Practicing yoga while undergoing radiation therapy for breast cancer reduces stress and improves quality of life, according to a new study from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Lead researcher Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., professor and director of the Integrative Medicine Program at MD Anderson, and colleagues conducted a pioneer study comparing the health benefits of yoga to different types of exercise. They theorized that yoga's unique integration of mind practices provides psychological and physical benefits for cancer patients beyond those derived from stretching exercises alone.

Anxiety Prescription: Yoga Therapy Three Times a Week

The researchers randomly assigned 163 women with breast cancer, stage 0-3, and with an average age of 52, into one of three groups: those practicing yoga, those incorporating simple stretching exercises into their daily routines, and those doing neither.

Yoga classes were taught in collaboration with the Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana in Bangalore, India's largest foundation for yoga research. Participants attended one-hour yoga sessions, three times a week throughout their six-week course of radiation therapy. Women in the stretching group were also instructed to do their exercises for the same amount of time.

Upon conclusion of the radiation therapy, patients reported their mental and physical health status. Stress hormone levels were measured, and electrocardiogram tests were also conducted at the beginning and end of the study period, and at one, three and six months following treatment.

Those in both the yoga therapy and the stretching groups reported less fatigue at the end of their radiation therapy, while women who practiced only yoga expressed the greatest benefits to their physical well-being and overall health at all the follow-up assessments. They also were more optimistic about their cancer experiences than women in either of the other two groups.

Yoga Therapy Shows Drastic Decreases in Cortisol Levels

The greatest impact, though, was seen in the assessment of the cortisol levels of the women in yoga therapy who showed the greatest decline in cortisol throughout the day. Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced in the adrenal gland that becomes elevated in response to stress. Chronic stress prevents cortisol levels from returning to normal, healthy levels, and this experiment suggests yoga therapy may be able to counteract this effect.

"This is a very exciting study that compares the effects of yoga to those of simple stretching. It fits into a large body of literature that suggests that yoga therapy reduces stress not only at the psychological level, but also reduces the chemical messengers that can have long-lasting harmful effects on the body," noted Felipe A. Jain, MD, resident in psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, Semel Institute for Neuroscience.

Yoga Therapy Incorporates Mind, Body, and Spirit

A Phase III clinical trial is being developed through a grant from the National Cancer Institute to continue exploration of the biological and psychological benefits of yoga therapy to women with breast cancer.

Yoga incorporates breathing techniques, poses and meditation to promote relaxation and well-being. Originating from the Sanskrit word for yoke, or to join and unite, yoga is a spiritual, physical and mental exercise based on ancient Hindu disciplines.

Dr. Cohen will be presenting his findings this June at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. The study represents an effort to contribute to the growing body of evidence suggesting the benefits of mind-body programs to cancer patients' emotional and physical health.

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