Benefits of Yoga—What the Research Says About its Use for Common Health Problems
Benefits of Yoga—What the Research Says About its Use for Common Health Problems
Your body and your health can — indeed must — change as you start implementing the correct lifestyle changes. Yoga has received some well-deserved media attention recently.
Two recent studies show that regular yoga classes can help improve atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat) and common psychiatric disorders.
While I believe you need to incorporate anaerobic exercise (high intensity interval training) for optimal health, there’s no doubt that yoga can be an important part of a comprehensive exercise program.
Yoga is particularly useful for promoting flexibility and core muscles, and has been proven beneficial if you suffer with back pain. As you’ll see later in this article, yoga can also help you turn your health around if you’re too overweight to engage in more strenuous types of exercise.
Ideally, you’ll want a comprehensive fitness program that includes aerobic, anaerobic, and resistance training as well, in addition to flexibility and core-building exercises like yoga, or Foundation Training (created by Dr. Eric Goodman) which incorporates many Yoga principals but has modified it to focus on muscle groups that most Americans are at risk of injuring because of the enormous amount of time they spend sitting.
Have Irregular Heart Rhythm? Yoga May Help…
The first featured study3 included 49 patients who had been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation (AF) for an average of five years. AF — a condition in which the upper chambers of your heart quiver chaotically — affects an estimated 2.7 million Americans.
They’re typically prescribed drugs like beta blockers in an effort to alleviate the symptoms, but these drugs don’t work for all patients, and come with a slew of side effects.
Beta blockers work by “blocking” the normally stimulating effects of the adrenaline hormone on your heart. They also slow your heart rate and reduce your heart’s need for oxygen when you exert yourself, which means your heart doesn’t have to work as hard.
These drugs have been used for more than 30 years to treat high blood pressure, and they are recommended as the first line of defense in both the United States and international health guidelines.
Aside from often being ineffective, they’re known to cause an array of serious side effects including heart attack and stroke, type 2 diabetes, and sexual dysfunction, just to name a few.
Considering the hazards of the drug paradigm, it certainly makes sense to look into safer alternatives or add-ons, and yoga might offer quite a bit of relief.
For the first three months of the study, the participants’ heart symptoms, blood pressure, heart rate, anxiety and depression levels, and general quality of life were assessed and tracked. During the second phase, the participants took yoga classes at least twice a week for three months, while still tracking their symptoms.
At the end of the study, the number of times participants reported heart quivering (confirmed by heart monitor), dropped by half. Their average heart rate also fell from an average of 67 beats per minute during the first three months, to 61-62 beats per minute post-yoga. The participants also reported feeling less anxiety and depression. Anxiety scores fell from an average of 34 (on a scale of 20-80) to an average of 25.
According to the authors:
“There was significant decrease in heart rate, and systolic and diastolic blood pressure before and after yoga… In patients with paroxysmal AF, yoga improves symptoms, arrhythmia burden, heart rate, blood pressure, anxiety and depression scores, and several domains of quality of life.”
Yoga’s Impact on Your Mental Health
In related news, Duke University researchers recently published a review5 of more than 100 studies looking at the effect of yoga on mental health. Lead author Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy, a professor of psychiatry and medicine at Duke University Medical Center told Time Magazine:6
“Most individuals already know that yoga produces some kind of a calming effect. Individually, people feel better after doing the physical exercise. Mentally, people feel calmer, sharper, maybe more content. We thought it’s time to see if we could pull all [the literature] together… to see if there’s enough evidence that the benefits individual people notice can be used to help people with mental illness.”
According to their findings, yoga appears to have a positive effect on:
- Mild depression
- Sleep problems
- Schizophrenia (among patients using medication)
- ADHD (among patients using medication)
Some of the studies suggest yoga can have a similar effect to antidepressants and psychotherapy, by influencing neurotransmitters and boosting serotonin. Yoga was also found to reduce levels of inflammation, oxidative stress, blood lipids and growth factors. As reported by Time:7
“Embracing yoga as a complementary treatment for mental disorders is not uncommon. Yoga is a feature in many veterans’ centers throughout the country, backed by research funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The Huffington Post reported that many troops use yoga as a form of treatment for PTSD, for example, with companies like Warriors at Ease training instructors in yoga techniques specifically catered to those in the military. A study published earlier this month of 70 active-duty troops found daily yoga eased anxiety and improved sleep.
The researchers say there’s enough evidence to warrant a larger study on the effects of yoga on mental health, and it should be considered as part of treatment for more disorders…
‘What we are saying is that we still need to do further, large-scale studies before we are ready to conclude that people with mental illnesses can turn to yoga as a first-line treatment,’ says Doraiswamy. ‘We are not saying throw away your Prozac and turn to yoga. We’re saying it has the promise and potential. If a large national study were done, it could turn out that yoga is just as good and may be a low cost alternative to people with unmet needs.’ In the meantime, he says it doesn’t hurt to add yoga to existing treatments so patients can take advantage of any potential benefits.”
Is Exercise the Best ‘Drug’ for Depression?
Some psychologists swear by exercise as a primary form of treatment for depression, anxiety and other mood disorders. Research has shown again and again that patients who follow aerobic-exercise regimens see improvement in their depression — improvements comparable to that of those treated with medication. The results really are impressive when you consider that exercise is virtually free and can provide you with numerous other health benefits too.
Exercise not only relieves depressive symptoms but also appears to prevent them from recurring. For example, one study conducted by Duke University in the late 1990’s divided depressed patients into three treatment groups:
- Exercise only
- Exercise plus antidepressant
- Antidepressant drug only
After six weeks, the drug-only group was doing slightly better than the other two groups. However, after 10 months of follow-up, it was the exercise-only group that had the highest remission and stay-well rate. In another study,8 which involved 80 adults aged 20 to 45 years who were diagnosed with mild to moderate depression, researchers looked at exercise alone to treat the condition and found:
- Those who exercised with low-intensity for three and five days a week showed a 30 percent reduction in symptoms
- Participants who did stretching flexibility exercises 15 to 20 minutes three days a week averaged a 29 percent decline
Yoga for Weight Loss and Health Maintenance
The following video, featuring Arthur Boorman, a disabled veteran of the Gulf War, is perhaps one of the most inspiring yoga success stories I’ve ever seen. His injuries had put him on a downward spiral for 15 years, and his doctors had told him he’d never be able to walk unassisted again. Due to his injuries, he couldn’t perform high impact exercises, but one day, he came across an article about yoga, and the rest, as they say, is history…
If you’ve ever doubted the transformative power of a low impact exercise such as yoga, I urge you to take a look at this video. It’s a truly remarkable story. Not only did he rapidly start losing weight, he also gained tremendous strength, balance and flexibility — to the point he proved his doctors’ prognosis wrong by walking unaided in less than a year!
Interestingly, research9 published just last year discovered that yoga has a beneficial impact on leptin, a hormone that plays a key role in regulating energy intake and energy expenditure. According to the authors, novice yoga practitioners had 36 percent higher leptin levels compared to experts, leading them to theorize that regular yoga practice may benefit your health by altering leptin and adiponectin production:
“We compared adiponectin and leptin data from novice and expert yoga practitioners. Leptin plays a proinflammatory role, adiponectin has anti-inflammatory properties. Leptin was 36 percent higher among novices compared to experts. Experts’ average adiponectin to leptin ratio was nearly twice that of novices.”
Both insulin and leptin resistance are associated with obesity, and impairment of their ability to transfer the information to receptors is the true foundational core of most all chronic degenerative diseases. Leptin tells your brain whether you should be hungry, eat and make more fat, whether you should reproduce, or (partly by controlling insulin) whether to engage in maintenance and repair. In short, leptin is the way that your fat stores speak to your brain to let your brain know how much energy is available and, very importantly, what to do with it.
Therefore, leptin may be on top of the food chain in metabolic importance and relevance to disease if your leptin signaling is working properly.
When your fat stores are “full,” this extra fat will cause a surge in your leptin level, which signals your brain to stop feeling hungry, to stop eating, to stop storing fat and to start burning some extra fat off. Controlling hunger is a major (though not the only) way that leptin controls energy storage. Hunger is a very powerful, ancient, and deep-seated drive that, if stimulated long enough, will make you eat and store more energy. The only way to eat less in the long-term is to not be hungry, and the only way to do this is to control the hormones that regulate hunger, the primary one being leptin.
Aim for a Comprehensive Fitness Program
Yoga and other simple restorative exercises tone and strengthen your body, increase circulation and oxygen flow, energize you for the day and help you unwind in the evening. However, while recent studies support the use yoga to improve atrial fibrillation and common psychiatric disorders (along with many other health benefits, such as promoting flexibility and core muscles, alleviating back pain, and more), I think it’s important to incorporate a variety of exercises into your routine for optimal health results.
Ideally, you’ll want a comprehensive fitness program that includes aerobic, anaerobic, and resistance training as well, in addition to flexibility and core-building exercises like yoga, or Foundation Training.
Foundation Training, created by Dr. Eric Goodman is another simple and elegant approach that can be particularly useful for those with back pain and/or those who are too infirm for yoga. Foundation training is all about your core. As Dr. Goodman explains, your core is anything that connects to your pelvis, whether above or below it and this includes your hamstrings, glutes, and adductor muscles. Foundation Training teaches all those muscles to work together through integrated chains of movement, which is how you’re structurally designed to move. It also teaches you structural breathing, which will help improve your posture, especially when seated. For more information about Foundation Training, check out my previous article and interview with Dr. Goodman.