A startling number of people you ask, if they’re being really honest, will admit they’ve dealt with depression at some point in their lives. Not only is depression one of the most common mental health issues around, but it’s also the leading cause of disability across the globe. Though we’re getting a little more comfortable with talking about it openly, it’s still oddly hard to treat: Antidepressants don’t work for everyone, and even talk therapy can be hit or miss. Interestingly, some research has suggested that yoga can help treat depression. It may not be a panacea, but it can certainly make a difference in people’s mental health, especially if you’re doing other things to help yourself as well.
One recent review study found that yoga could be an effective treatment for certain mental health disorders, including depression. The team, based at Duke University, carried out a meta-analysis, looking back over several previous studies on yoga and a number mental health issues like depression, schizophrenia, ADHD, sleep problems, cognitive problems, and eating disorders. For depression, they found that four studies were rigorous enough be included in the review, and the studies did yield positive effects of yoga for people with clinical depression. One of the studies even found that the cortisol levels of the participants, who were young adults with depression, had decreased significantly by the end of the five-week study period. Cortisol, a stress hormone, is often higher in people with depression.
“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 global priority,” said study author P. Murali Doraiswamy at the time of the study. “If the promise of yoga on mental health was found in a drug, it would be the best selling medication world-wide.”
There’s a number of ways in which yoga is thought to work physiologically. One is by reducing activity in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which governs our stress response, and by increasing levels of the neurotransmitter GABA, which are known to be lower in people with depression.
And other studies have suggested that yoga may work by increasing bone-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is a measure of the brain’s plasticity, or malleability. A study from in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry found that people who were depressed and who took yoga with or without antidepressants for three months had higher levels of BDNF after the treatments. There wasn’t any difference in levels of BDNF between the groups – but in the yoga-only group, there was a connection between how much depression symptoms were reduced and how much BDNF levels rose. This suggests that yoga may have a similar effect on brain plasticity as antidepressants do.
Yoga also teaches us to regulate our breath, both on and off the mat, which is well known to help dial down the stress response and to dial up the relaxation response. “Yoga helps to modulate our responses to stress by decreasing our overall physiological arousal (i.e., reduced heart rate and blood pressure),” says psychologist Ben Michaelis, “and somewhat ironically by increasing the variability of our heart rate which allows us to respond more adaptively to stress.” He adds that the community aspects of yoga – being part of a group of people who are all in it for a similar goal – may also help with the more isolating elements of depression. Research has definitely found that social contact is a key part of psychological well-being.
And finally, just having a practice to go back to regularly can be a huge help when we’re dealing with depression. It’s not only the physical exercise, but it’s really the mental benefits of any routine that you come back to – this, in and of itself, helps people deal with the more intellectual and existential issues that come with depression.
“The breathing and calming aspects of yoga help improve attention and concentration, which are often disturbed during depression,” says Michaelis. “But the spiritual aspects of having a practice help with the existential aspects of depression – focusing on a larger purpose. And finally, taking time out of your busy day just for yourself is an inherently self-valuing activity and would have a reparative function for people who are in the midst of a depressive episode, and who often struggle with low self-esteem.”
So there are a lot of routes through which yoga may work for depression. Meditation itself has also been shown to have a big impact – a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that meditation is as effective as antidepressants in helping treat depression. But asana, too, seems to have its own very real set of benefits. It may not always be enough – for some, antidepressants and/or therapy may always be necessary – but it can certainly be an important ingredient in managing depression.
Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga and meditation five years ago. She is a contributor at Forbes.com, and writes for the University of Chicago, as well as other publications. Of all the areas of health she covers, she’s particularly interested in how yoga and meditation affect the brain and behavior. You can follow her on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.