Author credit Justin Faraday
What is it about yoga that fills you to the brim with such a strong feeling of well-being? While you focus on your breath and the fluidity of your asanas, your brain is busy releasing endorphins, boosting neuroprotective proteins, balancing hormone levels, and increasing the expression of anxiety-reducing neurotransmitters. You step out of the yoga studio soaked to the bones in sweat and stumbling in the euphoric haze of the “yoga glow.”
Yoga is a therapeutic combination of meditation and exercise. The end result is a sort of supplement-free nootropic stack. Yoga enhances cognition and soothes brain chemistry from the inside out. Here’s a closer look at a few of the ways that your yoga glow is the manifestation of a happy brain.
1. Yoga Lowers Cortisol
Yoga helps reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. For people with chronic stress, high cortisol levels can lead to severe hormonal imbalances throughout the body. Chronically elevated cortisol can disrupt sleep by preventing the brain from switching from serotonin production to melatonin production. Yoga also normalizes the stress response by reducing heart rate, slowing respiration, lowering blood pressure, and increasing heart rate variability.
2. Yoga Grows Grey Matter In the Brain
The brain has a lot to do with your perception of pain. Chronic pain can result in reduced grey matter in people with depression. Grey matter is located in the cerebral cortex and subcortical areas of the brain. When you’re low on grey matter, it can lead to a host of health problems including mood instability, poor memory, impaired cognitive functioning, and low pain tolerance.
Yoga and meditation have the opposite effect on grey matter. People who regularly practice yoga have significantly more grey matter in areas of the brain associated with pain tolerance.
3. Yoga Boosts BDNF
Yoga’s antidepressant and cognitive-enhancing effects have a lot to do with its ability to increase the expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is a common protein in the brain that plays an important role in overall cognitive health. It’s critical to neurogenesis, the creation of new neurons, making it essential to learning and memory. BDNF also has potent neuroprotective effects, meaning it protects existing neurons against the damaging effects of toxins and inflammatory agents.
In his book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, author and doctor John J. Ratey, MD refers to BDNF as “Miracle-gro for the brain.” Yoga, as it turns out, is a BDNF factory.
4. Yoga Gushes GABA
According to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, a single 60-minute session of yoga increases GABA levels in the brain by a whopping 27%.
Yoga is one of the most potent natural anxiety remedies because of its incredible ability to to boost GABA. GABA is the primary neurotransmitter in the brain that acts as a “chill pill” when you’re anxious. It produces a calming effect similar to alcohol, but without the damaging side effects. People with anxiety tend to be low on GABA. GABA is the inhibitory neurotransmitter that keeps in check the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate. Without enough GABA to tell glutamate to stop firing, anxiety symptoms can get worse. When you leave the yoga studio skipping along without a care in the world, you have elevated GABA levels to thank for that.
For people with anxiety triggered by GABA deficiency, yoga is a true blessing. GABA doesn't readily cross the blood-brain barrier. This makes supplementing with GABA ineffective for many people. I happen to be in the group of people that GABA supplementation mysteriously works for. Some researchers speculate that there are GABA receptors outside of the brain that can be triggered by oral GABA supplementation, but the mechanism of action is not yet fully understood.
If yoga were a supplement that you could buy off the shelf, it would be a best-seller across the globe. It’s no wonder why yoga is being embraced by the world. That feeling of bliss you have on your way out of the studio is the byproduct of increasing grey matter, lowering cortisol, boosting BDNF, and unleashing GABA in the brain. The yoga glow is real. It’s great medicine, and there’s plenty of research to support it.
Justin Faraday is a former EMT and massive health and nutrition enthusiast. After struggling with his health for many years, he got serious about feeling incredible. Get stellar mental health and nutrition advice at his blog, dopefreshfit.com.