From research at Boston University School of Medicine and McLean Hospital comes the hardly startling news that yoga reduces anxiety. Even a beginner can confirm that yoga does have a relaxing effect on stress and anxiety. However, the researchers at Boston U. did not mean to restate the obvious, but rather to provide a scientific explanation of yoga’s relaxing effects.
It turns out that the practice of yoga elevates brain levels of gamma-aminobutyric (GABA), the nervous system’s principal inhibitory neurotransmitter. GABA is secreted by nerve terminals in the spinal cord, cerebellum, basal ganglia, and many areas of the cortex.
Adequate or elevated levels of GABA help reduce brain and nervous system activity, with a corresponding relaxing effect on the muscles and major organs of the body. Reduced levels of GABA are associated with a wide variety of neurological and psychiatric disorders, including epilepsy, anxiety states, alcoholism, chronic pain, Huntington’s chorea, and other movement disorders.
The research findings, published in the May 2010 issue of the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, provide significant evidence that yoga is a possible treatment for depression and anxiety, both associated with low GABA levels. Pharmaceutical companies have already caught on to the benefits of increasing GABA levels, and both disorders have been successfully treated with pharmaceuticals (gabapentin, pregabalin) that boost GABA production.
According to Chris Streeter, MD, an assistant professor of psychiatry and neurology at BUSM and a research associate at McLean Hospital, yoga is a promising alternative to medication in improving depression, anxiety and epilepsy symptoms.
The confirmation that GABA levels can be boosted and the symptoms of high stress and anxiety can be reduced with a natural approach such as yoga (or tai chi for fibromyalgia) is indeed welcome news. Even though we already knew that the practice of yoga has a relaxing effect, knowing why should convince the skeptical to give this time-proven remedy at least a try.