Lin, LW. Hsiao, CY. Eng, HL. (2006) REgular tai chi chuan exercise enhances functional mobility and CD4CD25 regulatory T cells. Br J Sports Med Mar 40(3):239-43 Available online at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16505081 Accessed 21/01/2011