Many forms of exercise have been linked to an inherent ability to decrease stress and improve overall mood and outlook. Now, findings from a recent study suggest that yoga may be a superior form of exercise when weighed against certain others for its positive effects on overall outlook and anxiety.
Conducted by researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM), the focal point of the study centered on brain gamma-aminobutyric (GABA) levels, a regulator of neuron excitability in the central nervous system. Specifically, findings from other recent industry studies have revealed that low levels of GABA are associated with depression and other common anxiety disorders.
The BUSM study compared the fluctuation in GABA levels of participants who participated in yoga to that of participants who exercised by walking. Findings concluded that yoga participants had increased levels of GABA.
Participants were also asked to describe their mental state several times throughout the study, and those practicing yoga regularly noted greater improvement with mood and anxiety compared to those who walked.
“Over time, positive changes in these reports were associated with climbing GABA levels,” said lead author Chris Streeter, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry and neurology at BUSM.
With an estimated 11 million Americans practicing yoga currently, this form of exercise has been touted for its physical and mental health benefits toward improving such areas as strength, flexibility, concentration and relaxation. The BUSM study is the first to identify an association between the practice of yoga, increased GABA levels and the overall effect on mood and stress.
In late 2009, findings were released from a study conducted by the Yale University School of Medicine (YUSM) that the GABA levels of people with a DSM-IV diagnosis of depression were much lower than that of individuals who did not suffer from depression. Specifically, the levels in individuals with depression were less than half that of their healthier counterparts.
The study also found evidence linking certain pharmaceutical drugs that replicate the role of GABA to an ability to stabilize mood.
In the BUSM study, two pre-identified groups of healthy people were followed over a 12-week period—one group practicing yoga, the other walking as a form of exercise. The yoga group exercised for one hour three times per week, and the walking group completed their exercise regimen in the same fashion.
GABA levels were measured by the research team using magnetic resonance spectroscopic imaging (MRSI), a device typically used to diagnose metabolic and brain disorders. The participants’ brains were scanned before the beginning of the study as well as before and after the final exercise session.
While the study was promising, Streeter said that the findings warrant further study as to how yoga and mood correlate and whether the practice should be considered as a treatment modality for common mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety.
The study was backed by the National Institutes of Health and can be found in the August issue of The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.