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How Yoga Reduces Stress with GABA Neurotransmitters


Yoga is, without a doubt, one of the most popular self-care pastimes of people all over the world. UN News reports that two billion people practice yoga simply because ‘it works.” What does that really mean? Commonly known (and proven) benefits of yoga include everything from stress relief to tension release to less headaches to better relationships and even better sex. 

However, what many people do not know is that yoga has been used to reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and epilepsy.1–All three of these conditions respond to pharmacologic agents known to increase GABA system activity, raising the possibility that some of the therapeutic effect may be via increased GABA activity.

So, I know you must be asking yourself, what is GABA? GABA is an amino acid naturally produced in the brain which facilitates communication between brain cells. Its big job is to reduce the activity of neurons in the brain and central nervous system. When activity is reduced, it leads to reduced stress, a more calm, balanced mood, an increase in relaxation, less pain, and even better sleep. 

Now let’s get down to some hard science on GABA and yoga. In a previous study using magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) to obtain brain GABA levels, the  group demonstrated that experienced yoga practitioners had a significant (27%) increase in GABA levels after a 60- minute session of yoga postures compared to no change in GABA levels in controls after a 60-minute reading session.8 

The end result? The practice of yoga postures is associated with increased brain GABA levels. A study addressed the question of whether changes in mood, anxiety, and GABA levels are specific to yoga or related to physical activity.

Study Data: 


Methods: Healthy subjects with no significant medical/psychiatric disorders were randomized to yoga or a metabolically matched walking intervention for 60 minutes 3 times a week for 12 weeks. Mood and anxiety scales were taken at weeks 0, 4, 8, 12, and before each magnetic resonance spectroscopy scan. Scan 1 was at baseline. Scan 2, obtained after the 12-week intervention, was followed by a 60-minute yoga or walking intervention, which was immediately followed by Scan 3. 

Results: The yoga subjects (n ¼ 19) reported greater improvement in mood and greater decreases in anxiety than the walking group (n ¼ 15). There were positive correlations between improved mood and decreased anxiety and thalamic GABA levels. The yoga group had positive correlations between changes in mood scales and changes in GABA levels. 

Conclusions: The 12-week yoga intervention was associated with greater improvements in mood and anxiety than a metabolically matched walking exercise. This is the first study to demonstrate that increased thalamic GABA levels are associated with improved mood and decreased anxiety. It is also the first time that a behavioral intervention (i.e., yoga postures) has been associated with a positive correlation between acute increases in thalamic GABA levels and improvements in mood and anxiety scales. Given that pharmacologic agents that increase the activity of the GABA system are prescribed to improve mood and decrease anxiety, the reported correlations are in the expected direction. The possible role of GABA in mediating the beneficial effects of yoga on mood and anxiety warrants further study.
Streeter CC., ET AL., 2010. Effects of Yoga Versus Walking on Mood, Anxiety, and Brain GABA Levels: A Randomized Controlled MRS Study

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