How Yoga and Breathing Help the Brain Unwind

Research shows normalization of neurotransmitters in anxiety and depression.

Clinical effects of yoga and breath practice

In this ground-breaking study, the first of its kind to look at changes in GABA levels as a function of yoga and related practices, researchers compared the effects of a 12 week course of Iyengar yoga on clinical outcomes and brain GABA levels in a group of healthy volunteers and a group of people with depression and anxiety. The control group included 17 people and the depression and anxiety group 15 people diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD, but excluded those with heightened suicide risk for safety reasons). There were also 5 people in the MDD group with additional diagnoses of PTSD, 3 with Panic Disorder, and 4 with Alcohol Use Disorders.

GABA levels after yoga and breath practice in depression and anxiety

Their initial findings, while requiring further investigation, are remarkable. Following 12 weeks of yoga and coherent breathing practice, study participants in the depression and anxiety group showed normalization of thalamic GABA levels on MRS pre- and post-session. As we can see in the MRS curve from a study subject, the healthy control and patient curves come together.

GABA levels in depression and anxiety approach healthy control levels after study intervention

Source: Streeter et al., 2018

Implications for care

Aside from requiring a significant time commitment to complete a full 12 week course, there are few reasons why we wouldn’t integrate such practices into part of a wellness routine, especially if we are working toward more resilient stress responses in the face of anxiety, depression, trauma, substance-related conditions, and other difficulties with stress management.

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Grant H Brenner

Psychiatrist, Psychoanalyst, Entrepreneur, Writer, Speaker, Disaster Responder, Advocate, Photographer