A York University study is the first to look at the effects of yoga on cortisol levels in these women.
Fibromyalgia, which mostly affects women, is characterized by chronic pain and fatigue and common symptoms include muscle stiffness, sleep disturbances, gastrointestinal discomfort, anxiety and depression.
Previous research has shown that women with the condition have lower-than-average cortisol levels which contribute to the symptoms and stress sensitivity.
The study showed that the women’s cortisol levels increased after a programme of 75 minutes of hatha yoga, twice a week over a course of eight weeks.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is produced and released by the adrenal gland and functions in response to stress.
“Hatha yoga promotes physical relaxation by decreasing activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which lowers heart rate and increases breath volume, “ says lead author of the study Kathryn Curtis in York’s Department of Psychology.
Participants reported significant reductions in pain and associated symptoms, as well as psychological benefits.
They felt less helpless, were more accepting of their condition, and were less likely to “catastrophize” over current or future symptoms.
“We saw their levels of mindfulness increase — they were better able to detach from their psychological experience of pain,” Curtis says. Mindfulness is a form of active mental awareness rooted in Buddhist traditions; it is achieved by paying total attention to the present moment with a non-judgmental awareness of inner and outer experiences.
“Yoga promotes this concept — that we are not our bodies, our experiences, or our pain. This is extremely useful in the management of pain,” she says. “Moreover, our findings strongly suggest that psychological changes in turn affect our experience of physical pain.”
The study was published the Journal of Pain Research.