Yoga increases the brain’s levels of GABA, a chemical that helps regulate nerve activity, research finds.
The study, lead by researchers at Boston University School of Medicine, compared yoga with a ‘metabolically matched’ walking condition (Streeter et al., 2010).
Yoga for an hour-and-a-half for each of twelve weeks was enough to increase GABA levels and boost mood.
In the control condition, the boost in GABA levels was not as great for those who did a similar amount of walking.
Low levels of GABA, or to give it its full name gamma-aminobutyric acid, have been linked to low mood and increased anxiety.
This is because GABA is broadly an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the mature brain, tending to calm the mind.
Drugs commonly prescribed for people experiencing depression or low mood are known to increase activity in the GABA system.
Yoga versus walking
In the study, participants were given brain scans before and after the yoga or walking.
Comparing the results of the scans, researchers could see the changes in GABA levels.
After the interventions, people in the yoga group reported lower anxiety and better mood than those who had been walking.
Those with the greatest increase in GABA activity also experienced the largest boost in mood.
The study’s authors explain the significance of the results:
“This is the first study to demonstrate that increased thalamic GABA levels are associated with improved mood and decreased anxiety. It is also the first time that yoga postures have been associated with a positive correlation between acute increases in thalamic GABA levels and improvements in mean scores on mood and anxiety scales.” (Streeter et al., 2010).
Dr Kim A. Jobst commented on the study:
“This is important work that establishes some objective bases for the effects that highly trained practitioners of yoga therapy throughout the world see on a daily basis. What is important now is that these findings are further investigated in long-term studies to establish just how sustainable such changes can be in the search for safe non-drug treatments for depression.”
Image credit: Jean Henrique Wichinoski