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Anxiety, Yoga, and Brain Chemistry

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Ram

Anxiety, Yoga, and Brain Chemistry

Child with Dove by Picasso*

There are so many scientific studies that indicate benefits of yoga (asanas, meditation and pranayama) in combating stress, improving the digestive capacity, helping in the sleeping process, improving the health of the heart and blood vessels, reducing blood pressure, reducing arrhythmia, improving metabolic parameters, including blood lipid profiles, and keeping strokes at bay, all of which result in keeping the individual physically stable. 

Furthermore, at the mental/emotional level, yoga contributes to a feel-good response and wards off mental stress. It stimulates the brain in a positive way that results in optimal brain function keeping an individual alert and sharp. Yoga reduces anxiety and depression, and combats age-associated memory loss thereby promoting a mentally stable and active life. The breath work and the need to focus on the asana practice are excellent ways to rein in our emotions. Yoga’s profound beneficial effects on emotional wellbeing and general mental acuity without any side effects prompted Yoga Journal to aptly title one of its articles Better Than Prozac?

While all of the above studies sum up the power of yoga, one may wonder how yoga promotes such numerous benefits. While it does through multiple cellular mechanisms, a couple of recent studies zeroed in on the mechanism by which yoga exerts anxiolytic effects (reversing anxiety disorders). According to these studies, a regular practice of yoga releases a neurotransmitter chemical called GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) in a region of the brain called thalamus. In the brain, GABA serves as an inhibitory neurotransmitter, that is, this neurochemical plays a central role in suppressing excess neural activity throughout the nervous system. Hence, individuals who exhibit anxiety disorders, including excessive fear, worry, or anxiety, have reduced levels of GABA that contribute to this disorder. Such individuals are prescribed anti-anxiety medications, such as benzodiazepines, which work by encouraging the synthesis and release of GABA in the central nervous system. Through its inhibitory action, GABA curbs all the ill effects that come from excessive anxiety, worry, or fear.

In the research studies, GABA was shown to be significantly higher in the brains of those subjects who had been doing yoga. When the levels of GABA were compared before and after a one-hour yoga session, the researchers observed a 27% increase in GABA levels.  The stretching from the yoga asanas, the brief meditative session and the continuous breathing may be signaling the brain to release GABA, which neutralizes all the negative mood effects in the hours following a session of yoga. Additionally, the elevated levels of GABA following the yoga session were sustained during the 12-week yoga intervention. The authors believe that these sustained levels of GABA over a period of regular yoga practice may help the brain to rewire itself and overcome anxiety attacks in the face of daily stressors.  

Interestingly, the studies also indicated that the yoga group displayed greater improvements in mood and decreases in anxiety compared to the metabolically matched walking group, suggesting that the effect of yoga on mood and anxiety goes far beyond than just the metabolic demands of the activity. The researchers’ findings suggest that a simple but regular session of yoga that increases the activity of the GABA could serve as a better alternative than powerful pharmacologic agents that have their own baggage of non-specific side effects.

On a final tipsy note, a similar calming effect can also come from a glass of beer, which mimics the effects of GABA by signaling an analogous mechanism in the brain.  However, if I were you, I would finish a long day of work with a one-hour session of yoga rather than having a beer. For I know that the calmness I experience from a glass of alcoholic drink may not last long while the calmness I experience from a yoga session might stay forever.

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