Yoga May Lower Risk of Metabolic Syndrome, Study Finds

If you suffer from a combination of high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar levels, excess body fat around the waist and high cholesterol levels, chances are you suffer from metabolic syndrome.

Metabolic syndrome is increasingly common, with some 50 million Americans suffering from the condition, according to the American Heart Association. While one of the above issues in and of itself may not be a problem, when these issues occur together as a cluster, it greatly increases the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

Can yoga help prevent metabolic syndrome? A new exploratory study indicates so: People who practiced yoga regularly, the study found, were more metabolically healthy than non-yogis, and regularly practicing yoga could help protect against the effects of metabolic syndrome.

Metabolic syndrome is extremely common in Western society. Genetics, lifestyle, and environment all play a role, which means that addressing the problem is not as simple as hopping on a treadmill or choosing a salad over red meat. Most physicians agree, however, that losing abdominal fat (even as little as 10 or 15 pounds) and making healthy lifestyle changes, are the most effective ways of reversing metabolic syndrome.

For many people, “lifestyle changes” mean diet and aerobic exercise, like walking or jogging. And while this is a crucial part of managing metabolic syndrome, it neglects a crucial (and under-researched) aspect of the disease: its connection to stress. Stress doesn’t just make you feel bad; it has demonstrable physical effects on your body, including on your metabolic processes. The physical effects of stress can increase your metabolic rate or exacerbate any metabolic problems you already have. Prolonged stress is connected to the development of metabolic syndrome and the risk for heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and even some kinds of cancer.

Since yoga has been known to reduce stress, of particular interest is whether yoga practice will have an impact on metabolic syndrome. In the study, researchers in India compared the metabolic health of long-term yoga practitioners to that of non-practitioners as well as to people diagnosed with metabolic syndrome. The study included 46 subjects: 16 people who regularly practiced yoga for 90 minutes daily, 15 people who did not practice yoga but also did not have metabolic syndrome, and 15 people with metabolic syndrome.

The subjects were led through a series of activities designed to either induce stress or promote relaxation. For example, to induce stress, participants were asked to participate in a mental arithmetic test. To promote relaxation, the subjects were guided through light meditation and yogic breathing.

After each experiment, the subjects were given a variety of tests to gauge their stress level and metabolic health. In addition to their weight, their blood pressure was measured, as well as their rate of oxygen consumption. Oxygen consumption is a good indicator of metabolic health because it tends to be lower in people who are fit and healthy and higher in people with the pathologies that make up metabolic syndrome, like hypertension and diabetes.

Results showed that the yoga group had a lower rate of oxygen consumption than either the non-yogis or the people with metabolic syndrome; an indicator of greater metabolic and overall health. The researchers also found that the yoga group displayed greater variability in oxygen consumption across activities. People in the yoga group were able to breathe more deeply (and thus more effectively) during periods of exertion, and they were also to recover more quickly.

The study provides some preliminary evidence that yoga may increase metabolic resilience and may lower the risk of metabolic syndrome. The researchers emphasized, however, that more research into the possibilities of yoga treatments for managing, preventing, or reversing metabolic syndrome is needed. 

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