Physical, mental benefits of yoga and meditation include mood, memory, sleep

By Karen Hales, Neurology Solutions Contributing Writer

Yoga is credited with providing a variety of physical and mental benefits, such as increased flexibility and stability and reduced stress, improved mood, and better sleep. But how can yoga help Parkinson’s disease patients and individuals with other neurodegenerative diseases?

The American Parkinson Disease Association (APDA) recommends yoga therapy as a means to strengthen muscle, improve posture and stability, loosen tight, painful muscles and relieve muscle spasms.

Benefits of yoga and meditation to an individual’s mental and cognitive functions have been explored in a number of recent scientific studies. Research suggests meditation practice can change brain structure and function in areas of the brain impacted by PD and contribute to improved memory, cognition and mood. The hope is that incorporating meditation practices can help support and maintain an individual’s brain function for as long as possible as the neurodegenerative disease progresses.

Physical Benefits of Yoga and Exercise

Exercise’s neuroprotective benefit on the brain is a current area of research study. Exercise is believed to slow aging at the cellular level and produce regenerative effects on the brain. Cardiovascular exercise increases blood flow to the brain and stimulates the development of growth factors in the brain that encourage the growth of new neurons and synapses.

Because yoga focuses participants on the rhythmic pattern of their breath it can improve respiration and even lower blood pressure.

Yoga therapy has been shown to visibly reduce tremors and improve the steadiness of an individual’s gait. Other physical benefits of yoga include: increased flexibility, increased muscle strength and tone, reduced levels of stress hormones, and improved cardio and circulatory health.

Mental Benefits of Yoga

Studies show that stress and negative emotions may have a negative effect on learning and memory. Yoga’s incorporation of meditation and breathing has been shown to improve a person’s mental well-being.  Current research suggests that even short periods of meditation can cause changes to brain structure and function and lead to improvements in memory, attention and cognitive function. It also has been shown to positively impact mood, emotion regulation and stress resilience.

The practice of yoga and meditation may:

  • Increase peace of mind and sense of satisfaction
  • Increase ability to pay attention
  • Reduce symptoms associated with depression, anxiety, pain and insomnia
  • Increase positional sense, the ability to know where your body is in the world

How Yoga and Meditation may Change the Brain

Yoga is one of the leading alternative therapies used by Americans, according to a National Institutes of Health survey on alternative medicine use.

Collectively, recent research studies of the effects of meditation practice demonstrate that meditators realize significantly higher attentional abilities, enhanced cognitive abilities and brain structural changes, according to the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences’ Advances in Meditation Research: Neuroscience and Clinical Applications. “There is increasing research evidence to support the practice of meditation techniques to help improve cognition and memory in patients with neurodegenerative diseases,” the study states.

Recent Studies on Yoga and Meditation include:

  • Randomized working memory capacity trial

The results of a randomized trial of undergraduates published in the journal Psychological Science showed that participants who spent 10 minutes per day performing mindfulness meditation realized improved working memory capacity and Graduate Record Exam (GRE) performance. After just two weeks of daily meditation, participants performed an average 16 points higher on the verbal portion of the GRE and demonstrated improved ability to attend to a task without distraction.

  • Neuroimaging studies of meditation

Researchers observed a significant difference in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) signals of participants in two studies of meditation’s effect on the brain. In the first, researchers from the University of Massachusetts and Harvard researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital compared the brain scans of people who meditated regularly with those of non-meditators. On the functional tests, meditators scored significantly higher than the control group (non-meditators). Among meditators, areas of the brain that control working memory and executive decision making (the frontal cortex) and learning, memory and emotion regulation (hippocampus) showed increased gray matter and were larger than the control group. Brain scans revealed that the the cortex region, which generally shrinks as a person ages, was the same size in the 50 year-old meditator as an average 25 year old. This suggests that the practice of mindfulness meditation may slow the natural age-related decay of the brain.

In the second study, brain scans were taken of individuals who had never meditated before and again after enrolling the participants in an eight-week meditation-based stress reduction program. Study participants were asked to meditate for 30-40 minutes per day for eight weeks.

As in the earlier study, the scans showed increased gray matter density in the hippocampus and frontal cortex following the eight weeks. Likewise, researchers noted decreased gray matter density in the amygdala, a brain area known for anxiety and stress that regulates the “flight or fight” response. In fact, the more stress reduction reported, the smaller this area became.

  • Mild Cognitive Impairment, Dementia/Alzheimer’s Study

A new study of older adults with age-related cognitive decline, mild cognitive impairment and early Alzheimer’s disease published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that completing a three-month yoga and meditation course may improve thinking skills and stave off age-related cognitive decline.

Participants completed memory tests and underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) at the beginning and end of the 12-week study period, enabling the researchers to assess their cognitive function and brain activity. The UCLA study found greater improvements in visual-spatial memory of participants as well as improvements in mood and stress resilience in participants who meditated than those who completed memory-enhancement training. Moreover, the yoga-meditation group alone demonstrated brain connectivity changes that were statistically significant.

  • Six-month study on Yoga’s ability to offset PD symptoms

The University of Minnesota is conducting a six-month study into yoga’s ability to offset Parkinson’s symptoms. Twenty people are enrolled in the study, with half participating in yoga and the control group making no change in the way they manage their symptoms. Researchers will measure the levels of stress hormones in participants’ blood tests and examine motor functions, including range of motion, stride length, balance and gait. Though the study won’t wrap up until December, participants report they have more flexibility and a greater sense of calm.

What Yoga Poses are Good for Parkinson’s?

Yoga asanas (poses) performed for Parkinson’s disease target strengthening, calming, balancing and coordination.Yoga is accessible to most people, as variations and modifications can be made to poses to ensure safety and accommodate varying levels of mobility and symptoms.

If you are interested in trying yoga for the first time, talk with your doctor. It may be best to begin with the assistance of a yoga therapist who is trained in effectively applying yoga to address a wide range of structural, physiological and psychological challenges. Yoga International offers a good overview of what poses are good for Parkinson’s disease.

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