How Yoga Improves Your Brain Health

Have you known anyone who suffered from dementia? 

In 2020, the World Alzheimer’s Association estimated that 55 million people were living with dementia. This number is expected to reach 78 million by 2030. Sadly we don’t have many treatments for dementia. While a couple drugs have been approved by the FDA for treatment of Alzheimers, they don’t do much to stop the progression of the disease. 

My mother suffers from Alzheimer’s. And it’s a devastating disease. As I’ve witnessed her decline in brain function, I’ve become more interested in lifestyle modifications we can all do to keep our brains healthy.

It often strikes me how little we talk about prevention of neurological diseases. While we can’t guarantee that certain behaviors will prevent dementia. We do know that exercise, stress management and diet play an important role in keeping the brain healthy. 

I was recently on an episode of Great Day Louisiana where we talked about the specifics of yoga’s contribution to brain health. 

Yoga As Exercise: Brain Fertilizer

When we exercise, our muscles produce a myokine called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). BDNF travels from our muscles through our bloodstream to the brain. It crosses the blood-brain barrier and enters our brain tissue. BDNF is like a “brain fertilizer.” When it enters neurons, it bathes the neurons and encourages neuronal growth and increased connection between neurons. BDNF produces neuroplasticity and neurogenesis – the generation of new neurons. BDNF is crucial to preserve our memory function. 

When you exercise, you produce BDNF. Practicing more vigorous forms of yoga like vinyasa or Ashtanga or even aerobic exercise encourage the production of BDNF. (For a detailed discussion, see the work of Rhonda Patrick here).

Meditation increases BDNF

Meditation can give BDNF a big boost. This study showed that plasma levels of BDNF tripled after a three month meditation retreat. Participants also reported lower stress and anxiety levels. 

The change in BDNF was attributed to both the physical components of yoga and the periods of meditation.  So while physical exercise is important, so is your mental health. Please don’t neglect meditation!

Yoga As Stress Management: Brain Balancer 

Yoga is a powerful tool for stress reduction, promoting mental well-being, and alleviating symptoms of anxiety and depression. Practicing yoga activates the body's relaxation response, reducing the production of stress hormones and promoting a sense of calm. This is likely due to the activation of the vagus nerve, increasing levels of Gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA). GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter. So when GABA levels increase, you tend to feel calm and relaxed. 

Chronic stress is known to have detrimental effects on the brain, likely due to increased levels of cortisol. By incorporating yoga into your routine, you help your brain to become more resilient and adaptable. The study quoted above also noted decreased levels of plasma cortisol after the meditation retreat. 

The combination of breath, mindful movement and present-moment awareness in yoga encourages you to step out of anxious thought patterns and into the present moment. Sadly, much of our external environment is engineered to suck us out of the present moment and into online arguments, voyeurism and consumerism. 

What Makes Us Dumber

When you need a haircut, would you go to your mechanic? Or if you needed your car repaired, would you take it to your dog groomer? Of course not. Our brain is our most important organ, and sadly, it can’t be regenerated. We take our car to those who are skilled at automotive repairs, we bring our dogs to a qualified groomer. But what about your brain? 

How do you take care of your brain? Where do you put your attention? Screens are ubiquitous and especially good at capturing our attention. The developers of smartphone apps, especially social media are experts at knowing how to steal our attention and keep it. Scrolling on Instagram, TikTok and Facebook is not going to make you smarter. The developers of these apps aim to keep your attention. They use the same tactics that developers of slot machines use to keep us in the ‘scarcity loop.’ (Learn more about this concept with Michael Easter here.) 

The three components of the scarcity loop are opportunity, unpredictable reward, and repeatability. The designers of tech companies use this loop to keep you scrolling. Unless you use these technologies with intention, it’s very easy to get sucked in.  

Rather than getting sucked into social media and internet rabbit holes, have specific reasons and guidelines that you set for their use. Use the time for meditation or a walk outside. 

It’s time to put down your phone

People tell me they don’t have time to meditate or exercise. Most of us have 5-10 minutes we could subtract from screen use and put towards less addictive uses. We know that meditation, yoga and exercise improve our brain’s functioning. So why not spend more time on brain healthy pursuits?  

Think about how when you exercise, practice yoga, and meditation you directly influence your brain health through BDNF and fewer stress hormones. What’s stopping you from starting today? 

Let me know in the comments how you feel about this. Do you notice that you feel better when you spend fewer minutes per day on screens? Have you tried meditation or yoga?


About the author

You know how people feel stressed, fatigued, and overwhelmed —and they have no idea how to sift through all the health advice to help them feel better? Jessica Blanchard uses yoga, Ayurveda and nutrition to fix the root causes of their problems, so they get fit, and feel calm and energized.

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