Shivarama Varambally is not an ordinary psychiatrist. He is an associate professor at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (Nimhans), Bangalore, and is among a growing breed of medical scientists across the globe who are finding value in using yoga as an add-on treatment. He certainly has a reason to do so. Studies that he carried out along with his co-workers at Nimhans have shown that yoga remarkably improves conditions of mental patients, particularly those who suffer from schizophrenia and depression.
Thousands of miles away, in Ohio State University in the US, Janice K. Kiecolt-Glaser has some exciting results to report. Her team, at the university’s College of Medicine, is trying to figure out how yoga helps keep metabolic disorders such as type-2 diabetes and obesity at bay. The Ohio scientists find that regular practice of yoga keeps in check certain compounds in the blood, which are associated with what scientists call systemic inflammation. Systemic inflammation is implicated in heart disease, stroke, type-2 diabetes, arthritis and a host of other age-related debilitating diseases. Reducing inflammation may provide substantial short and long-term health benefits.
Thanks to researchers like Varambally and Kiecolt-Glaser, science is finally re-discovering the virtues of yoga, an ancient system of body-mind conditioning practised in India for centuries.
Yoga’s role as a complementary therapy in treating diseases ranging from mental disorders to lifestyle ailments to cancers has been a subject of active research for some time. But, now scientists are slowly understanding molecular mechanisms through which the changes take place.
For instance, the Nimhans team, which used yoga, along with medication, to treat patients who suffer from schizophrenia and depression, has been able to correlate certain positive changes in brain chemistry to an improvement in the condition of patients. “That yoga is effective in treating many psychiatric disorders is a known fact. What we have been trying to look at is how it does that,” says Varambally.
In schizophrenics, for instance, who practised yoga regularly for four months, they found higher levels of oxytocin, a hormone that helps build love and trust. People who have copious amounts of oxytocin hormone are found to bond better with others. “We found that there is a perceptible improvement in patients’ social cognition skills,” says Varambally. People who suffer from schizophrenia fail to read the emotions of others properly and hence do not act properly in social situations. Their study, reported in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry in July this year, showed that the likelihood of improvement was five times higher in those who practised yoga as compared to those who did normal exercise or no physical activity at all, along with medication.
“Similarly in patients suffering from depression, the practice of yoga is found to improve the plasticity of the brain,” he says. In patients with depression, there are relatively low levels of a brain chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is important for ensuring brain plasticity. Just like antidepressants, the Nimhans scientists found that yoga enhances the levels of BDNF. “More importantly, it has been found that yoga reduces the levels of cortisol, which is a stress hormone implicated in depression,” Varambally says. The level of reduction of cortisol is higher with yoga than with medication, he says.
Kiecolt-Glaser’s team, on the other hand, focused on two proteins in the blood that have opposite effects — leptin which exacerbates inflammation and adiponectin, which suppresses it. These molecules are produced by fat tissues around the midriff. The ratio between adiponectin and leptin is an important indicator to measure a person’s risk of developing metabolic disorders. For the study, the scientists compared the levels of these proteins and their ratio in people who practised yoga once or twice a week for two years and in those who did not. They found that those who practised yoga had a twice better adiponectin-leptin ratio, indicating a better health profile. More weeks of yoga practice over the previous year, more lifetime yoga sessions and more years of yoga practice were all significantly associated with lower leptin levels and a better adiponectin to leptin ratio, say the Ohio scientists in their paper which appeared in the journal Physiology & Behavior this month.
Yet another paper, which appeared online in the Asian Journal of Psychiatry, on the other hand, reviewed papers that studied the beneficial effects of yoga on immunity over a decade. Fahri Saatcioglu, professor of molecular biosciences at the University of Oslo, in Norway, looked not only at yoga postures and meditation, but also at other similar practices like Tai Chi and Qi Gong prevalent in other Asian countries. “Yogic and meditative practices seem to positively affect gene expression profiles in immune cells that circulate in the blood,” says Saatcioglu. These changes seem to happen at the most fundamental, that is, at the molecular level, he says.
However, more detailed studies to evaluate the validity of these findings, the precise molecular networks involved, and their possible therapeutic efficacy are required, he observes.