Scientific Evidence: Yoga’s Positive Impact on Cortisol, the Stress Hormone

Yoga provides unique benefits to women undergoing radiation therapy for breast cancer, beyond just decreasing fatigue.

Researchers found that while basic stretching exercises were effective at combatting fatigue, those participating in yoga exercises involving controlled meditation, breathing, and relaxation techniques had significantly better ability to participate in daily activities, improved regulation of stress hormone cortisol levels, as well as overall improved health benefits. Women in this yoga group also seemed better prepared to find meaning from cancer experiences.

The research also explored the benefits of yoga for cancer patients by comparing their experiences to that of individuals in a control group who incorporated basic stretching exercises into their lives.

Yoga offers individuals a powerful combination of body and mind practices that can assist them with managing both the physical and psychosocial difficulties associated with cancer treatment, as well as life after cancer diagnosis and survivorship. It offers many potential advantages over stretching alone in helping individuals cope with cancer-related physical, psychological, social and financial burdens and challenges as well as adapt to life after cancer has left an individual more resilient than before.

191 stage 0 to 3 breast cancer patients were randomly divided into one of three groups for the study: yoga, basic stretching or neither. Patients in either of the first two categories attended sessions specifically tailored for patients during radiation treatments for at least an hour per day three times a week over six weeks – specifically designed to meet the needs of these cancerous conditions.

Individuals were asked to record their quality of life, which included levels of depression and fatigue as well as daily functioning and the ability to find meaning in cancer experience.

Samples of saliva were collected and electrocardiogram tests performed at the beginning, end, and one, three and six month post treatment stages of this research study.

Women who practiced yoga reported the largest decreases in cortisol levels throughout the day, suggesting yoga’s effectiveness at helping manage this stress hormone. This finding is especially significant, as higher cortisol levels all day are often linked with worse outcomes for breast cancer patients.

Stretching and yoga groups were found to experience significantly less fatigue after finishing radiation treatment, with women who practiced yoga throughout their treatments showing greater overall benefits to both their general health and physical functioning. At three and six months post radiation therapy, those that continued practicing yoga reported even greater improvements to overall physical and health wellbeing.

Yoga group women were more likely to find meaning from their cancer experiences compared to women from the other groups.


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