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Yoga for Mood: Depression, Anxiety and Stress Reduction

Yoga: Mind-Body-Spirit Integration Practice

Yoga as one whole practice that involves poses, breathwork and meditation may significantly improve mood and emotional imbalances. while Yoga for mood is a broad topic, we’ll go through the basic mechanisms of action through which yoga can exert its potential.

Through many different pathways yoga can alter changes both on psychological level, the way you think, observe thoughts and your self-awareness, but it can also improve hormonal balance and influence brain structure.

Yoga is known to calm us down, relax and revitalize our bodies. This is true for mood and behavior also.

Some of the major mood issues are anxiety, depression, mood swings, OCD, PTSD and Bipolar disorder. There are different types of them, so in the section below there are explanations of some of the main causes, intensity, neuroscience and sub-types.

There are many reasons yoga & meditation may improve these symptoms and some of them act on physiological level, some on psychological, others on anatomical and even energetic level.

Depression: Types, Cause, Intensity, Neuroscience

Depression is a mood disorder characterized by feeling of sadness. People suffering from depression can experience different symptoms and emotions, like lack of energy, fatigue, anger, existential crisis, over-eating or under-eating, oversleeping, slower metabolism, lack of desire and so on. Feelings of worthlessness, emptiness, sadness and irritability are common.

Many types of depression exist and each individual feels it in a different way, more common types are persistent, major, psychotic and situational depression.

There are many different factors that can cause or influence a depressive state such as, death or loss of purpose, change of careers, broken relationships, chronic illness or inflammation, thinking patterns, environment & events, however, it has been studied that genetics, brain structure and neurochemical imbalance are pretty influential too.

Fun Fact

From Neuroscience perspective, common neurochemical imbalance can cause & worsen depressive symptoms. Imbalance or lack of dopamine and serotonin neurotransmitters is one. People with variation in the gene that codes 5-HTT can also reduce serotonin signaling.

From medical point of view, medicines like Serotonin reuptake inhibitors can help alleviate symptoms, allowing for more serotonin to go through. Structural changes like smaller amount of gray matter in hippocampus and amygdala are common factors affecting depression, as well as mood, behavior, learning and memory.

People with depression are also under chronic stress and have high levels of cytokines, which are immune system regulators but also inflammation markers. Antidepressants have been shown to work in improving this, but can be highly addictive in the long run.

So, what can we do to improve depressive symptoms?

Since most of these disorders are very complex and not easy to solve, besides antidepressants there are herbal supplements, cognitive behavior therapy or body-mind-spirit integration practices like yoga and meditation.

Neuroplasticity and neurogenesis are reduced in people with depression, so affecting those through learning, smart supplementing and exercise can be a natural way of dealing with the problem.

Although there is a lot of philosophy and biotechnology that can be useful to treat this mood disorder, this article is specifically designed to show you the effects of exercise and yoga on mood, depression, neurotransmitters or brain structure changes.

Anxiety: Types, Cause, Intensity, Neuroscience

Anxiety is known as a mood disorder, but before you put a definition on it, you have to realize it’s a normal response to stress. Just as sadness is part of depression, stress is part of anxiety.

To say it is a mood disorder, it is not enough to just feel a bit nervous, but to constantly worry over unimportant things, and feel emotions of fear and be hyperactive.

Nervousness before first time event, whether it’s a job interview, new date, first sex or public speaking is completely normal, in fact, is what is keeping you focused and alert.

Anxiety knows different types, symptoms and intensities: phobia or trauma, social anxiety, OCD or obsessive compulsive disorder and panic attacks.

If depression is associated with the past, anxiety is situated in the future, along with stress and fear for the outcome. Both are normal feelings everyone experiences throughout our lives, the problem is when this mood disorders start affecting your everyday life, sleep, decisions and behavior.

Anxiety has a lot to do with your limbic system work, the amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus and thalamus. This system works to process emotions and is involved in learning and memory. Usually overly anxious people have larger amygdala, which means better capacity for emotional processing that can translate in higher intensity of fear.

Anxiety therapies include serotonin reuptake inhibitors, cognitive behavioral therapy and other inhibitors. Now the natural way of dealing with it is to look up your own psychology & philosophy and examine your patterns that trigger it.

I am not a psychologist so no advice on this, however I can say that meditation and yoga will raise your awareness if done correctly, which can further affect your ability to observe thoughs and adapt to new things, making you more neuroplastic.

From standpoint of physiology, we can agree that yoga reduces stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, activates parasimpatic and relaxes & soothes you. This can further improve sleep, which can reduce brain inflammation, improving overall quality of life and mental health.

Breathwork, another crucial part of yogic training can deactivate specific panic centers in your brain through acting on the gut, which may help people with panic attacks. Overall, learning proper belly breathing helped a lot in terms of oxygenation and stress response, in comparison to shallow chest breathing.

Potential Effects of Yoga on Mood: Stress, Anxiety and Depression

Potential effects of yoga are seen through pathways of hormonal balance, parasimpatic activation, release of endorphins, stress resilience, self-awareness and structural brain changes.

Here are couple of Potential, Evidence-Based Yoga effects on Mood:

  • Reduce Depression & Anxiety Symptoms
  • Reduce Salivary Cortisol Levels, a Marker of Psychological Stress
  • Reduce Serum Levels of Adrenaline and Cortisol
  • Deactivation of Specific Panic Receptors
  • Increasing Endorphin Secretion
  • Reduction in all Stress, Anxiety and Depression
  • Boost Mood, give a Lift-up Feeling
  • Improved Quality of Life, Increased Energy
  • Boost Thalamic GABA, Promote Relaxation
  • Reduces Biochemical markers of Stress and Anxiety
  • Improvements in Unipolar Depression
  • Increased Regional Grey Matter Density in Frontal, Limbic, Occipital, Temporal and Cerebellar Regions
  • Improved Five Negative Factor Emotions
  • Improved Neuroplasticity, Learning and Brain Adaptation
  • Smaller Amygdala Volume associated with Yoga
  • Improved Working Memory and Executive Function
  • Neuroprotection, Prevents Neurodegenerative Diseases

Keep in mind that these effects are tested in different individuals, both healthy or with health conditions or experienced yoga practitioners. These effects will not be specifically applied to every individual, plus there is a wide variety of yoga styles, duration, intensity and frequency. All of these factors may influence what effects will yoga have on you. Some of the results include specifically measured biochemical markers, however it is good to know that some of the self-reported effects on mood can vary a lot, and are self-interpretation which is not meant to be used to draw strong conclusions, without a large-scale, long studies.

Yoga for Depression

With high prevalence of depression in the United states, people are looking for different solutions. One of the most common forms of alternative medicine are herbal supplements, yoga & meditation or even acupuncture. Even though data has some modifications and is not so specific, yoga had positive outcomes on reduced depression, and its practicality and attendance speak for itself. (1)

Most of the yoga practice emphasized asanas or yoga postures, but meditation and breathwork were also included. Previous studies have suggested that yoga components can produce synergistic neurobiological effects on neurotransmitters that ameliorate depressed mood.

Besides improving overall well-being and quality of life, there are findings that yoga can be a promising treatment for depression. There were quite a lot of yoga sessions practiced in this study, including 9 weekly sessions of 2.5 hours. It turns out that scores of depression, anxiety and stress decreased, and its benefits remained stable 4 months after. This also happened in a group of 74 students, which had less depression and stress.

Overall, it was shown that yoga can help with mood improvement and depressive symptoms. (2)

The efficiency of yoga in depression treatment was investigated in this review which included 23 interventions. Student numbers and duration were pretty variable, but the average duration was 6 week or longer.

To draw strong conclusions is not smart, due to limited data, however Hatha and Vinyasa yoga styles offered a reduction in depressive symptoms, especially in patients with lower back pain, pregnant women, addicts and among those with atrial fibrillation. (3)

Effects of yoga on mood and depression was investigated on a college campus on young adults with mild-depression. Iyengar yoga style was practiced in this intervention, and participants in yoga group attended 2 classes a week, with a duration of 1 hour for 5 weeks.

Results were pretty amazing. Subjects had significantly reduced their symptoms of depression and trait anxiety. Secondary changes include reduced fatigue, negative mood and acute mood improvement. (4)

Yoga for Stress

In this section we will look into how meditation and yoga can ease your stress and make you more relaxed, and what are the pathways behind it.

Stress goes hand in hand with anxiety, but many people don’t really understand what stress truly means. Stress is your body’s reaction to any given change, the need to adapt to new stimuli.

I’ll give you couple of examples:

  • When you travel and change time zones, you get brain fog called a jet lag.
  • Going to a hot or cold environment, your body’s thermogenesis process.
  • Any hormonal imbalance that needs to get back in homeostasis.
  • A resistance training that provokes your muscles to regenerate after they’ve been injured.

This is all stress and it’s a crucial part of regeneration, homeostasis and adaptation. However, there is also psychological stress that comes from mood disorders, which can take a lot of our energy for us to cope with. For example, being chronically stressed at work and having elevated cortisol and adrenaline levels all the time can result in distorted mood, heart arrhythmia or high blood pressure.

Here are a couple of studies showing the effects of yoga on stress & stress hormones.

There is evidence that meditation, yoga and mindfulness can positively influence our mood, reduce depression and anxiety, as well as negative dimensions of psychological stress. (6)

It has been shown that there is association of yoga and cortisol level, which in older adults can even influence chronic periodontitis, if it is triggered by stress-related anxiety. They split 70 adults in three group, first one was the stressed group, second one lower stress and third group of yoga practitioners. Yoga has been beneficial for both stress and chronic periodontitis. (7)

In another study, in 40 participants from 18-25 years, which were split into two, yoga and non-yoga group, people in the yoga group significantly reduced salivary cortisol levels, which is a biomarker of psychological stress. (8)

Six months of yoga was shown to reduce levels of serum adrenaline and cortisol, which are the major stress hormones. The study included 60 healthy subjects and aside from stress hormone reduction affected blood pressure too. Through parasimpatic activation, participants felt more relaxed, which can further improve stress-related disorders. (9)

Mindfulness and meditation were also able to relax and reduce stress in 30 medical students aged 18-20. For four days they practiced mindful meditation to investigate stress-reduction effects. It turns out that meditation reduced stress, and significantly lowered cortisol levels. (10)

Yoga for Anxiety

Exercise has a major impact on anxiety, both as an energizer and as a relaxer. What happens during anxiety is lowered sex hormones and increased stress hormones. Exercise can affect both, reduce stress and increase sex-hormones.

Aside from blood test and hormone scales, beside the reduction of cortisol and adrenaline, anxiety is also reduced in yoga or meditation due to higher self-awareness, parasimpatic activation and proper breathing.

In fact, some of the breathwork yoga includes can deactivate certain panic receptors and increase endorphin “feel good” chemicals in your blood, plus deeper breathing will improve oxygenation.

In this study, 52 women tried hatha yoga classes 3 times per week for four weeks, with 60-70 minutes average session duration. Hatha yoga had a significant effect on reduction in all stress, depression and anxiety. (11)

In this systematic review, yoga was investigated for its effects on anxiety. Even though some of the study’s methodology was poor and there were limitations, overall, yoga had positive effects on anxiety disorder for the majority, without adverse effects. (12)

In another review on yoga’s effects on stress and anxiety it again turns out that in most of the trials, yoga had a positive effect on both. In 14 out of 35 trials there were biochemical and physiological markers of stress and anxiety, which yoga reduced. (13)

In caregivers of people with neurological disorders, there is an increase in mood disorders and psychiatric morbidity. 43 caregivers participated in a randomized study, split into yoga group and control one. Significant decrease in anxiety and depression, plus improved quality of life was a side effect of yoga training. (14)

Yoga and Mood

Exercise by itself, by keeping the body active can be beneficial if done with the right amount and intensity. It gives a stimulus to the human to grow, regenerate and improve.

Whether we are talking about muscle building, cardiovascular health or even brain health, exercise is one of the top 5 factors we can take into consideration.

Yoga was compared to walking, for its effects on overall mood, anxiety and depression. There is a theory that GABA is decreased in people with mood disorders, and this study examines yoga’s effects on GABA too. It turns out that yoga can boost thalamic GABA, improve mood and decrease anxiety more than walking can. (15)

Available data still confirms that yoga practice will be way better than not treating or just relaxing, in terms of depression, anxiety and other mood disorders like OCD or PTSD. It has shown great acute results and it is a safety treatment. (16)

Yoga was also tested for mood in psychiatric inpatients. It turns out that yoga improved all five negative emotion factors such as tension anxiety, depression dejection, anger hostility, fatigue inertia and confusion bewilderment. Singe Yoga class was effective in reducing stress and improving mood. (17)

Comparing effects of yoga on overall mood disorders, the strongest association of yogic improvement was seen in unipolar depression, however, there were positive effects related to anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder and PTSD. (18)

Research Limitations

Studies have some limitations, important to evaluate the validity of their results. Here’s a highlight of some and NOT ALL studies (and limitation), shown in this article, for context.

  • Sampling review emphasizing breathing and meditation instead of yoga styles or specific asanas.
  • Higher % of the participants were women, which may be insufficient for generalization.
  • The main mechanism behind yoga’s effects on mood are unclear.
  • Small sample sizes for generalization, some studies had also short duration.
  • In need for future studies with higher complexity design to truly evaluate.
  • The mood improvement in many studies was subjectively measured.
  • Insufficient evidence of objective effect of meditation on mood and attention.
  • Need of more research with randomization, adequate controls and well-defined populations.

Yoga on Brain Structure

Brain structure, development and genetics play a major role in how prone a person is to developing mood disorders, or how serious their anxiety or depression might get.

Researchers have found association in mood disorders or emotional imbalance and medial prefrontal cortex, limbic system, amygdala and hippocampus structure and function. MPFC and limbic system can further affect autonomic regulation and hormonal response. (19)

Brain Scans have shown that depressed people or those with major mood disorders have less grey matter in the brain. Mindfulness based practice was shown to increase regional grey matter density. (20)

When it comes to brain health, yoga was shown to positively affect ones brain with effect on functional connectivity of dorsolateral and prefrontal cortex activity and prefrontal cortex and hippocampus structure. This can be beneficial for preventing neurodegenerative diseases too. (21) Hatha yoga techniques were also found to exhibit greater grey matter volume in frontal, limbic, occipital, temporal and cerebellar regions. Plus, hatha yoga was associated with higher neuroplasticity, ability of our brains to adapt.

When it comes to specifically affecting brain structure through yoga, there is a study offering a view into experienced yogi brain. It turns out that yoga improved grey matter volume in left hippocampus. Yoga also affects brain regions involved in working memory and executive functions. (22) The amygdala, the emotional processor has higher volume in anxious individuals. Yoga & meditation are actually associated with smaller amygdala volume, shows the Rotterdam study.  (23)

conclusion

Yoga & Meditation can positively affect our mood from different perspective. Some of this include brain structure change, self-awareness, thought pattern reversal, reduction of serum cortisol and adrenaline, stress resilience and endorphin secretion. Types, frequency and intensity are pretty important too, but overall yoga reduced symptoms of depression, anxiety and other mood disorders, without serious adverse effects, for the majority.

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