Published August 31 2015
Many people are familiar with the benefits of yoga with regards to stress management. But yoga can help with more than just stress handling. Don’t get me wrong, as doing yoga to reduce stress levels can greatly benefit those with thyroid and autoimmune thyroid conditions. However, yoga can potentially benefit thyroid health in other ways as well, which I will discuss in this article.
Even though many people are aware that yoga can help with stress, most people don’t know why this is the case. And so what I’d like to briefly do is discuss some of the research so that you will have a better understanding as to why yoga can be so effective in helping to reduce stress. And then I’ll discuss some ways in which yoga can help people with thyroid conditions, and specifically autoimmune thyroid conditions such as Graves’ Disease and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.
How Can Yoga Help To Reduce Stress?
A systematic review of the literature looked to examine the mechanisms through which yoga reduces stress (1). It showed that there are seven mechanisms in which yoga can help to reduce stress. Three of these are psychological mechanisms and include positive effect, mindfulness, and self-compassion (1). Four of these mechanisms are biological and include the posterior hypothalamus, interleukin-6, C-reactive protein, and cortisol (1).
I’m not going to discuss these in detail, and most people are aware that there are “psychological mechanisms” involved. However, the biological mechanisms prove that yoga can have a positive effect on the physiology of the body. And so when you hear someone talk about how yoga can help with stress, just remember that it does this by affecting the hypothalamus and decreasing cortisol. And it can also reduce inflammation by modulating the pro-inflammatory cytokine interleukin-6 and by decreasing C-reactive protein (CRP).
And while the specific psychological and biological mechanisms through which yoga reduces stress isn’t important to memorize, it is necessary to realize that yoga, along with other mind-body-medicine techniques, can be just as important as eating well and/or taking supplements. It’s not uncommon to speak with someone who is taking numerous supplements for the adrenals (i.e. ashwagandha, licorice, the B vitamins, etc.) and/or to reduce inflammation (i.e. turmeric, fish oils), but they aren’t blocking out time to manage stress on a regular basis.
How Can Yoga Help People With Thyroid Conditions?
There haven’t been too many studies which specifically show how yoga can help improve thyroid health. One small study looked at the effect of yoga on the quality of life of 20 female hypothyroid patients (2). This involved them attending one hour yoga sessions daily for one month, and the study showed that the patient’s quality of life scores following the yoga program were greater than scores obtained prior to undertaking yoga (2). Not surprisingly, this study didn’t show that yoga helped to improve any of the thyroid markers, and there is no evidence that I’m aware of which shows that yoga can directly affect thyroid health.
Although yoga doesn’t seem to have a direct effect on thyroid health, it can help to improve the health of people with these conditions in other ways. Research shows that yoga can modulate the immune system, and as I mentioned earlier, this can lead to a decrease in pro-inflammatory cytokines and other inflammatory markers such as interleukin-6, interleukin 8, tumor necrosis factor alpha, and CRP (3) (4) (5). Another study I came across showed that yoga not only reduces pro-inflammatory cytokines, but can actually help to increase anti-inflammatory cytokines (6). In other words, it will reduce those cytokines which promote inflammation, while increasing those cytokines which reduce inflammation.
Don’t Underestimate the Impact of Reducing Stress Levels
Although yoga can help to modulate the immune system, which in turn can potentially benefit those people with autoimmune thyroid conditions such as Graves’ Disease and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, there is no question that the greatest benefit of yoga is in helping people to manage stress. And so when I recommend mind body medicine techniques to my patients such as yoga, the primary reason I’m recommending these techniques isn’t to reduce pro-inflammatory cytokines, but instead is to decrease their stress levels. With that being said, since yoga can also modulate the immune system it makes sense for those with Graves’ Disease and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis to consider this type of therapy.
What Other Conditions Can Yoga Help With?
Although the focus of this article is on how yoga can help people with thyroid and autoimmune thyroid conditions, there is no question that it can help people with many other conditions. Below are some of the symptoms and conditions yoga has been proven to help with.
Chronic pain. One randomized trial looked to see if yoga can be effective for chronic low back pain. The study involved 313 adults, and the authors concluded that offering a 12-week yoga program led to greater improvements in back function when compared to standard care (7). Another study involving 80 people looked to compare the effect of a short-term intensive yoga program with physical exercise on pain and spinal flexibility in those with chronic low back pain (8). The study showed that several days of an intensive yoga-based lifestyle program reduced pain-related disability and improved spinal flexibility better than a physical exercise regime (8). Another study looked to evaluate the effectiveness of yoga in chronic neck pain patients, and concluded that yoga led to superior pain relief and functional improvements (9).
High blood pressure. Some studies have shown that yoga can help to reduce blood pressure. One study investigated the effects of two yoga interventions on blood pressure and quality of life in patients with hypertension, and determined that a short yoga program practiced at home seems to have an antihypertensive effect (10). Another study examined the effects of a 12 week yoga therapy program on blood pressure, heart rate, and heart rate variability (11). There was a significant decrease in heart rate and blood pressure in the yoga group, and the authors concluded that twelve-week yoga therapy significantly improved the parasympathetic activity and decreased the sympathetic activity (11). Yet another study showed that in addition to standard medical therapy, yoga reduces blood pressure, load on heart, and improves parasympathetic activity (12).
Insomnia. A few studies have shown that practicing yoga can help with insomnia. One small study showed significant improvements observed in sleep efficiency, total sleep time, total wake time, sleep onset latency, and wake time after sleep onset (13). Another study showed that yoga might be effective in reducing insomnia and menopausal symptoms as well as improving quality of life in postmenopausal women with insomnia (14).
Migraines. A few studies have shown that yoga can help with migraine relief. One small study involved migraine patients who received yoga practice sessions 5 days per week for 6 weeks along with conventional care, and the conclusion was that headache frequency and intensity were reduced more in yoga with conventional care than the conventional care group alone (15). The study also showed that yoga enhanced the vagal tone and decreased the sympathetic drive, and can be effectively incorporated as an adjuvant therapy in migraine patients (15). Another study involving 72 patients with migraines demonstrated a significant reduction in migraine headache frequency (16).
Depression. Although people with severe depression usually will need more than just yoga therapy, numerous studies have shown that yoga can help people with depression. A systematic review involving twelve randomized controlled trials and 619 participants showed that yoga can be considered an ancillary treatment option for patients with depressive disorders and people with elevated levels of depression (17). Another systematic review concluded that yoga significantly reduced the depressive symptoms of elderly participants (18). Another study compared the effects of yoga versus walking on mood, anxiety, and brain GABA levels, and showed that the 12-week yoga intervention was associated with greater improvements in mood and anxiety than walking (19).
Consider Incorporating Yoga Into Your Life
When I was diagnosed with Graves’ Disease I personally did not incorporate yoga into my life, and so it would be hypocritical for me to say that doing yoga is necessary to restore one’s health back to normal. But doing some type of mind body medicine is important for many people, and since there is so much research behind yoga helping with different conditions, then it makes sense to consider utilizing this technique on a regular basis. This is true even for those who think they currently do a good job of managing the stress in their life, as many people think they do a good job of managing their stress when this really isn’t the case.
Whatever type of mind body medicine you utilize, it’s important to incorporate these techniques on a daily basis. This doesn’t mean that you need to do yoga every day, but I commonly work with people who are doing yoga two or three days per week, but don’t utilize any other mind body medicine techniques on the other days. Although doing things to improve stress handling two or three days per week is obviously better than not doing anything at all, to receive optimal benefits you want to do some type of MBM every single day.
So hopefully you have a better understanding as to how yoga can help to improve thyroid health, as well as help with other conditions. While yoga can greatly help people to better deal with the stress in their life, it can also modulate the immune system, which can be beneficial for those people with Graves’ Disease and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. And while doing yoga two or three times per week can be beneficial, you really do want to incorporate mind body medicine into your life on a daily basis, although you of course don’t have to just do yoga, as there are other effective techniques to choose from.