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Tai Chi for Immune Response

Medical Report: Immune Response and Tai Chi

Author: Eric L. Zielinski 



With the advent of antibacterial body products and vaccines for everything from the common cold to HIV, Americans have are being pushed to forgot that we have been designed with a glorious immune system that is well suited to combat most disease processes.  As an unfortunate consequence, we live in a hyper antiseptic society in which people are losing their vital connection to the earth at alarming rates. Sadly, as the evolutionary process has proven once again to be smarter than people, new strains of bacteria and viruses are developing at alarming rates and proving to be resistant to our modern approach and drug therapy. It is, therefore, vitally important to practice healthy, proven immunity-building habits to be free from sickness and live disease free. One such healthy habit is Tai Chi. Research has repeatedly proven that it is highly effective for everyone young to old, and has outlined various ways in which mind-body exercises like Tai Chi can boost immune function and help people live vibrant, healthy lives.


Immune Response


The immune response is the designed mechanism in which our body defends itself from bacteria, viruses, and substances that appear foreign and harmful. To accomplish this, it has developed two major approaches: innate and adaptive immunity. 


Innate, or nonspecific, immunity – the defense system present at birth and involves specific barriers that keep harmful materials from entering the body.  These barriers are immediately available for defense and form what is known as the “first line of defense” in the immune response. They include the following:


  • Cilia hair in the nose
  • Cough reflex
  • Enzymes in tears and skin oils
  • Eye lashes and eye brows
  • Mucus, which traps bacteria and small particles
  • Protein chemicals like interferon and interleukin-1, which causes fever
  • Skin
  • Sneeze reflex
  • Stomach acid
  • Vomiting reflex


Adaptive, or specific, immunity – the second line of defense that protects against re-exposure to the same pathogen. Unlike innate immunity, these mechanisms require time to respond to foreign invasion. Known as “specific immunity,” it is “antigen specific” and will only react in response to specific organisms. On the other hand nonspecific immune responses react to a wide variety of substances equally. Lastly, in contrast to innate immunity, adaptive immunity responds faster to repeat exposures to the same organism because it has a built-in memory function.  


According to the University of South Carolina School of Medicine


The main function of the immune system is self/non-self discrimination…Since pathogens may replicate intracellularly (viruses and some bacteria and parasites) or extracellularly (most bacteria, fungi and parasites), different components of the immune system have evolved to protect against these different types of pathogens. It is important to remember that infection with an organism does not necessarily mean diseases, since the immune system in most cases will be able to eliminate the infection before disease occurs. Disease occurs only when the bolus of infection is high, when the virulence of the invading organism is great or when immunity is compromised. 


In other words, an efficient immune response protects against diseases whereas an inefficient immune response allows diseases to develop.  It is theoretically plausible, therefore to assume that someone with a fully functioning immune system will never get sick and live to a ripe, old age with vigor and maximally expressed health.


Medical Research and Management


The fact that 75 percent of the immune system exists in the gut has steered the medical community to embrace more natural, diet-oriented recommendations in an effort to keep their patients’ immune responses fully functioning. Harvard Medical School (HMS), for instance, advises, “Your first line of defense is to choose a healthy lifestyle. Following general good-health guidelines is the single best step you can take toward keeping your immune system strong and healthy.” In addition to various vitamins, herbs, and probiotics, HMS recommends the following:


  • Don’t smoke.
  • Eat a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and low in saturated fat.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Control your blood pressure.
  • If you drink alcohol, drink only in moderation.
  • Get adequate sleep.
  • Take steps to avoid infection, such as washing your hands frequently and cooking meats thoroughly.
  • Get regular medical screening tests for people in your age group and risk category.


The medical community has also embraced stress management techniques like Tai Chi in an effort to stave off sickness. 


Once the immune response has become dampened, however, physicians are very quick to prescribe harmful antibiotics and antiviral medications that may lead to long-term immune system dysfunction. Symptom-based in its approach, treating sickness this way has proven to cause a stem of other public health issues issue like antibiotic-resistance bacteria and will ultimately destroy healthy gut bacteria which are required for healthy immune systems. 


Research showing Tai Chi’s ability to improve the immune response


Ultimately, anything that reduces mental and physical stress will improve the immune system.

Common for people to be one-sided in their attempt to improve their immune response, however, it is vital for people to take a holist approach in doing this. For example, exercising without eating proper nutrition will only have limited results in the same way people with stellar diets, but who are in emotional turmoil will likely suffer in their health profile because of it. Subsequently, balancing the four key areas of spiritual wellbeing, diet, mental health and physical vigor are fundamental to maximizing immune function and being free from sickness and disease. 


Research has proven that one of the more effective, “all-purpose” activities to accomplish this goal is Tai Chi. Grounded in principles of physical, mental and spiritual balance an authentic Tai Chi lifestyle will help people live as free from stress as humanly possible and will, thus, encourage healthy habits in every aspect of life. As research has proven, doing so will subsequently enhance our internal immune response in the following ways:


  • Unlike the scores of research proving that strenuous, exhaustive exercises cause short-term immune suppression, limited studies have been conduced on why so many people report beneficial effects on their immune systems after practicing Tai Chi. Subsequently, researchers from Chang Gung Memorial Hospital–Kaohsiung Medical Center set out to determine which health benefits are specifically affected and which biomarkers are responsible for this phenomenon. The study, published in Clinical Chemistry in 2010, investigated serum proteomic markers – blood markers indicating the full set of proteins encoded by a genome – to determine this. In all, the researchers, “Identified 39 protein spots for 18 proteins with a noticeable increase or decrease after [Tai Chi] exercise. Validation of the differentially displayed proteins with 20 paired pre- and post-exercise samples revealed a significant increase in complement factor H associated with decreases in C1 esterase inhibitor and complement factor B.” They concluded, “In this first study of proteomic biomarkers of [Tai Chi] exercise, we found an increase in complement factor H associated with a decrease in complement factor B.” In effect, since complement factor H is known for its ability to protect the body from microangiopathy [microvascular disease, or small vessel disease] and macular degeneration, Tai Chi was proven to increase specific immune responses related to the heart and eye.   
  • In 2006 the British Journal of Sports Medicine published a study in which researchers from Taiwan investigated the effects of a 12-week program of regular Tai Chi on functional mobility, beliefs about benefits of exercise on physical and psychological health and immune regulation in middle aged volunteers. Recruiting 14 men and 23 women who were considered of normal health, it was shown that “regular [Tai Chi] exercise had a highly significant positive effect on functional mobility, and beliefs about the health benefits of exercise, in the 37 participants. Total white blood cell and red blood cell count did not change significantly, but a highly significant decrease in monocyte count occurred. A significant increase in the ratio of T helper to suppressor cells was found, along with a significant increase in CD4CD25 regulatory T cells. Production of the regulatory T cell mediators transforming growth factor β and interleukin 10 under specific antigen stimulation (varicella zoster virus) was also significantly increased after this exercise program.” The researchers were thus able to confidently conclude that, “A 12 week program of regular TCC exercise enhances functional mobility, personal health expectations, and regulatory T cell function.”
  • One year later, the same researchers published a paper in which they measured fasting blood glucose, A1C (three month blood glucose) levels, complete blood counts, and T-lymphocyte subsets in blood before and three days after a similar 12-week Tai Chi program. The article – published in Diabetes Care – reported that, “After the 12-week [Tai Chi] exercise, the A1C levels revealed a significant decrease, but were not clinically normalized…Analysis of lymphocyte subpopulations showed that percentages of both CD4 and CD8 lymphocyte subpopulations significantly decreased after the [Tai Chi] exercise.” Although, “The effect of [Tai Chi] exercise on the increase in regulatory T-cells may indirectly be due to better cardiopulmonary fitness after exercise,” researchers proposed that, “Another possibility is that a regular [Tai Chi] exercise can improve glucose metabolism, resulting in less glycosylated proteins, which benefit immune regulatory function in type 2 diabetic patients.” Since it is well-known that glycosylated modulation of leukocyte surface receptors and soluble cytokines significantly change immune functions, the researchers conclude that, “Studies are needed to explore the glycosylated proteins other than A1C in type 2 diabetic patients that are involved in the improvement of immune functions after [Tai Chi] exercise. Moreover, an appropriate combination of the [Tai Chi] exercise program with diabetic medications may improve both glucose metabolism and immunity of type 2 diabetic patients.
  • The British Journal of Sports Medicine published a study in 2009 testing how type 2 diabetes patients on diabetes medication would respond to a 12-week Tai Chi Chuan program. They evaluated the following lab values: fasting blood glucose, HbA1c (three month blood glucose), and various immune response mediators – interleukin-12, interleukin-4, transforming growth factorβ, transcription factors (T-bet, GATA-3 and FoxP3), and Th1/Th2/T regulatory reaction. The results were quite encouraging and gives hope to those suffering from type 2 diabetes and are taking drugs because of it. The researchers stated, “A 12-week [Tai Chi] exercise programme decreases HbA1c levels along with an increase in the Th1 reaction,” thus proving that a combination of [Tai Chi] with medication significantly improves both metabolism and immunity of patients with type 2 diabetes.
  • The Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology contains a 2008 article reporting the results of alternative stress management interventions in people infected with HIV. Interestingly, the mental-stress-causing-immune-system-dysfunction cascade has been proven to contribute to disease progression in HIV patients. Subsequently, it was suspected that alternative stress management interventions like Tai Chi would enhance immune function for these patients; thereby decreasing HIV symptoms and related concerns. Three 10-week stress management approaches – cognitive-behavioral relaxation training, focused tai chi training and spiritual growth groups – were compared to a control group among 252 individuals with HIV infection. The authors discovered that in comparison to the control group, both the cognitive-behavioral relaxation training and focused Tai Chi training groups used less emotion-focused coping, and “all treatment groups had augmented lymphocyte proliferative function.” In addition, psychosocial functioning was enhanced and “robust findings of improved immune function have important clinical implications, particularly for persons with immune-mediated illnesses.” Consequently, as immune function is directly related to all forms of ill-health, the results of this study provides significant hope for people suffering from a variety of chronic diseases.
  • In 2007, the Journal of American Geriatrics Society published a study in which researchers took 122 health older adults aged 59 to 86 and determined the effects Tai Chi has on resting and vaccine-stimulated levels of cell-mediated immunity (CMI) to varicella zoster virus (VZV). After a 16-week intervention period, participants were vaccinated with Varivax – a live attenuated VZV vaccine licensed to prevent varicella, the cause of chickpox and shingles. The results were outstanding. According to the data, “Tai Chi alone induced an increase in VZV-CMI that was comparable in magnitude with that induced by varicella vaccine, and the two were additive; Tai Chi, together with vaccine, produced a substantially higher level of VZV-CMI than vaccine alone.” In other words, Tai Chi has the same effects of boosting the immune response against chickpox and shingles as a well-known vaccine does! As we have seen countless times before, “The Tai Chi group also showed significant improvements in SF-36 scores for physical functioning, bodily pain, vitality, and mental health.”


Although some of the studies above specifically report on diabetes and HIV patients, the concepts related to improved immune function remain true for everyone who practices Tai Chi.




We must remember that it is impossible to avoid bacterial, fungal or viral infection. In fact, many organisms must live in or on system is weakened, however, that people get sick from them. Therefore, it is paramount to practice proven, healthy habits like living a natural, organic lifestyle and practicing Tai Chi to best prepare your body to combat sickness and disease.


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