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New Hope for Hepatitis C

The detoxifying effects of Bikram Yoga may help in treating this deadly liver disease.

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Hepatitis C patients soon may be able to fight their disease from the yoga mat. At the Bastyr Center for Natural Health in Seattle, Washington, Bikram Yoga is used as a regular part of treatment for hepatitis C, the viral liver infection that now afflicts around 4 million Americans.

Bikram Yoga is practiced in heated rooms with temperatures ranging from 85 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity at a steamy 60 to 70 percent. This environment, combined with its sequence of 26 poses, sends heart rates soaring and potentially flushes the body of toxins, says Leanna Standish, N.D., Ph.D., director of Bastyr’s Research Institute and head of its hepatitis C clinic.

Hepatitis C is transmitted via blood or blood products. At greatest risk of infection are people who received blood transfusions or blood products prior to 1992, when a screening test became available to detect the virus in the blood supply. IV drug users—even those who have only experimented once or twice—and individuals who have had multiple sexual partners are also at high risk.

Unlike other forms of hepatitis that produce yellowing of the skin known as jaundice, hepatitis C generally has no symptoms until liver damage has occurred. As it progresses, hepatitis C causes increasing scarring of the liver and ultimately can produce cirrhosis, one of the several causes of liver failure. Standish, a convert to Bikram Yoga herself, began prescribing it to her hepatitis C patients about a year ago.

Bikram Yoga is used in combination with—not in place of—the standard treatment for hepatitis C: interferon and ribavirin, two antiviral medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

However, interferon and ribavirin are effective in only about 35 percent of cases and often produce various side effects, such as joint and muscle aches, fever, headache, hair loss, thyroid disease, nausea, weight loss, and irritability.

The heavy sweating that occurs with Bikram Yoga may help further battle hepatitis C by detoxifying the body, according to Standish, who also prescribes yoga for cancer patients after they have completed chemotherapy. Since hepatitis C causes inflammation in the liver, the hope is that by increasing blood circulation through the liver, white blood cells and immune substances that promote inflammation as a reaction to the viral infection could be reduced.

“This is still hypothetical,” says Standish. “But the kind of aerobic exercise that would be most valuable to flushing the liver would be yoga, and especially yoga where there is increased blood flow as well as sweating.” As Bikram Yoga stills the mind, it could also help boost the immune system, another key part of recovery, and it helps battle the “fatigue, depression, and anemia that can be side effects of conventional therapy,” she says.

The ultimate goal, says Standish, is to keep the liver healthy until better pharmaceutical treatments are found to knock out the hepatitis C virus. In the meantime, “we feel that we have something to offer which will lower inflammation in the liver.”