A newly published study has found that the regular practice of yoga can lower the levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines in the blood stream. Cytokines are signalling molecules that regulate the various cellular components of inflammation, an immune-based response to threat (physical or psychological). Long-term inflammation contributes to many health conditions including cardiovascular diseases, arthritis, and asthma.
In this study conditions of stress were implemented through tasks such as holding their bare foot in very cold water, or solving increasingly difficult math problems without a calculator. The researchers also found that those who practiced yoga had less dramatic responses (less increase in cytokine activity, less self-reported anxiety and stress) to the stressors.
The results of this study speak to the wide-ranging benefits of yoga, and other relaxation techniques. This study also highlights the fact that we can train ourselves to have less severe reactions to stressors in our lives. Over time these benefits can really add up, resulting in long-term improvements in physical and mental health.
A study from my alma-mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, increases our understanding of depression and how it affects one’s ability to experience positive emotions. Up until more recently it was believed that the brains of depressed individuals exhibited an overall decrease in activity in the regions of the brain responsible for generating pleasure/reward/positive emotions. Using fMRI imaging the UW researchers found that the brains of depressed individuals actually exhibit the same initial levels of activity in positive/pleasure-generating brain regions. Instead they found differences in the ability to sustain positive emotions. While it is not immediately clear how these results will impact treatment, they do provide insight into the nature of depression.
In terms of pharmacological treatments, taking advantage of these findings will require more sophisticated drug actions. With regards to behavioral interventions, these findings might suggest that patients should be assisted in clarifying their medium to long-term goals. Additionally, psychological treatment may also focus more heavily on helping patients develop a more distributed happiness. Depressed individuals (and non-depressed, for that matter) ought to create a life in which they receive pleasure and reward from multiple areas of their life. This bottom-up (behavior to brain influence) approach is more likely to lead to long-term, enduring positive emotions. In general, this study lends support to notion that depression is best treated by psychological/behavioral treatments or in combination of drugs, not drugs alone.