Stress and Yoga - Patanjali Yoga Training & Research Centre, Cochin - PYTRC

Stress and Yoga

Reading time : 11 minutes
Stress has become an inherent aspect of modern life, affecting individuals worldwide. In our fast-paced and interconnected world, the demands and pressures of daily living have significantly increased.

The modern lifestyle is often characterized by long working hours, hectic schedules, constant connectivity, and high expectations, leading to chronic stress and its wide-ranging implications. From bustling cities to remote rural communities, people from all walks of life are grappling with the detrimental effects of stress. Understanding the prevalence and impact of stress in today’s world is crucial for addressing its consequences and promoting well-being on a global scale. In this discussion, we will explore the widespread nature of stress in modern life and its implications for individuals, communities, and society as a whole.

The challenges of daily life can often lead to stress, which in turn requires our bodies to maintain a state of balance, known as homeostasis. This process involves the activation of various mechanisms in the brain, endocrine system, and immune system, collectively referred to as allostasis or “stability through change.” However, prolonged exposure to stress can disrupt the functioning of the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenocortical (HPA) axis, resulting in altered levels of the stress hormone cortisol. High and continuous levels of cortisol can penetrate the blood-brain barrier and affect the structure of certain brain regions such as the hippocampus, amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and hypothalamus. These changes can have an impact on the learning and thinking abilities of individuals experiencing chronic stress.

Stress and its Negative Effects:

Psychological sources of stress not only reduce our ability to adapt but also have a negative impact on our health. Many visits to doctors, and possibly most of them, can be attributed to illnesses caused by stress. Stress is linked to an increased risk of various physical conditions, ranging from digestive disorders to heart disease. Stress has detrimental effects on various aspects of our lives, as well as our physical and mental well-being, and overall efficiency. Here are some of the negative impacts of stress:

Physical health:

Prolonged exposure to stress can lead to a higher risk of developing numerous physical health  problems. These may include cardiovascular diseases, such as high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes, as well as gastrointestinal issues like ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, and digestive disorders.

Mental health:

Chronic stress can significantly impact mental health, leading to increased anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders. It can also contribute to the development or exacerbation of conditions like posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse disorders.

Cognitive function:

Stress can impair cognitive function, affecting memory, concentration, decision-making, and problem-solving abilities. It may lead to decreased productivity, difficulty in learning new tasks, and reduced overall efficiency in various areas of life. Emotional well-being: Stress can cause emotional instability, resulting in heightened irritability, mood swings, and a general sense of being overwhelmed. It may also lead to emotional exhaustion, feelings of helplessness, and a decreased ability to cope with daily challenges.

Interpersonal relationships:

Chronic stress can strain relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. It may contribute to increased conflicts, poor communication, and a lack of emotional availability, ultimately impacting the quality of our connections and support systems.

Sleep disturbances:

Stress often disrupts sleep patterns, leading to difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep, or obtaining restful sleep. Lack of adequate sleep further exacerbates stress levels, creating a vicious cycle that can significantly impact overall well-being. Decreased immune function: Prolonged stress weakens the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to infections, illnesses, and slower recovery times. It can also exacerbate existing health conditions by compromising the body’s ability to fight off diseases effectively.

Overall, the negative effects of stress on our lives are multi-faceted and can permeate various aspects of our physical and mental health, as well as our overall efficiency and quality of life. It is important to manage and reduce stress through healthy coping mechanisms and self-care practices to mitigate these effects.

The field of psychoneuroimmunology explores the connections between psychological factors, particularly stress, and the functioning of the endocrine system, immune system, and nervous system (Kiecolt-Glaser et al., 2002). In this discussion, we will examine the knowledge we have acquired regarding these relationshipsFortunately, recent research has shown that practices like yoga and meditation can counteract the negative effects of stress. These practices have been found to reduce cortisol levels, enhance blood flow in specific brain areas, stimulate brain activity, and promote the growth of new neurons and synaptic connections, ultimately increasing neural plasticity. This review examines the functioning of the HPA axis during stress, the brain changes induced by elevated cortisol levels,
and the beneficial effects of yoga and meditation on both the HPA axis and the brain, which can help alleviate the detrimental effects of stress.

Experiencing chronic stress during early life, such as through abuse and neglect, can make young individuals more susceptible to mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. These individuals may struggle to cope with everyday stressors and have difficulty controlling negative thoughts, worries, and wandering thinking patterns. Stress has a significant impact on learning and memory. To adapt to stress, the body maintains homeostasis through the activation of neural, neuroendocrine, and neuroendocrine-immune mechanisms, a process known as allostasis or “stability through change.” Allostatic responses affect the functioning of various systems in the body, including the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenocortical (HPA) axis (also known as the stress axis), the nervous system, cardiovascular system, gastrointestinal system, and immune system. Patients experiencing chronic stress exhibit altered levels of the stress hormone glucocorticoid (cortisol in humans) and reduced neural plasticity. Clinical studies on individuals with chronic stress and Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) have revealed changes in specific brain regions such as the hypothalamus, hippocampus, prefrontal cortex (PFC), and amygdala. Stress triggers the release of neurotransmitters like serotonin, norepinephrine, and
dopamine. Furthermore, stress has been shown to shorten telomere length, leading to cellular aging and the premature death of cells in the body and brain. However, research suggests that adopting a healthy lifestyle, which includes living in an enriched environment, learning new skills, listening to good music, practicing relaxation techniques such as meditation and yoga, and engaging in stretching exercises, can support brain health and maintain sharp cognitive abilities. These activities can also prevent agerelated
decline in memory, concentration, and information processing while improving the ability to regulate thoughts.

Studies have indicated that brain aging is reversible, and stimulating the brain through continuous learning promotes neurogenesis, while repeated practice strengthens and enhances synaptogenesis, making neural connections more robust and efficient. Yoga and meditation have been found to effectively
66 kva-c-Wn-I 2023 reduce the impact of stress on the brain by lowering cortisol levels, thus influencing neural plasticity. Research on long-term meditator has revealed an increase in the thickness of their cerebral cortex, which is associated with positive brain changes. Surprisingly, even a relatively short duration of 8 weeks of participating in a mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) program has been shown to induce structural changes in the brain. Furthermore, studies involving undergraduate students who underwent meditation training demonstrated an improved ability to manage stress and a reduction in anxiety, depression, anger, and fatigue. This review paper aims to examine the impact of stress on the functioning of the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis and the alterations in brain structure caused by elevated cortisol levels resulting from HPA axis activation. Additionally, it discusses the beneficial effects of yoga and meditation on both the HPA axis and brain structure, highlighting their potential to reverse the harmful effects of stress.

During exposure to stress, specific regions in the brain, such as the Centro median, basal, and lateral amygdaloid nuclei (commonly known as the fear centre), send distress signals to various components of the stress response system including the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis, the cerebral cortex, and the midbrain. These regions, along with the brainstem, regulate the body’s adaptive responses to stress. The hypothalamus, in particular, communicates directly with the adrenal medulla through the autonomic nervous system (ANS), leading to the release of adrenaline (also known as epinephrine). Adrenaline plays a crucial role in triggering the “fight-or-flight response” during times of stress. It acts as an alarm hormone, quickly released into the bloodstream, and typically subsides once the stressinducing
situation has ended. This rapid surge of adrenaline represents the initial response to stress exposure.
The medial parvocellular division of the paraventricular nucleus (PVN) in the hypothalamus contains hypothalamic neurosecretory neurons called hypo physio-trophic neurons. These neurons are responsible for synthesizing and releasing neuropeptide hormones, namely Corticotropin-Releasing Factor/Hormone (CRF/CRH) and Arginine Vasopressin (AVP). Among these hormones, CRH plays a crucial role in regulating the activity of the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis under normal conditions and during times of stress. CRH/CRF travels to the anterior pituitary gland via the portal vessels and binds to specific receptors, thereby stimulating the synthesis and release of Adrenocorticotropic Hormone (ACTH) into
the bloodstream. ACTH then reaches the adrenal cortex, where it binds to receptors, specifically activating the zona fasciculata to synthesize and release cortisol, which is a type of glucocorticoid hormone. Cortisol, often referred to as the body’s “stress hormone,” exerts its effects on the brain by crossing the blood-brain barrier and binding to glucocorticoid receptors (GR) and mineralocorticoid receptors (MR).

In the brain, mineralocorticoid receptors (MR) are predominantly found in limbic areas, with a higher
concentration in the hippocampus, a moderate presence in the amygdala, and a smaller number in the prefrontal cortex (PFC). MR receptors are activated even at very low levels of cortisol. Following exposure to stress, the secretion of Adrenocorticotropic Hormone (ACTH) can be detected within 5 minutes, and cortisol secretion becomes detectable within less than 15 minutes [16-18].

Under normal circumstances, cortisol is released in a rhythmic pattern, following both a circadian (24-hour) and an ultradian (pulsatile) cycle. During the late hours of sleep (around 4 am or 3-5 hours after sleep onset), cortisol levels in the blood are very low or undetectable. As the night progresses, cortisol levels gradually increase and peak in the early morning (around 8 am). Throughout the day,
cortisol levels decline gradually. Ideally, once the stressor is removed, a feedback loop within the hormonal system should restore cortisol levels to normal, bringing the body back into balance. Chronic stress can lead to persistently high levels of cortisol, disrupting the normal circadian rhythm of this glucocorticoid hormone and contributing to the development of diseases [19-21]. The regulation of
this circadian rhythm is controlled by the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), the primary circadian oscillator or pacemaker located in the hypothalamus. As cortisol circulates continuously in the body at elevated levels, it affects the entire body because glucocorticoid receptors (GR) are present in every cell, including neurons in the brain. In the brain, GR receptors are predominantly found in the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex (PFC), amygdala, and paraventricular nucleus (PVN) of the hypothalamus. Elevated cortisol levels downregulate GR receptors in the hippocampus. Normally, these hippocampal GR receptors provide negative feedback to the HPA axis, helping to regulate its activity. However, during times of stress, the
downregulation of hippocampal GR receptors due to increased cortisol levels in the brain results in continuous activation of the HPA axis. This persistent elevation of cortisol in the brain leads to alterations in brain architecture.

After 30 minutes of exposure to stress, the glutaminergic system becomes activated. Glutamate, an excitatory amino acid (EAA), serves as the primary excitatory neurotransmitter in the human body, particularly in the brain. However, glutamate can also act as a potent neurotoxin, contributing to the toxic death of postsynaptic neurons by generating free radicals. This phenomenon is referred to as “glutamate neurotoxicity” (GNT). Various regions in the brain, including the paraventricular nucleus (PVN) of the hypothalamus, hippocampus, prefrontal cortex 67 kva-c-Wn-I 2023 (PFC), and the anterior pituitary gland, express glutamate receptors. Glutamate also plays a significant regulatory role in activating the HPA axis in response to stress.

Additionally, glutamate serves as a precursor for gammaaminobutyric acid (GABA), the brain’s main inhibitory neurotransmitter. Moreover, glutamate plays a crucial role in the physiological processes of learning and memory.

Numerous research studies have provided evidence for the positive effects of yoga and meditation techniques on brain architecture, specifically in the context of reducing stress and anxiety. For instance, a study by Yi-Yuan Tang et al. investigated the impact of a four-week integrative bodymind training (IBMT), a form of mindfulness meditation. By utilizing a non-invasive magnetic resonance imaging
(MRI) technique known as diffuse tensor imaging (DTI), the researchers examined the brain’s white matter. The findings revealed enhanced fractional anisotropy (FA) in areas surrounding the anterior cingulate cortex, along with reductions in radial diffusivity (RD) and axial diffusivity (AD). These reductions signify increased density of myelin and axons, respectively, indicating improved neuroplasticity of the brain’s white matter [32].Another study, conducted by Gotink RA and Vernooij MW, employed a cross-sectional MRI analysis involving 3,742 participants to explore the effects of yoga and meditation practices on the volume of the amygdala and hippocampus. The results indicated that regular engagement in meditation and yoga was associated with reduced volume in the right amygdala and left hippocampus [33]. The reduction in amygdala volume has been linked to the alleviation of stress.Taken together, these findings strongly support the notion that yoga and meditation practices have positive implications for brain architecture. They contribute to improved neuroplasticity of the brain’s white matter and lead to reduced volumes in regions of the brain associated with stress.

Yoga is a powerful practice that offers numerous benefits for reducing stress. Through a combination of physical postures (asanas), breathing techniques (pranayama), meditation, and mindfulness, yoga provides a holistic approach to managing stress and promoting relaxation.

By engaging in yoga, individuals can experience a range of positive effects, including reduced muscle tension, improved circulation, and enhanced flexibility. Moreover,  yoga promotes the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for inducing a state of relaxation and counteracting the effects of stress. Regular yoga practice has been shown to lower cortisol levels (the stress hormone) and increase the production of endorphins, the body’s natural mood enhancers. This combination of
physical movement, controlled breathing, and focused awareness creates a harmonious balance between the body and mind, offering a valuable tool for stress reduction in
today’s fast-paced world.

Read Part 2 – Yogic techniques to reduce stress >>

Post by: Dr. A. Radhakrishnan

MSc Psychology, MSc Yoga, PhD in Yoga - MA Politics, MA Sociology, MA Public Administration, at University of Madras
President, Pathanjali Yoga Training and Research Centre(PYTRC)
Share Now

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Chat on WhatsApp