A new study assessing the impact of yoga on women with fibromyalgia has found that the mind-body exercise reduced a key stress hormone level among the participants.

Fibromyalgia is a condition characterized by chronic, widespread pain, particularly along joints, muscles and tendons. Most notable amongst women aged twenty to fifty, the syndrome is chronic, and its origin is not fully understood. It has been associated with sleep problems, depression, fatigue, anxiety and hypocortisolism. That condition, marked by significantly low cortisol levels during the day, may be caused by dysfunction of the brain regions involved in responses to stress.

Increasing Cortisol Levels

Cortisol, a hormone activated by stress, increases blood sugar, suppresses the immune system and lowers pain sensitivity. Such changes are intended to aid the body's response to stress; however, when continually secreted at high levels without the opportunity to normalize and recede, cortisol begins to negatively affect individuals. Similarly, insufficient amounts of cortisol disrupt biological mechanisms, causing weakness, dizziness, dehydration, and immune responses to infection, trauma and stress. Experts believe this deficiency is related to increased pain, sensitivity and fatigue in fibromyalgia.

Scientists at York University in Toronto, Canada, investigated the physical and emotional benefits of yoga on women with fibromyalgia by evaluating the cortisol levels of a sample group at different times during an intervention program.

Researchers recruited 22 affected women to participate in biweekly yoga classes for eight weeks. The sessions lasted 75 minutes each, with questionnaires assessing pain, anxiety, and depression administered pre, post and in the middle of the test period. Saliva samples were taken as well throughout the study to measure cortisol levels.

High Cortisol Levels Help People with Fibromyalgia

Results showed an elevated level of cortisol among the women throughout the eight weeks, and several self-reported significant reductions in pain in their questionnaire responses. Psychological benefits were also noted, with many feeling more optimistic and accepting of their conditions.

The Power of Mindfulness

Scientists believe that yoga promotes a form of mindfulness that is highly effective in the management of pain. Mindfulness, which refers to a state of total awareness in the present, is based in Buddhist principles. The practice of yoga combines this type of mental meditation with physical movements, stretches, and diaphragmatic breathing techniques to still the body and mind. It also promotes an emotional detachment from external experiences, such as pain, possibly explaining how it works to alleviate psychological symptoms.

Yoga, a practice rooted in ancient India, has often been correlated with improved outcomes in the treatment of a variety of mental and physical illnesses. It is often recommended in conjunction with traditional psychotherapy and medication for mental conditions, including anxiety and depression.

Lead researcher Kathryn Curtis remarked that yoga relaxes the body physically by reducing sympathetic nervous system activity. That, in turn, lowers heart rate, increases breath-intake and may help restore the functionality of related brain regions.

The study was published in an issue of the Journal of Pain Research, with the authors recommending additional studies to be undertaken with larger sample sizes to support their findings.

Date of original publication:
Updated on: December 05, 2016

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