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Lesser-Known Yoga Benefits That Could Change Your Life

woman performing yoga to get yoga benefitsYou’re probably already familiar with dozens of yoga benefits – helping your spine become suppler, making your muscles more flexible, aligning your posture, burning calories, increasing muscle tone and strength, and improving balance.

Although yoga has been around for thousands of years, and ancient yogis have understood its unmatched benefits for mental, emotional, and physical well-being, researchers are now starting to catch on to this knowledge.

Types of Yoga

Different types of yoga can give different types of yoga benefits. Ashtanga and Vinyasa yoga are fast-paced and can really make you break a sweat - they’re good for those who want to have a harder workout. Hatha is the classical type of yoga that focuses on syncing postures to the breath, and it’s good if you want to focus more on alignment and balance. Yin yoga is very gentle and is good for those who want to relax and tap into a sense of peace.

Then there’s yoga therapy. Yoga therapy is different from yoga classes in that it’s usually one-on-one or in a small group and takes into consideration health conditions you may have in order to tailor the yoga to your individual needs and healing. This can be useful for those who have certain physical issues that might prevent them from certain poses during a class, such as carpal tunnel for example, and would like to use yoga to work on those issues directly.

Yoga Benefits and Adrenal Fatigue

But yoga benefits go beyond helping musculoskeletal issues, and indeed some of its healing power has to do with how it affects your internal organs, your metabolism, your chemical and hormonal balance, your circulation, and your digestion. Its stress-reducing abilities are not just limited to breathing deeply and taking time out of your day, it actually works directly on your stress response mechanisms in order to help restore them back to balance.

For those who suffer from Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS), these yoga benefits can prove to be life changing. If you’ve got AFS, you might want to add yoga to your recovery plan, but before jumping to the next class immediately, there are some precautions that need to be taken so that you don’t add more stress to your adrenal glands and increase the risk of a crash or prolong your recovery time.

AFS is a condition that arises due to chronic stress, whether physical, like eating a bad diet for years or having a chronic disease, or psychological, like having financial pressure or a stressful job. Although your body can handle acute stress, when stress is chronic, it overworks your adrenal glands, which secrete stress hormones, like cortisol. As your cortisol levels dysregulate, first rising then plummeting when the adrenals are exhausted, you get adrenal fatigue symptoms.

Adrenal Yoga Benefits

As mentioned above, there are different types of yoga, and if you have AFS, you need to be careful when adding yoga to your recovery plan. That’s because the type of yoga and the stage of AFS you’re in will determine whether your condition will improve or worsen with yoga.

First of all, whatever stage of AFS you’re in, stay away from hot yoga as this will stimulate your adrenals and stress your body too much. Also, more rigorous forms of yoga, such as Ashtanga, should be avoided as well. Gentler forms of yoga, especially those that focus a lot on deep, non-stimulatory breathing and very light stretching, are best. Yin yoga, for example, is a good start.

Adrenal breathing and adrenal yoga exercises are perfect for those with AFS as they are very easy and also very restorative. They will help calm and strengthen your nervous system and increase blood flow to your adrenal glands, giving them more oxygen. With practice, you’ll be more in control of your mental chatter, helping to reduce psychological stress and anxiety, and giving your adrenal glands a rest.

yoga benefits and lotus pose womanEarlier stage of adrenal yoga doesn’t include many of the usual asanas - the stretching and strengthening exercises using more challenging postures. It also doesn’t include pranayama, which is a type of breathing technique that can actually trigger adrenaline release. Savasana, or corpse pose (as well as other gentle poses), is kept though, because it can be used by anyone, even those in more advanced stages of AFS, due to how safe and gentle it is.

You can try it right now and feel its stress-reducing benefits immediately. Lie flat on your back and let your legs stretch out with feet a little more than shoulder-width apart, and arms on the side of your body with your palms facing up. Now consciously let your whole body relax, and keep breathing. Stay in this position for five or more minutes, letting yourself sink deeper and deeper into relaxation.

Adrenal yoga incorporates poses and techniques from traditional yoga and adapts them to suit AFS, starting with the most gentle forms of stretching and breathing exercises for those with more advanced AFS, and gradually adding more strengthening and toning exercises for those who have started to recover.

Adrenal yoga benefits include improving lymphatic drainage, immune function, and bowel movements. In this sense, adrenal yoga is a more therapeutic form of yoga.

The main elements of adrenal yoga are increasing physical awareness, focusing on posture and alignment, and syncing the breath in a gentle way that doesn’t stimulate the adrenal glands or stress response. And as you do these practices, you’ll also be training your mind to relax and let go, giving you more control over your mental and emotional states, so that you can eventually turn stress into resilience.

But adrenal yoga benefits do even more than that, as they can support your NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response, which is your body’s global response to stress that the adrenal glands are a part of. The NEM is composed of six circuits: the hormonal, metabolic, neuroaffect, cardionomic, inflammation, and detoxification responses, all of which can benefit from a gentle and restorative yoga practice.

Yoga and Inflammation

One of the big stressors on the body is inflammation, even though inflammation is a healthy and necessary part of the body’s immune response. As your body deals with infections or reacts to injuries, different immune cells gather around the site of infection or injury in order to isolate and attack pathogens, toxins, and damaged cells.

The NEM’s inflammation response involves the immune cells, gut, and microbiome. The aim of this response is to get rid of the initial cause of injury and infection, and then get rid of any cells and tissues that were damaged by this initial cause. That’s why it needs the detoxification response to also be running smoothly so that it can expel these byproducts and debris out of the body.

yoga benefits helping to reduce inflammation from foodsSystemic inflammation is very strongly linked to dysbiosis, which is an imbalance in the gut’s microbiome. Dysbiosis is caused by several factors, including eating an unhealthy diet, alcohol and drug consumption, sugar consumption, taking antibiotics and other medications, exposure to toxins, and chronic stress. When the microbiome is out of balance, your risk for developing leaks in the gut lining increases.

Through these leaks, substances enter into the bloodstream that shouldn’t be there, such as food particles, toxins, and pathogens. As soon as your immune system detects these substances in your bloodstream, it launches an attack on them, causing inflammation. But because these leaks persist, the cycle repeats, and the inflammation continues and even spreads to other parts of the body, creating problems there.

Chronic, low-grade inflammation that reaches the brain and nervous system can cause depression, while inflammation that reaches the joints can cause joint pain and swelling, and so on and so forth, not to mention the many gastrointestinal (GI) and digestive issues that leaks and inflammation can cause, such as ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), diarrhea, constipation, and many others.

To turn this around, you’ll need to eat an anti-inflammatory diet, reduce stress, and reduce exposure to toxins. You can also add yoga to the mix because it can help with digestion and in reducing inflammation.

Yoga and GI relief

 Yoga benefits to help GI symptomsAs you move through different, gentle yoga postures, your internal organs are massaged, aiding in bowel movement and digestion, and increasing blood flow and oxygenation to your GI tract. The movements can also help relieve gas, which is one of the more painful symptoms of GI tract disorders and digestive issues.

Yoga and Stress

And because yoga is a powerful stress-reliever, it can help reduce one of the main causes of dysbiosis, which is chronic stress. As you lower your stress levels, your adrenal glands get stronger and are able to modulate cortisol secretion. One of the main functions of cortisol is to suppress the immune system and neutralize inflammation, which is exactly what you need in order to give your gut a break from the inflammation response cycle so your body can rebuild the gut lining, seal up the leaks, and rebalance the microbiome.

Yoga Benefits for the Neuroaffect Response

Closely associated with the inflammation response is the neuroaffect response of the NEM, as they both share the gut as a regulator. As we have just seen, inflammation that spreads from the gut to the brain and nervous system can cause depression. And as the central nervous system (CNS) engages in the overall stress response, other mood disturbances and symptoms can arise, such as anxiety, insomnia, panic attacks, and brain fog.

Not only that but much of the body’s neurotransmitters - messengers that transmit signals between neurons throughout the body and help regulate physical and cognitive functions, the perception and response to pain, sleep, and mental/emotional states – are made in the gut. So, an imbalance there can create problems everywhere else in the body.

Mind and body yoga benefitsAFS and the neuroaffect response are also involved, as cortisol is actually the result of a hormone cascade that begins in the brain through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The hypothalamus signals the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) to stimulate the adrenal glands into secreting cortisol.

This all happens in response to stress. Once the stressor has been neutralized, excess cortisol is taken as a signal by the hypothalamus to stop the cycle. With chronic stress, this cycle is constantly switched on, which is what overworks the adrenal glands.

This process involves the nervous system and brain, the other two main regulators of the neuroaffect response. Specifically, the autonomic nervous system acts as the conduit that allows different neurotransmitters, such as adrenaline and norepinephrine, to influence parts of the body that lie outside the CNS. For example, letting them affect heart rate and blood vessel dilation in order to prepare the body for the “fight or flight” response.

The neuroaffect response can dysregulate due to stress, inflammation, and a number of other factors, and because its symptoms can be so disturbing, sufferers seek all forms of relief such as through antidepressants, sleep aids, anti-anxiety medications, and sometimes through the use of drugs and alcohol.

Several studies have shown that yoga can improve symptoms of anxiety, even among school children. According to one study done by Tulane University, the group of students that were put on a yoga and mindfulness practice program for eight weeks showed significantly higher emotional and psychological quality of life than the group of students that were given the more usual care of school counseling and other school activities.

Overall, yoga benefits your entire NEM stress response, as well as your overall health and well-being. So, if you take the precautions we have outlined, you can begin to introduce this practice into your recovery plan immediately. And as you grow your practice, the benefits will grow and accumulate as well. Just remember not to overdo it and push yourself too hard. Slow and gentle is the adrenal yoga way.

© Copyright 2019 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

Dr. Lam’s Key Question

You already know that yoga benefits include making you more flexible, toning and strengthening your muscles, and helping your posture. But now studies have shown you can also use it to help with digestion, stress, inflammation, and depression, as long as you take some precautions first.

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