A few years ago, a man in his early 50s with a benign enlarged prostate condition was suffering greatly and losing sleep. Keen to find relief from symptoms that persisted in spite of taking prescription medication, he decided to try yoga. He worked one-on-one with a certified yoga therapist three times a week and after a few months his symptoms subsided. “We worked together for a few years. Ultimately, he was able to get relief and get completely off his medication,” says Erinn Cayehal Chang, yoga instructor and consultant in Westchester, New York.
More people are searching for complementary approaches to traditional medicine for relief from a variety of medical conditions. Yoga continues to rise in popularity because it’s a low-impact activity that improves overall physical fitness, strength and flexibility. Yoga can be adapted to a wide variety of fitness levels and offers a low risk of serious injury or side effects when practiced carefully under the guidance of an experienced, certified instructor. More than 15.8 million Americans are currently practicing some form of this ancient physical activity.
Yoga and Medicine Reduction
Yoga can help reduce chronic pain, low back pain, stress, anxiety, depression and insomnia, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at the National Institutes of Health. Yoga can also help lower heart rate and blood pressure. Recent research and input from health experts suggests that yoga can help reduce the use of medications for some common medical conditions.
Low back pain. Several small studies have found that yoga provides a modest improvement for those who suffer from chronic low back pain, but a large 2011 study in Seattle added further weight to the evidence. Researchers divided 228 participants into three groups —yoga classes, stretching classes and a self-help education group that received The Back Pain Helpbook. Over a period of 12 weeks, both the yoga and stretching groups showed significantly improved chronic back pain compared to the self-help group. The study was published in JAMA Internal Medicine.
At the beginning of the study, 59% of participants were taking pain medications for their low back pain, predominantly NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin or ibuprofen). But interestingly, twice as many participants in the yoga and stretching groups, about 40%, reported decreasing their medication compared to only 20% in the self-help group at both 12 and 26 weeks.
Effective lower back pain relief may not require multiple weekly sessions though. In a novel small study, researchers at Boston University Medical Center and the University of Washington compared results for once-weekly and twice-weekly yoga classes among those in lower-income minorities with chronic low back pain. Back-related function and pain improved for both groups, but surprisingly, there was no difference between the once-weekly group and the twice-weekly group.
Both groups showed a significant reduction in NSAID use after 6 weeks — 27% for the once-weekly group and 35% for the twice-weekly group. “We found on average, over the course of the day, there were one and a half to two less pain pills taken by the patients doing yoga,” says Robert Saper MD, MPH, lead author of the study, Associate Professor of Family Medicine at Boston University School of Medicine and Director of Integrative Medicine, Boston Medical Center. The study was published in Evidence-Based and Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
Hypertension. As part of a total lifestyle approach, yoga can help manage hypertension. A recent study in Israel found that a comprehensive program that included yoga as well as a rice diet and walks, together with relaxation and stress management, led to a reduction in the use of blood pressure medications for 70.7% of participants. Those in the comparison group who followed the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension diet (DASH diet) plus walks only saw a 32.7% reduction in their use of medications. Notably, after six months, most participants were holding steady with their medication status. The study was published in the Journal of Human Hypertension.
Chang and Dr. Saper have both worked with clients who have been able to wean themselves completely off blood pressure medications after using yoga as part of a total treatment plan. However, they both caution that it’s important to consult with your health care provider and if appropriate, to wean off gradually under careful supervision. “Yoga can have a significant impact, because you start to eat differently, you exercise more and you sleep better. When those changes get established over a period of several months, that’s when people may be able to reduce their blood pressure medication,” says Chang. She notes that many doctors now recommend yoga to patients with prehypertension, to see if they can get their blood pressure under control before they resort to taking medication.
Depression and other mental disorders. Researchers at the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences at Duke University reviewed more than 100 studies and found 16 high-quality studies that looked at the effects of yoga on major psychiatric disorders, including depression, schizophrenia, ADHD and sleep disorders. They found promising evidence that yoga can have positive effects on mild depression and sleep complaints, even in the absence of drug treatments, and that yoga can help improve symptoms for schizophrenia and ADHD in patients on medication. The study was published in Frontiers in Psychiatry.
More studies, especially larger controlled trials over longer periods of time, are required to explore the full promise of yoga for improving mental health disorders. Author and yoga teacher Amy Weintraub outlines in her book, Yoga for Depression, how she was able to gradually go completely off medication for chronic depression over several years and has been depression-free for more than 15 years.
How does yoga work?
Scientists are trying to find out how yoga works to improve health. Yoga combines physical poses, pranayama breathing and meditative components, all of which play important roles in improving physical and mental health. Compared to masking symptoms with medication, yoga may more directly address the underlying causes of some medical conditions. The physical aspect helps maintain muscle condition, posture and alignment, which can help ease some types of pain. The pranayama component reduces stress: “If you do slow, deep breathing, it’s impossible to be stressed, because you are working on increasing your parasympathetic nervous system and decreasing your sympathetic nervous system output,” says M. Catherine Bushnell, PhD, co-author of an important study on yoga’s impact and Scientific Director of the Division of Intramural Research at NCCAM.
In their groundbreaking new study, Dr. Bushnell and research colleagues explored how pain affects the brain among those who practice yoga regularly and those who do not. “Because yoga doesn’t just work on the musculoskeletal system, but also involves attention and reduces stress, and these factors impact on pain, we wanted to see if yoga changed the brain,” says Chantal Villemure, MSc, PhD, staff scientist with the Division of Intramural Research at NCCAM and lead author of the study published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.
To measure pain tolerance, the researchers timed how long yogis and non-yogis could keep their keep their hands in freezing cold water. Surprisingly, yogis were able to tolerate pain twice as long as non-yogis. Through brain imaging, they found that “there were a number of parts of the brain that were larger in yogis, and there was one area, the insular cortex, that was specifically related to this increased pain tolerance,” says Dr. Bushnell. The insular cortex, or insula, is located deep in the brain and is the area responsible for coordinating body states with emotional responses, giving rise to conscious thought.
For certain conditions, like low back pain, hypertension and some mental disorders, yoga holds promise as a complementary alternative therapy that may help people reduce their reliance on medications. Researchers are currently investigating how yoga might help in the future with diabetes risk, HIV, immune function, arthritis, menopause, multiple sclerosis, PTSD and smoking cessation.
Jane Langille is a health and medical writer based near Toronto, Ontario. Jane writes about health news and medical innovations for media publications and health care providers