Research: Increasing Neuroplasticity with Yoga

Yoga- and meditation-based lifestyle intervention increases neuroplasticity and reduces severity of major depressive disorder: A randomized controlled trial

To combat the effects of stress and trauma on our biochemistry, our brain uses neuroplasticity. This is how the brain and the nerves create new neural connections throughout the course of your life. There have been numerous studies on the benefits of yoga for depression, for anxiety, for cancer, for memory, etc. This study looks at the biomarkers (enzymes, hormones, etc) of neuroplasticity in people with Major Depressive Disorder in relationship to a yoga practice.

The purpose of this 12-week study was to determine the effects of a yoga- and meditation-based lifestyle for individuals suffering from Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), using biomarkers to measure neuroplasticity. 58 patients suffering from MDD were randomized into a Yoga group or a control group. Participants were assessed with the Beck Depression Inventory II scale and blood samples were collected before and after the intervention. The yoga group classes included āsana (postures), pranayama (breathwork), and dhyāna (meditation). In addition, this group participated in lecture on lifestyle and lifestyle diseases.

Researchers measured a number of biomarkers of neuroplasticity, like Telomerase activity, sirtuin 1, cortisol, interleukin 6, DHEAS, and BDNF. Telomeres are the protective cap at the end of chromosomes that insure the correct information is passed from one generation of cells to the next. When a telomere is too short it can no longer replicate. Telomerase is the enzyme that controls the telomeres. Sirtuin 1 may function as an intracellular regulatory protein, responsible for communication within the cell. Cortisol, or the stress hormone, is produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress and low blood glucose. Interleukin 6 is a pro-inflammatory cytokine and is implicated in a wide variety of inflammation-associated disease states. DHEA, dehydroepiandrosterone, is a hormone that helps produce other hormones like estrogen and testosterone. BDNF, brain-derived neurotropic factor, promotes survival of nerve cells and helps regulate synaptic plasticity, needed for learning and memory.

At the end of the 12-weeks, there was a significant increase in BDNF, DHEAS, sirtuin 1, and telomerase activity levels in the yoga group as compared to the control group. The yoga group also had a decrease in cortisol, IL-6 levels, DNA damage and balancing oxidative stress, and BDI-II scores.

Researchers said, “maintaining oxidative stress levels in physiological range when cells are exposed to psychological stress and environmental insults and poor social habits appear to be crucial in reversing the pathobiology of MDD and providing a cure (Lindqvist, Dhabhar, James et al., 2017). This may involve improved processing of substrates to mitochondria. In addition, improved nutrition sensing due to increase in the levels of sirtuin 1 may decrease the substrate overload on mitochondria by decreasing proteostasis. Sirtuin 1 also modify the expression of the anti-oxidant genes through epigenetic effects. Both proteostasis and epigenetic effects involve sirtuin 1 deacetylation reactions.”

Practices to Increase Neuroplasticity

Developing a regular practice of yoga postures, yoga breathing, and meditation will change your brain. But what do you do, when, and how? Start first with a commitment to regular practice, even if that means 10 minutes a day. Once you have made the commitment, recruit a friend to join you. Together you can be each other’s cheerleaders, motivators, and practice buddies. Practices can be simple, there is no need to wind yourself into a pretzel!

A Breathing Practice

Note: Do not practice if you have had recent abdominal or chest surgery. Practice only on the inhalation if you are pregnant. The language and imagery here have been adapted for a healthcare setting.

  1. stair-stepIn a seated or supine position, inhale through the nostrils little steps of breath, as though you are climbing a mountain (usually 4 to 8).
  2. If it’s comfortable, sustain the breath for four counts (at the top of the mountain). Imagine that you are looking out at something beautiful. If holding the breath is uncomfortable, breathe naturally through the nostrils.
  3. Slide down the mountain. (Exhale slowly for six counts.)
  4. Practice steps 1–3 two times.
  5. Next take an elevator to the top of the mountain. (a smooth six-count breath in).
  6. Sustain for four counts. Imagine you can see something that makes your heart smile.
  7. Then step down the mountain (exhale through the nostrils in little puffs—usually 6 to 10).
  8. Practice steps 4–7 two times.
  9. Next take little steps up the mountain through the nostrils, as described above, pause for four counts with an image of beauty in your heart’s mind.
  10. Take little steps down the mountain, as described in #7. Practice this version of stepped breathing in and out two times.
  11. End by taking little steps up the mountain, sustaining the breath for four, then slowly glide down the mountain. You might wish to chant the mantra “so ham” (I am That) on the exhalation.

Download Guided Stair-Step to Energize with Rose

A Yoga Practice

LifeForce Yoga combines yoga posture with breath, sound, and visualization to create a more complete and effective practice. Visit the LifeForce Yoga Store for more videos, like LifeForce Yoga to Beat the Blues.

A Meditation Practice

Yoga Nidra, meditative relaxation, is one of the easiest meditation practices because it is done lying down with the aide of a CD or mp3. It helps with relaxation, sleep, cultivating a more balanced mind, and reconnecting with your deeper Self. Yoga Nidra is best when practiced every day.

Download a yoga nidra practice today and get busy relaxing!

For more on the study profiled in this post:

Read the abstract.

Read the published study.

About the Author

Rose Kress

Rose Kress ERYT-500, C-IATY, YACEP, Director of the LifeForce Yoga Healing Institute, which trains yoga and health professionals internationally. She is the author of two CDs, edits the research newsletter, and directs the training programs for LifeForce Yoga.

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