Yoga may ease symptoms of depression, according to new research

According to the analysis, the more yoga sessions a person did each week, the less they struggled with depressive symptoms.

With depressive disorders impacting up to 340 million people worldwide, a new groundbreaking study poses yoga as an answer.

Photo by Rawpixel.com on Shutterstock
  • Depressive disorders are the leading cause of disability worldwide, affecting over 340 million people.
  • According to a new study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, yoga sessions may be able to ease depressive symptoms in people with mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.
  • Mindfulness, meditation, and breathing control techniques are all things that have been proven effective in reducing depressive symptoms. Traditional yoga practices typically include a combination of these things and therefore may actually have more of a positive impact.

        Yoga can be used as a form of exercise and self-help

        woman doing yoga self help depression disability

        Depressive disorders are the leading cause of disability worldwide.

        Photo by fizkes on Shutterstock

        Globally, mental disorders such as the ones highlighted throughout this article are responsible for up to 32% of disability-adjusted life years (which is described as a year of 'healthy' life lost). Depressive disorders are the leading cause of disability worldwide, affecting over 340 million people.

        With COVID-19 lockdowns preventing people from accessing their regular workout routines, many are beginning to look for alternatives - and this is where yoga can help, according to new research. While typical treatments are still effective for those who are able to experience them, there may be another way to combat symptoms of depression.

        According to a new study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, yoga sessions may be able to ease depressive symptoms in people with mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.

        To assess whether physically engaging yoga practices were able to alleviate depressive symptoms in people with a diagnosed mental disorder, 19 studies were included in a large-scale systematic review, and 13 additional studies were included in a meta-analysis review for this experiment.

        Jacinta Brinsley, a doctoral candidate at the University of South Australia (and lead on the study) explains: "Exercise has always been a great strategy for people struggling with these feelings, as it boosts both mood and health."

        How can yoga ease depression symptoms?

        group yoga in yoga classroom men and women doing yoga

        Study shows the more yoga you do, the less depressive symptoms you may feel.

        Photo by Rawpixel.com on Shutterstock

        Within the 1712 individuals across these 32 studies, disorders of depression, post-traumatic stress, schizophrenia, anxiety, alcohol dependence, and bipolar were present.

        Participants did 1-2 yoga sessions per week which varied between 20 to 90 minutes long. According to Brinsley, "This is any kind of yoga where 'asana' (the postures and movements) are at the main focus." Brinsley also explained that most yoga classes found online or in gyms or studios in Western society would fit these criteria.

        These yoga sessions were completed weekly for about 2.5 months across all studies reviewed in this project. The results found through Brinsley's team analysis were that yoga moderately eased depressive symptoms compared with other self-help treatments (or lack of treatment) across the mental health spectrum.

        The analysis proves that some conditions seemed to benefit more than others, with the highest success being among individuals who were diagnosed with depressive disorders. Yoga was less effective for those with schizophrenia and those struggling with alcohol use disorders. There was no positive impact listed for those who struggled with depression that stemmed from PTSD.

        According to the analysis, the more yoga sessions a person did each week, the less they struggled with depressive symptoms and the better they felt.

        Different mechanisms work for us to improve our physical and mental health as we exercise.

        Exercise has been widely known for its physical and mental health benefits, with increasing blood circulation to the brain (especially to areas like the amygdala and hippocampus), which both play roles in controlling our motivation, moods, and responses.

        One of the mechanisms that work for us, bettering our physical and mental health when we exercise is the release of endorphins. Another important mechanism that helps is the body's central stress response system (the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis), along with the ability for yoga (or other kinds of exercise) to improve sleep quality.

        Mindfulness, meditation, and breathing control techniques are all things that have been proven effective in reducing depressive symptoms. Traditional yoga practices typically include a combination of these things and therefore may actually have more of a positive impact beyond mindfulness, breathing exercises, or exercise used individually.

        Connecting the body to the mind through yoga practices.

        One of the most helpful things when dealing with mental health conditions is awareness and proactivity. Understanding the problem and working to find a solution. Yoga practices often teach that the body, mind, and spirit are all connected. When you do work in one area, it impacts your whole system.

        Laurie Hyland Robertson, who co-authored the book "Understanding Yoga Therapy", explains: "We can expect that leg exercises, especially when you approach it in a mindful and purposeful way, can not only affect your quadriceps, but also your emotional state, your body's physiology, and even your mental outlook."

        Yoga can be treated as any treatment plan - individualized for each patient.

        Robertson also explains that yoga is an extremely unique treatment plan that offers something for everyone, as "the results of this analysis underscore the importance of working with a professional who can tailor yoga practices to the individual, adapting the care plan as needed."

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        New research establishes an unexpected connection.

        Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

        Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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        • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

        We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

        A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

        The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

        An unexpected culprit

        The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

        What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

        "We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

        "Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

        fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

        Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

        The experiments

        The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

        You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

        For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

        Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

        The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

        However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

        The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

        As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

        The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

        The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

        "We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

        Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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