Can Yoga help Relieve Anxiety and Stress?Print
By Michael A. Smith, MD
Several years ago I hurt my lower back in a car accident. After several specialty consultations, massage therapy and occasional muscle relaxers, I still suffered a few discomfortful days which in some cases kept me from getting out of bed. But then one of my friends introduced me to a yoga position or pose called the polar bear. Here’s a picture of it:
Getting into this position several times a day for several months did what nothing else could do: Stop the discomfort. It turns out that the “polar bear” stretches my lower spine, slightly increasing the disc space between my lumbar vertebrae. This takes the pressure off of the nerve roots exiting from that part of the spine. I now stretch my back in this position daily, and I love it.
But yoga goes way beyond discomfort relief. It might actually help to balance your nervous system and could even help you manage chronic stress. Let’s take a look.
Yoga Improves Brain Levels of GABA
Anyone who is dealing with stress-related conditions should definitely consider yoga. A new study suggests it may help improve mood and stress.
The research was a joint effort between Boston University School of Medicine and the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. The investigators hypothesized that stress causes a drop in the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system — the part of the nervous system that calms you down. It’s believed that this might be due to a low level of the neurotransmitter, gamma amino-butyric acid or GABA.
Low GABA occurs in anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, epilepsy, and chronic discomfort. According to the researchers, yoga could activate the vagus nerve, which in turn activates the parasympathetic system and increases production of GABA.1
The researchers designed a 12 week study around the low GABA theory using two groups. The first group followed a walking regimen and the other group practiced basic yoga. They then compared levels of GABA between the two groups. The walking group showed no increase in GABA, whereas the yoga group showed increased GABA levels and decreased anxiety.2
Dr. Chris Streeter, associate professor of psychiatry at Boston University, said that “yoga is known to improve stress-related nervous system imbalances.” He believes that their research provides a theory based on neurophysiology for understanding how yoga helps patients feel better by relieving symptoms in many common disorders.
Additional Health Benefits of Yoga
Here are some additional benefits you can look forward to with Yoga3:
- Improves limb flexibility
- Strengthens core muscles
- Improves posture
- Supports a healthy heart and circulation
- Improves breathing
- Can help optimize concentration
- Maintains a healthy mood
Tell us about your own yoga experience. How has it helped you?
Please note: You should never try yoga alone. You need a professional who can at least get you started safely. Yoga is not a replacement for medical care. It’s an adjunct therapy to your doctor’s recommendations. And definitely warm up before starting and go slow.
- Med Hypotheses. 2012 Feb 24. [Epub ahead of print] PMID:22365651 (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22365651)
- J Altern Complement Med. 2010 Nov;16(11):1145-52. Epub 2010 Aug 19. PMID:20722471