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Yoga and Cortisol

Yoga is associated with lowering of cortisol and general stress levels.

A study from 2013 by the Department of Psychiatry, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bangalore, Karnataka, India was tasked to find out whether Yoga can have a positive impact on a patient’s level of depression and serum cortisol levels.

What is Cortisol?

Outpatient depressives who were not suicidal were offered yoga as a possible antidepressant therapy. A validated yoga module was used as therapy taught over one month and to be practiced at home daily.

Out of 58 patients, 38 were never treated and 20 were medication-free for at least a month.The severity of depression was measured before start of treatment (baseline) and at the end of 3 months using the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HDRS) by a rater blind to the treatment group status of the patients. The research was done under the Advanced Centre for Yoga – Mental Health and Neurosciences, a collaborative centre of NIMHANS and the Morarji Desai Institute of Yoga, New Delhi.

The patients got to choose one of the three treatments:

  1. Antidepressant medication alone (n=16)
  2. Yoga-alone (n=19)
  3. A combination of both (n=19).

All patients agreeing to be treated with yoga were trained in yoga practices by the same therapist. They were requested to attend the training sessions on a daily basis for 2 weeks and again at weekly intervals for the next 2 weeks. “Booster” sessions were provided once each in the 1st weeks of 2nd and 3rd months of the study.

Each session of training/practice lasted one hour. On all other days patients were encouraged to practice yoga at home daily. The same was reinforced through telephonic contacts. A relative staying with the patient confirmed the patients’ accounts of yoga practice at home. Adherence to treatment was operationally defined as doing 50 or more yoga sessions in the 3 month period and/or using medications for at least 2 months.

The results clearly showed a relation between the practice of Yoga and the decrease of stress levels and cortisol levels in the sample set of patients. In all patients who received yoga with or without medications the change in serum cortisol level was significant; it was not so in those who received only medications.

The findings support that yoga may act at the level of the hypothalamus by its ‘anti-stress’ effects (reducing the cortisol), to bring about relief in depression.


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