How Practicing Yoga Increases GABA Levels & Decreases Depression

Two Women Practicing Yoga in the Studio Doing Forearm Stands

Back in November, we wrote about a study conducted by Boston University School of Medicine, which proved the positive effects of yoga on anxiety and depression. But the researchers didn't stop there. They wanted to figure out exactly how yoga improved mental health disorders, and they've finally done it. 

A follow-up study, published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, identified the physiological effect of yoga on mental health. 

After analyzing 30 patients with clinical depression, they found practicing yoga can increase gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) levels on a temporary basis, and taking one yoga class weekly might maintain those enhanced levels. 

What is GABA?

According to Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., GABA is "an important neurotransmitter in the central nervous system, which controls most of the functions of the body and mind." Because GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, studies have shown that it might play a role in helping to manage anxious feelings and depressive symptoms.*

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What did the researchers find?

The participants all did 90-minute Iyengar yoga sessions and coherent breathing practices for three months. A high-dose group practiced yoga three times per week, while a low-dose session practiced only twice a week. 

Researchers took magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of their brains before and after the three months. Participants also completed a clinical depression scale to track their depressive symptoms. 

Both groups reported improvements in depressive symptoms, while MRI scans revealed heightened levels of GABA. The levels remained elevated for about four to eight days following the final yoga session.

How do you prolong the temporary effects of GABA?

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Continuing yoga sessions can continue to increase GABA levels. One author of the study, Chris Streeter, M.D., suggested practicing yoga at least once a week to maintain the "time-limiting" effects. 

Combining brain imaging technology with the evidence from the prior study "provides important neurobiological insight as to the 'how' yoga may help to alleviate depression and anxiety," said co-author Marisa Silveri, Ph.D.

Aside from helping to manage anxious feelings, GABA can also enhance sleep quality and promote relaxation.* All good reasons to book a yoga class or try this 10-minute yin yoga flow.

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