Yoga can help take the stress out of the holiday season

Yoga can help take the stress out of the holiday season

The month of December can be emotionally intense. It’s packed full of excitement — holiday parties, shopping, completing another semester and traveling home for the holidays. December can also be extremely stressful for different reasons — looming final exams, shopping crowds and dealing with the influx of relatives. No matter how you deal with the events of this month, there is no getting around the stress that December can inevitably bring.

People often turn to several holiday vices to deal with pressure, whether that be stuffing their faces with those delicious holiday cookies or having a few extra glasses of eggnog. Recognizing my own sources of holiday stress, I’ve recently been reflecting on my personal game plan for dealing with the holiday blues. Exercise — yoga in particular — has always given me a sense of calm in times of stress, so I’ve decided to amp up my routine this season. Though exercise and yoga have always been my coping habits, I’ve often wondered why they seem to work so well. I’d like to share a little research so that maybe you too will consider rolling out your yoga mats this holiday season.

The link between exercise and its anti-depressant and anti-anxiety effects has been studied in various forms. Though the exact mechanism is debatable, many studies generally conclude that exercise can be an effective adjunct treatment for people with depression. In fact, a study by the American Psychological Association suggested that exercise can be protective against the development of depression in college students.

During the past decade, the practice of yoga has gained particular respect as a form of complementary medicine. More and more research has studied the effects of yoga on various medical conditions — including depression, anxiety and insomnia. Yoga was originally developed in India more than 2,000 years ago as a method to help people reach spiritual enlightenment. It uses a combination of physical postures, breathing exercises and meditation to increase relaxation and balance the mind, body and spirit.

In recent years, studies have shown yoga’s ability to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. Scientists have researched and uncovered the biological mechanism behind yoga’s stress-reducing benefits. Though the research is still in its early stages, the mechanism may lie with the role of inflammation.

Inflammatory markers such as c-reactive protein (CRP) and interleukin-6 (IL-6) increase in one’s body during physiological or psychological stress. Inflammation plays a role in several disease processes such as cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s disease and several forms of cancer. Anxiety, depression and psychological stressors are linked to the overproduction of these inflammatory markers as well.

A 2010 study published in Psychosomatic Medicine compared the inflammatory responses of novice and expert yoga practitioners. Of note, the study found that levels of IL-6 in novice yoga practitioners were 41 percent higher than that of  yoga experts. The odds of a novice having detectable levels of CRP were nearly five times as high.

The ability to minimize inflammatory responses in stressful situations can influence the burden that stressors place on the body. If regular yoga practice has the ability to dampen the body’s response to physiological and psychological stressors, it has the potential to have a broad array of health benefits. Though more research needs to be done for more definitive answers, this study definitely provides a small window into the biology behind the health benefits and mind-body balance that yoga practitioners have been preaching for thousands of years.

All research and biology aside, yoga serves a great purpose as a relaxation and mood boosting technique, as well as a fantastic form of exercise. This holiday season, if you are looking for a way to boost your mood and decrease stress while potentially giving yourself long-term health benefits, I recommend rolling out that yoga mat.

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