The Stress-Disease Connection: How Yoga Therapy May Help

Receiving a disease diagnosis places a tremendous psychological and emotional weight on one’s shoulders. And, if stress of a serious illness alone wasn’t enough, surgeries, medications, all the vast and often confusing treatment options, and trying to maintain a normal life on top of it all can build a burden that is almost too much to bear.

In a sad irony, science has shown that not only does this stress take away from our already strained emotional well-being, it impacts our immune function as well—compounding whatever condition we suffer from.

Since 1962, researchers have measured the negative effects of stress on the physiology and found that prolonged stress inhibits the body’s natural ability to fight of disease, heal itself, and maintain health. For example, research conducted in 1999 by psychobiologist Shamgar Ben-Eliyahu and colleagues revealed that stresses lead to an increase in both the size and number of tumors in lab rats. 

Another study, conducted by Janice K. Kiecolt-Glaser and colleagues, found that the blood chemistry of students around exam time revealed an immune suppression unseen in blood samples taken one month previously. In other words, even test-anxiety can weaken the body’s ability to care for itself.

 Biologically speaking, the body’s stress response developed to protect the physiology from temporary threats, such as physical attacks. The stress-hormone fluctuations that occur when we experience threats increase muscular tension, speed up heart rate, and flood our system with adrenaline in preparation for “fight or flight.” However, when this stress is drawn out over a long period of time, such as days, weeks, or even months and years, the body experiences negative side effects from sustaining an almost constant state of tension. Headaches, fatigue, and irritability develop, along with more serious conditions that can include heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer.

For those suffering from cancer, heart disease, and other illnesses, this stress is only compounded by the threat of their disease.

Fortunately, just as stress weakens the immune system, the release of stress can bolster it. A 1989 study conducted by Stanford psychiatrist David Spiegel found that women with metastatic breast cancer who participated in a support group lived longer than those who did not. The study found that group support could protect against or lessen stress.

Similarly, the practice of yoga for breast cancer patients can bring much needed relief from stress, bringing calm and ease to the mind and enhancing the body’s immune function.

Even the American Cancer Society acknowledges that yoga for cancer can “reduce levels of stress and bring about feelings of relaxation and well-being…[and] enhance quality of life for some patients with cancer.” By releasing tension and relaxing the body and mind, yogatherapy for cancer patients and cancer survivors can revitalize immune function and restore the body’s ability to heal itself.

Studies have demonstrated yoga’s ability to reduce stress hormone levels and relieve acute tension. Many yogatherapy practitioners report a greater state of calm from their practice, as well as improved mood and overall sense of health. In one study, researchers found that yoga for breast cancer patients reduced stress levels and improved well-being. Another study, presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology, found that yoga breathing for cancer combined with asanas improved sleep quality, energy levels during the day, and quality of life.

By relaxing tension and restoring healthy immune function, yoga offers cancer patients and survivors, as well those suffering other serious conditions, a chance to go from a place of surviving to a place where they can once again begin to thrive.

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