Those of you who participate in some form of yoga, tai chi, qigong or similar forms of slow movement, stretching, and breathing know the benefit this can have on your state of mind and wellness. These forms of exercise can create a sense of well-being.
Besides the personal anecdotal evidence that this form of exercise-movement is helpful, science has begun to investigate these practices and objectively measure the responses of the participants. Various studies have suggested that yoga helps to improve stress-related nervous system imbalances and through this increased investigative scientific approach, we are starting to gain better insight into how this occurs.
A lot of the recent research in this area comes out of the psychiatry department at the Boston University School of Medicine. Researchers there have proposed a theory about how yoga affects the nervous system based on their findings. The team advances a theory, based on neurophysiology and neuroanatomy, to understand how yoga may be helpful in treating patients with stress-related psychological and medical conditions. They believe yoga counters the imbalance in the autonomic nervous system as well as under-activity of the inhibitory neurotransmitter, gamma amino-butyric acid (GABA) produced by stress.
People under excessive stress, particularly “roller coaster episodes” of stress, develop physiological changes as a result of the body trying to “stay on an even keel and in-balance while riding the roller coaster.”
Your autonomic nervous system arises in your brain and spinal cord and is responsible for the regulation of your body’s internal functions such as the operation of your internal organs including breathing, digestion and blood pressure, for example. These functions are involuntary and occur unconsciously—you don’t have to remind yourself to breath or to digest your food.
The autonomic nervous system is made up of two divisions: The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The imbalance that yoga appears to address is parasympathetic under activity and sympathetic over activity.
The SNS is responsible for stimulation of our “fight or flight” response. It gets us all fired up in the face of a stressful situation that presents a danger. The PNS is responsible for stimulation of “rest-and-digest” activities that occur when the body is at rest and more mellow. The vagus nerve is the main nerve route by which the parasympathetic nervous system carries out its bodily functions.
Gaba is the chief neurotransmitter compound in the brain that slows down or inhibits the actions by which nerve cells talk to one another. Its role is to keep the talk from getting too exciting, in other words it has a suppressing role in regulating nerve excitability within your nervous system.
It is believed that stress promotes:
(1) imbalance of the autonomic nervous system. This imbalance is due to decreased parasympathetic nervous system activity, and increased sympathetic nervous system activity.
(2) underactivity of the gamma amino-butyric acid (GABA) system, the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter system.
(3) increased allostatic load: the physiological and biological taxing of your body from repeated stressful episodes or events.
It is further hypothesized that yoga-based practices:
(4) correct under activity of the PNS and GABA systems in part through stimulation of the vagus nerve, the main PNS pathway out of the brain, and
(5) reduce allostatic load.
It would be interesting if the researchers could monitor the activity of the vagus nerve during yoga and compare it to vagus nerve activity under different scenarios that simulate stressful and calming situations.
People with a seizure disorder may require an implantable vagus nerve stimulator and there is now a new stimulator that can work through the skin so it does not need to be surgically implanted.
Perhaps a “low dose” vagus nerve stimulator device can be used somewhere on the body to mimic the calming effect of yoga? I could use one in my car.
The authors believe that,
“the decreased parasympathetic nervous system and GABA activity that underlies stress-related disorders can be corrected by yoga practices resulting in amelioration of disease symptoms.”
Do some yoga once in a while. Your body AND MIND will thank you.