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Yoga Improves the Quality of Life and Physiological Changes Associated with Radiotherapy for Women with Breast Cancer by Jennifer Hillyer

Yogawoman - Tuesday, August 05, 2014
If you’ve already experienced the joy of being wrapped in the warm embrace of yoga, then without a doubt, you know of the many benefits it can bring women. Yoga and pranayama have been used to curb everything from symptoms of depression to the fear and anxiety caused by cancer, yet they do not simply bring about positive psychological changes: a new study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology (March, 2014) has revealed that yoga can improve quality of life and bring about significant physiological changes in women undergoing radiotherapy for breast cancer.

The nature of the study

The randomized, controlled study was undertaken on 56 women, who were arbitrarily assigned to one of three different groups. The first practiced yoga three times a week for a six-week period; the second practiced stretching three times a week and the third group was placed on a control/waiting list. The subjects of the study were then asked to answer a survey regarding levels of fatigue, depression, physical functioning and quality of sleep. Five saliva samples were also taken for three days at the start of the study, at the end of radiotherapy treatment and one, three and six months after the end of radiotherapy.

The results

Results revealed significantly greater health outcomes for the women in the yoga group, who had the sharpest decline in cortisol (‘stress hormone’) levels. This finding is vital, since there is a link between high cortisol levels and worse outcomes in breast cancer. Indeed, yoga’s powerful ability to curb stress and anxiety makes it a favored choice of therapy, not only for breast cancer, but also for other conditions exacerbated by stress. Yoga is often used, for instance, in rehabilitation settings for those recovering from substance abuse and alcohol addiction, owing to its powerful ability to reduce stress. Through its emphasis on controlled breathing and deep concentration, yoga takes the mind off anxiety and worries about the future, allowing us to concentrate fully on our breath and on performing different poses. In addition to finding improvements in stress levels, the study also revealed that in both the yoga and stretching groups, fatigue levels had reduced. Components of the yoga group were additionally more likely to find significance in their experience with cancer, than women in the other two groups. Most importantly, the positive effects of yoga continued to last six months after they had finished receiving radiotherapy.

Yoga and Inflammation in Breast Cancer Survivors

In another randomized controlled trial published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology (January, 2014), scientists sought out to evaluate the effect of yoga classes on a group of 200 breast cancer survivors. The trial lasted for three months. During this time period, the women were assigned to either 12 weeks of 90-minute yoga classes (which they partook in twice-weekly), or a wait list control. The scientists then measured the level of specific pro-inflammatory interleukin (IL-6), to test for any effects on levels of inflammation. Women in the yoga group reported greater vitality than those in the control group, and they also had lower levels of fatigue and inflammation. Three months after receiving treatment, increasing yoga practice led to a decrease in IL-6 as well. This led scientists to conclude, “Chronic inflammation may fuel declines in physical function leading to frailty and disability. If yoga dampens or limits both fatigue and inflammation, then regular practice could have substantial health benefits.”

The scientists in the study were confident that the positive benefits of yoga could easily to extend to other groups of people who are suffering from conditions linked to fatigue and inflammation. One of the ways fatigue can be a great obstacle to those overcoming breast cancer and other diseases is that it interferes significantly with cardiovascular fitness. The more tired women are, the less likely there are to work out, which can seriously impair their sense of vitality.

The scientists also commented that the benefits of yoga were particularly useful, since previous studies had indicated that exercise did not necessarily lower inflammation, unless subjects were significantly overweight or suffering from metabolic problems. In the study, however, although women did not lose weight, inflammation was markedly reduced, which is excellent news when it comes to increasing positive outcomes for survivors.

Thanks to: Jennifer Hillyer 

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