A new study provides a theory for how yoga reduces symptoms in stress-related psychological and medical conditions.

The theory, by researchers from Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM), New York Medical College (NYMC), and the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons (CCPS) appears online in the journal Medical Hypothesis.

The investigators believe yoga can aid in the treatment of conditions including anxiety, high blood pressure and cardiac disease. They suggest that specific mind-body practices should be developed for the prevention and treatment of these conditions in conjunction with standard treatments.

Investigators believe yoga helps to restore stress-related nervous system imbalances. It is hypothesized that stress causes an imbalance in the autonomic nervous system (parasympathetic under-activity and sympathetic over-activity) as well as under-activity of the inhibitory neurotransmitter, gamma amino-butyric acid (GABA).

Low GABA activity occurs in anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, epilepsy, and chronic pain. According to the researchers, the hypothesis advanced in this paper could explain why vagal verve stimulation (VNS) works to decrease both seizure frequency and the symptoms of depression.

“Western and Eastern medicine complement one another. Yoga is known to improve stress-related nervous system imbalances,” said Chris Streeter, M.D., the study’s lead author.

Streeter says the paper provides a theory on the efficacy of yoga that is based on neurophysiology and neuroanatomy.

An earlier study by BUSM researchers comparing a walking group and a yoga group over a 12-week period found no increase in GABA levels in the walking group, whereas the yoga group showed increased GABA levels and decreased anxiety.

In another BUSM 12-week study, patients with chronic low back pain responded to a yoga intervention with increased GABA levels and significant reduction in pain compared to a group receiving standard care alone.

Researchers are beginning to test these theories by incorporating mind-body therapies such as yoga in their clinical studies of a wide range of stress-related medical and psychological conditions.

Source: Boston University Medical Center