Yoga Helps Relieve Fatigue, Inflammation after Breast Cancer Treatment

Breast cancer survivors often struggle with debilitating fatigue as well as chronic inflammation following the toxic treatments of chemotherapy and radiation. A new study indicates that practicing yoga may help survivors both by lowering fatigue and reducing inflammation. 

In the study, researchers at Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center. found that practicing yoga for at least three hours a week for three months reduced the fatigue and inflammation in breast cancer survivors, compared with survivors who did no yoga. According to the researchers, the reduction in inflammation is significant, because chronic inflammation may fuel declines in physical function leading to frailty and disability. “If yoga dampens or limits both fatigue and inflammation,” the researchers note, “then regular practice could have substantial health benefits.”

And the more yoga, the greater the change, Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, the lead researcher and a psychiatry and psychology professor at Ohio State, said in a statement. At six months – three months after the formal yoga had ended – fatigue was 57% lower in the women who had done yoga, compared with those who had not. Inflammation, measured by blood tests, was reduced by up to 20%, the researchers said.

The results could impact other groups of people who have issues with fatigue and inflammation, she added. The study is published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

The women practiced yoga in small groups twice a week in 90-minute sessions for 12 weeks. Women making up the control group were wait-listed to receive the same yoga sessions once the trial was over. During the study, they were instructed to go about their normal routines and not to do yoga.

It is widely known that yoga benefits your health. Many people who practice yoga experience greater flexibility, they feel more relaxed and sleep better, maintain a healthy weight and see drops in their blood pressure. And though many studies have suggested that yoga has numerous benefits, this is the largest known randomized controlled trial that includes biological measures, Kiecolt-Glaser said. Researchers recruited 200 women for the study.

The research team focused on 200 breast cancer survivors because the rigors of treatment can be so taxing on patients. Participants ranged in age from 27 to 76 and were two to three months past the surgical, chemotherapy or radiation treatments.

Participants completed several surveys assessing their fatigue, energy level, depressive symptoms, sleep quality, physical activities and food consumption. They also gave blood samples at the beginning of the study that were used to measure levels of several inflammation-related proteins.

In addition to  the increased energy and reduced inflammation, yoga is an ideal exercise regimen for breast cancer survivors in recovery because it provides graded exercise that can be tailored for individuals who have been sedentary and the postures can be modified to accommodate functional limitations, said Kiecolt-Glaser. The many aspects to yoga – meditation, breathing, stretching and strengthening also play an important role in terms of some of the changes, she added. 

“One of the problems they face is a real reduction in cardiorespiratory fitness. The treatment is so debilitating and they are so tired, and the less you do physically, the less you’re able to do. It’s a downward spiral,” Kiecolt-Glaser said. “That’s one reason we think there are higher levels of inflammation in cancer survivors, meaning that an intervention that reduces inflammation could potentially be very beneficial.”

Chronic inflammation is linked to numerous health problems, including coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as the frailty and functional decline that can accompany aging.

“We were really surprised by the data because some more recent studies on exercise have suggested that exercise interventions may not necessarily lower inflammation unless people are substantially overweight or have metabolic problems,” Kiecolt-Glaser said. “In this group, the women didn’t lose weight, but we saw really marked reductions in inflammation. So this was a particularly striking finding biologically.”

She also said that the improved sleep played a role in lowering the inflammation.

“When women were sleeping better, inflammation could have been lowered by that,” Kiecolt-Glaser said. “Reducing fatigue enables women to engage in other activities over time. So yoga may have offered a variety of benefits in addition to the yoga exercises themselves.”

Recent articles


Upcoming courses


Yoga for
every body

How to Avoid the Top 3 Pitfalls of Forward Bends

With Julie Gudmedstad

Recent articles


Sorry, You have reached your
monthly limit of views

To access, join us for a free 7-day membership trial to support expanding the Pose Library resources to the yoga community.

Sign up for a FREE 7-day trial