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Yoga Increases Cortisol, Relieves Stress

A new study suggests practicing yoga reduces symptoms of chronic pain in women with fibromyalgia.

The investigation is the first to look at the physical and psychological benefits of yoga – specifically, the effects of yoga on cortisol levels of women with fibromyalgia.

Fibromyalgia is a difficult to diagnose condition which predominantly affects women. Chronic pain and fatigue often accompany the diagnosis with common symptoms including muscle stiffness, sleep disturbances, gastrointestinal discomfort, anxiety and depression.

Prior research has determined that women with fibromyalgia have lower-than-average cortisol levels. Experts believe deficient cortisol may contribute to pain, fatigue and stress sensitivity.

According to the study, participants’ saliva revealed elevated levels of total cortisol following a program of 75 minutes of hatha yoga twice weekly over the course of eight weeks.

“Ideally, our cortisol levels peak about 30-40 minutes after we get up in the morning and decline throughout the day until we’re ready to go to sleep,” said the study’s lead author, Kathryn Curtis.

“The secretion of the hormone, cortisol, is dysregulated in women with fibromyalgia,” she said.

Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is produced and released by the adrenal gland and functions as a component of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis in response to stress.

“Hatha yoga promotes physical relaxation by decreasing activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which lowers heart rate and increases breath volume. We believe this in turn has a positive effect on the HPA axis,” said Curtis.

In the study, participants completed questionnaires to determine pain intensity pre- and post-study.

Researchers discovered individuals reported significant reductions in pain and associated symptoms, as well as psychological benefits. They felt less helpless, were more accepting of their condition, and were less likely to “catastrophize” over current or future symptoms.

“We saw their levels of mindfulness increase – they were better able to detach from their psychological experience of pain,” Curtis said.

Mindfulness is a form of active mental awareness rooted in Buddhist traditions; it is achieved by paying total attention to the present moment with a non-judgmental awareness of inner and outer experiences.

“Yoga promotes this concept – that we are not our bodies, our experiences, or our pain. This is extremely useful in the management of pain,” she says. “Moreover, our findings strongly suggest that psychological changes in turn affect our experience of physical pain.”

The study is published in the Journal of Pain Research.

Source: York University

Yoga Increases Cortisol, Relieves Stress

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Yoga Increases Cortisol, Relieves Stress. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 28 Jul 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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