BU Today

Health & Wellness

A Healthy Stretch for Body and Mind

Study shows yoga may elevate important brain chemical

A recent MED study suggests that yoga can help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Yoga has long been known for building strength, flexibility, and spirituality — but it seems that the exercise can also improve mental health. A recent study conducted by researchers from Boston University’s School of Medicine and McLean Hospital suggests that practicing yoga may increase levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), an important brain chemical. Low levels of GABA, the brain’s primary inhibitory neurotransmitter, are often associated with depression and anxiety disorders.

Study lead author Chris Streeter, a MED assistant professor of psychiatry and neurology, was interested in research showing that yoga decreases seizure frequency and helps reduce symptoms associated with depression and anxiety. “I thought that yoga, which worked on two disorders that improved when GABA levels went up, would increase GABA levels — and it did,” says Streeter, who is also a research associate at McLean.

The study compared the GABA levels of experienced yoga practitioners after a one-hour session with the levels of a group that read for an hour. Levels of the chemical in the yoga group rose by 27 percent, while those in the reading group showed no change. In comparison, pharmaceutical agents used to treat depression and anxiety disorders can increase GABA levels by 30 to 40 percent.

“It is exciting that a behavioral intervention is having an effect on brain chemistry similar to medication,” says Streeter. She says the research may provide more choices for people looking to improve their health, but warns people not to stop taking their medication without consulting their doctor. “As people get older there are lifestyle choices that affect long-term health,” she says. “It’s important to make good lifestyle choices, and I think that for many people, yoga is one of them.”

Michael Halley, a yoga instructor at BU’s Fitness and Recreation Center, is not surprised by research that demonstrates yoga’s health benefits. “If you get into the habit, you can do it forever,” he says. “Yoga is something you can grow into and grow with.”

Getting started with yoga can be as simple as walking into a class or picking up an instructional DVD. Halley finds that many beginners are nervous about their lack of flexibility, but he says that stretching is only part of the practice. “Yoga is not about touching your toes,” he says. “It’s about learning to make more space in your body.”

FitRec offers classes in hatha yoga and power yoga during the summer as well as throughout the school year. The second session of summer classes begins the second week of July. For more information, visit the FitRec Web site.