How Yoga Can Help Reduce Treatment Side Effects

While the benefits of yoga for both physical and mental health have been widely praised for years, a new study has provided evidence for yet another positive attribute of the ancient practice from India. Research from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center suggests that yoga can reduce radiation treatment effects, such as fatigue and depression, in breast cancer patients.

Published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, the study, led by Professor Lorenzo Cohen, observed 191 women with stages 0-3 of breast cancer. Participants were placed into three groups, where one regularly practiced yoga, another actively stretched, and the third had no changes in physical activity. Both the yoga and stretching groups attended mandatory one hour classes for three days a week, over the course of their six week radiation treatment.

To measure results, the women reported their levels of fatigue, depression, sleep quality, daily ability to function, and overall quality of life throughout the study period. They were also subjected to electrocardiogram (ECG) tests that measured their levels of the "stress hormone," formally known as cortisol.

Effects Of Yoga On Mental Health And Energy

At the end of the six month study period, researchers found that the women in the yoga group experienced the following outcomes:

  • Lower levels of fatigue
  • Better quality of life
  • Increased general health
  • Decline in stress hormones

No other group observed any changes to their levels of fatigue or stress hormones. These findings suggest that the practice of yoga not only increases energy, but can also regulate stress—a significant insight, considering that increased stress levels during the day have been linked to poorer breast cancer conditions.

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This isn't the first time yoga has been positively associated with coping with cancer. An earlier study from January showed that yoga also significantly reduced inflammation in those with breast cancer. Another research endeavor from 2010 found that the practice greatly improved the sleep quality of patients.

What's Going On In Our Brains When We Do Yoga?

The benefits our bodies can enjoy from the kind of muscle isolation and stretching that yoga involves is obvious, but how exactly is yoga able to achieve such positive effects on our mental health—an area that is significantly strained by radiation treatment? A study published in the The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine explored just that. Conducted by Chris C. Street, MD and colleagues from Boston and Salt Lake City, the research found that regular practice of gentle yoga releases GABA in the thalamus.

GABA, a chemical in the brain, is known as the "grand inhibitor," and, since it plays a crucial role in inhibiting neural activity, is often used in medications meant to reduce anxiety. It facilitates chemical reactions that get our brains and bodies to relax—the same reactions that alcohol imitates.

What's significant about this study is that the researchers observed a 27% increase in GABA levels after an hour of yoga. This means that through the meditiative breathing practices and stretching exercises of this age-old ritual, the connections in our brains are actually changing to make us more calm and less stressed.

"Combining mind and body practices that are part of yoga clearly have tremendous potential to help patients manage the psychosocial and physical difficulties associated with treatment and life after cancer, beyond the benefits of simple stretching," reports Professor Cohen of the University of Texas study to Medical News Today. While these findings show that yoga can be a great thing for breast cancer patients, it's important to remember that if you so choose, it can act as a supplement to, and not a replacement for, breast cancer treatment.