Looking to Slow Down Aging? A New Study Suggests That Yoga May Help

By: 
B Grace Bullock, PhD, E RYT-500

If you are one of the many millions of maturing adults looking to slow down the hands of time the answer may be as simple as turning to your yoga mat. According to a new study, intensive daily yoga practice is linked to an increase in two key substances linked to youth and longevity: Growth hormone (GH) and dehydroepiandrosterone sulphate (DHEAS).

The study is one of the first to explore whether yoga impacts biochemical markers of healthy aging. As we age, the amount of GH and DHEAS in our bodies decreases markedly. GH, or somatotropin, is a peptide hormone known to stimulate cell growth and reproduction. In other words, it is related to the generation of new tissues like skin and muscle. DHEAS is an androgen (hormone) produced in the adrenal gland. It is linked to immune function and heart health among other factors.

Previous studies have shown that regular exercise is associated with increased levels of GH and DHEAS throughout the lifespan. A group of scientists in India decided to test whether this would also apply to regular yoga practice.

Forty-five, “untrained” adults (30 male) ranging in age from 34 to 53 years were assigned to either a yoga group or a waitlist control condition. Those in the yoga group engaged in yoga practices of increasing intensity, 6 days per week for 12 weeks. Participants in the control group engaged in their typical activities.

During the first week, adults in the yoga group performed 45-minute practices consisting of asana (postures), kriya (cleansing exercises), and pranayama (breathing exercises). Practices gradually increased in duration and intensity during the course of 12 weeks, with weeks 8 through 12 consisting of 105 minutes of kriya, asana, pranayama and meditation or chanting. GH and DHEAS were measured at the beginning of the program, at 6-weeks, and at program completion (12-weeks).

Unfortunately the authors failed to provide information regarding yoga class attendance, and the number of participants who completed the program and/or follow-up assessments. Data reported suggest that their dropout rate was approximately 16 adults or 36% of their total sample, which suggests that we need to interpret their results with caution.

Yoga may help to curb aging

When looking at just the yoga group, both men and women had significant increases in their blood serum GH and DHEAS values from baseline to the end of the 12-week yoga program. They also experienced notable declines in their body mass index (BMI), a measure of body fat based on height and weight.

When compared to the control group, both male and female yoga group participants demonstrated increased levels of growth hormone (GH) at 6 weeks. This trend continued at the 12 week post-test for men only.  For DHEAS, both men and women showed consistent trends toward higher values over the course of the 12-week period compared to controls.

While these results aren’t a definitive marker for yoga being the fountain of youth, they do suggest that near daily, intensive yoga practice for a period of an hour or more may be associated with higher levels of indicators known to be related to cell generation and health. These findings are consistent with the research that regular exercise is linked with slowing down the aging process.

The authors are quick to note that this yoga program is comprehensive, and involves far more than asana. They hypothesize that their findings may be related to a number of factors:

1. Yoga supports the integration of mind and body. By combining kriya, asana, pranayama and meditation, the program makes the most of the variety of practices in the yoga tradition known to cultivate mind and body health.

2. The cleansing achieved through kriya practices allowed for direct control over autonomic nervous system function, making the body less susceptible to the effects of stress.

3. Surya namaskar (sun salutation) is “almost a complete sadhana (practice) in itself.” The authors believe that its series of movements combined with breath awareness can facilitate a myriad of benefits including strengthening joints and muscles, increasing range of motion, and supporting digestion, circulation, aerobic capacity, circadian rhythms, nourishment and stimulation of the nerves and glands.

4. Meditation practices helped to reduce tension and anxiety as well as decrease physiological reactivity, which may be partly responsible for improvements in GH and DHEAS blood levels.

All of these hypotheses require testing to ascertain their accuracy.

This is one of many studies suggesting that yoga and other positive lifestyle choices are good for your health. While you may not be able to dedicate an hour to your yoga practice each day, you are bound to experience some benefits of one or more of these practices if you engage in them regularly and consistently.

We’ve all known yogis who seemed to defy the hands of time. The current study is just one of a long list of studies indicating that yoga may promote healthy aging. Whether it be more growth hormone or less stress, a well-balanced yoga practice is good for you.

 

B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT, is the former Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. She is an author, intervention scientist and practitioner who has worked extensively in inpatient and outpatient behavioral health settings. Her research and clinical work explore the effects of integrating empirically supported psychotherapy with yoga therapy to relieve stress, anxiety, depression and other psychological illnesses, and to promote health and wellbeing for children and their families. She was the recipient of a Francisco J. Varela Research Award from the Mind & Life Institute. For more information contact Grace at bgracebullock@me.com or see http://www.mind-bodytherapy.com.