Yoga works much like antidepressants and psychotherapy and helps tackle most mental health problems including depression, attention deficiency and even schizophrenia, researchers have concluded, giving the ancient Indian practice science’s most comprehensive thumbs up yet.
Like medication commonly prescribed for major psychiatric disorders, yoga helps modulate levels of key chemicals like serotonin, and stress hormone cortisol, a review by scientists at Duke University has confirmed.
For some illnesses, yoga may work as a standalone remedy, and in others, as an adjunct to medicine, they found.
“Additionally, there is likely to be a positive group effect when one practices yoga in a group,” Dr Meera Balasubramaniam, the lead author of the research told HT.
Yoga is estimated as practiced by over 200 million people worldwide, including over 100 million in India and about 16 million in the US.
But while its general use in helping psychical and mental health is widely recognized, medical science – particularly outside India – has till now viewed its potential to tackle specific major illnesses with skepticism.
As the practice gained popularity globally through the latter half of the 20th century, with cultural icons like the Beatles and a galaxy of Hollywood stars subscribing to it, several cases of fraud gurus duping innocent people also started popping up.
Even in India, though yoga is widely accepted and followed as a cure for multiple ailments, medical doctors have had to counter outlandish – and potentially misleading -- claims from popular yoga masters like Baba Ramdev.
The Haridwar-based guru in 2006 said be could cure HIV-AIDS, a claim he has been unable to substantiate.
“Yoga has become such a cultural phenomenon that it has become difficult for physicians and patients to differentiate legitimate claims from hype,” the authors of the Duke research have written, in their paper published on January 24 in the respected journal Frontiers in Psychiatry. “Our goal was to examine whether the evidence matched the promise.”
They found that, in most cases, it does.
Yoga, the research reviewed by the Duke scientists shows, can help control levels of serotonin, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and acetylcholine – chemicals key to most mental illnesses.
Research shows that those performing yoga also did better in handling some of the difficulties associated with attention deficiency hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) such as inattention and impulsivity, suffered by lakhs of Indian students.
Students who practiced yoga were able to use techniques they learnt to calm themselves if they got agitated.
“There was also some evidence of improved homework compliance,” Balasubramaniam said.
While some evidence suggests that yoga benefits patients of mild depression even without medicine, it helps only in addition to prescribed drugs for severe depression, ADHD and conditions like schizophrenia.
“More research to evaluate the benefits of yoga, including its mechanisms, is certainly warranted,” Balasubramaniam said.
The conclusions of the Duke team come at a time when the medical fraternity is increasingly grappling with a growing mental health burden, often exacerbated by poor access to medication for low income families mainly in developing countries like India.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), depression affects more than 350 million people globally and is the world’s leading cause of disability.
Recent studies also point to the limited effectiveness of drugs alone as a solution to many mental illnesses.
The Primary Care Study, conducted by the WHO, found that 60% of patients remained depressed a year after being treated with an anti-depressant.
“The search for improved treatments, including non-drug based, to meet the holistic needs of patients is of paramount importance and we call for more research into yoga as a priority,” Dr. P Murali Doraiswamny, a co-author of the research at Duke, said.
Yoga in addition to medication for mental health situations is also useful because the cure rates of medicines tend to be variable and yoga may provide a safe and acceptable adjunct, Balasubramaniam said.