By John Salak –
Okay, a lot of people love practicing yoga. In fact, Yoga Journal estimates that in the U.S. alone there are close to 40 million practitioners and perhaps 35,000 yoga studios. All this has led to a lot of feel-good stretching. But many practitioners are claiming yoga does a lot more than simply limber them up.
Science now appears to be ready to start backing up anecdotal evidence as recent research indicates that yoga can enhance brain strength and function, help keep anxiety and depression at bay and even treat migraines.
Aerobic exercise has always been recognized as a way to strengthen brain functions and while yoga isn’t technically aerobic, a study out of the University of Illinois indicates yoga offers the brain many of the same benefits.
The university’s findings centered on 11 studies on the relationship between Hatha yoga and brain health, including five that focused exclusively on individuals who hadn’t previously practiced yoga. “From these 11 studies, we identified some brain regions that consistently come up, and they are surprisingly not very different from what we see with exercise research,” said community health professor Neha Gothe, who helped lead the research.
Gothe noted that in particular practicing yoga helped increase the hippocampus, which supports memory processing, which shrinks with age and is one of the first structures to deteriorate in the face of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.
The researchers acknowledged that many of the studies were exploratory in nature and were not conclusive by themselves, but they nonetheless identified other important brain changes associated with yoga. The amygdala, which contributes to emotional regulation, tended to be larger among yoga practitioners as were the prefrontal cortex, cingulate cortex and brain networks, all of which are essential for planning, decision-making, multitasking and identifying and choosing the right option to address problems.
“Yoga is not aerobic in nature,” Gothe pointed out. “So, there must be other mechanisms leading to these brain changes,” she said. “So far, we don’t have the evidence to identify what those mechanisms are.” Ultimately, she added that “the practice of yoga helps improve emotional regulation to reduce stress, anxiety and depression. And that seems to improve brain functioning.”
The American Academy of Neurology also recently reported that adding yoga to prescribed medication seems to help lower the frequency and intensity of migraines. In fact, a study headed up by All India Institute of Medical Science in New Delhi, India that focused on 114 migraine sufferers found that individuals who practiced yoga regularly with an instructor and by themselves saw a marked improvement in the severity of their migraines compared to those who just took medication.
In fact, the medicine and yoga-practicing group saw their frequency of the migraines cut by almost 50 percent, while the group that just took medication saw only a 12 percent reduction in migraine frequency.
Practicing yoga also helped these individuals cut down the migraine medication in half.
“Migraine is one of the most common headache disorders, but only about half the people taking medication for it get real relief,” said study author Rohit Bhatia of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, which is a member of the American Academy of Neurology. “The good news is that practicing something as simple and accessible as yoga may help much more than medications alone. And all you need is a mat.”
Bhatia also noted that reducing the medication needed cuts the cost of fighting the problem. “That can be a real game changer, especially for people who struggle to afford their medication,” he said.
Yoga’s benefits also stretch into improving symptoms related to depression and anxiety, according to Boston University School of Medicine. Its work with 30 clinically depressed patients found that the more they practiced Iyengar yoga and coherent breathing, the lower their levels of depression and anxiety became.
“Think of it this way, we give medications in different doses in order to enact their effects on the body to varying degrees. Here, we explored the same concept, but used yoga. We call that a dosing study. Past yoga and depression studies have not really delved deeply into this,” explained corresponding author Chris Streeter, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at the university School of Medicine.
Collecting evidence-based data is not only important to build on related research, it also helps encourage other patients to try yoga as a strategy for battle back depression and anxiety and live better.
“These data are crucial for accompanying investigations of underlying neurobiology that will help elucidate ‘how’ yoga works,” added the study’s co-author Marisa M. Silveri, PhD, neuroscientist at McLean Hospital and associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
So, basically, it’s not a stretch to report that yoga may provide medical relief to many in need.