After practicing for four decades, I believe yoga helps with that uncomfortable “rev” in the body. You probably know what I’m talking about – that sense that you don’t like something in the present moment, like your belly or butt or thighs, or the feeling that you should be doing more in your career, or that you deserve to be paid more than you are, or you somehow don’t measure up to an impossible standard. I joke sometimes that it’s cortisol, coming around like a bad boyfriend. The truth is that there’s nothing wrong with cortisol, but it can become dysregulated – too high or too low or both in the same day – if you listen to the rev and act on it. Rev causes suffering. Rev is sneaky and can lead to misery unless you retrain your mind to recognize it.
Yoga has been shown to decrease cortisol and adrenaline, the main stress hormones that makes you feel jacked up, peckish, and cranky. All regular yoga practitioners can feel this important shift in their physiology. Personally, I noticed in my thirties when I became a yoga teacher that my belly fat shrunk and I was nicer to my husband. That’s cortisol, because you have 4 times more receptors for cortisol in your belly fat. In menstruating women, that translates into statistically significant reductions in anger, depression and anxiety and more well-being when premenstrual. After menopause, yoga is proven to dramatically raise quality of life.1http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26181573; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24298457; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25422589
What hormones are affected by yoga?
Beyond adrenaline and cortisol, yoga raises melatonin after three months of practice, which may help you sleep more soundly and restoratively. One small but interesting study found that yoga helps women when their hormones are out of whack by correcting thyroid, prolactin, luteinizing hormone, and follicle stimulating hormone.2http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15165407; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23647406
How long does it take for yoga to effectively influence hormones?
Most studies show that significant improvement requires 3 to 6 months of regular practice for 30 to 60 minutes per day, five days per week. There’s one small study demonstrating that just one month of yoga increases thyroid hormone release in the 24 to 48 hours after practice, so benefits can be seen sooner, even if not measurable.3http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23647406; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8039950
Are certain types of yoga better for hormone balance than others?
We don’t have much data to suggest one lineage is better than another, but I imagine it’s also a matter of attunement. Most of the rigorous data looks at Hatha yoga, or particular forms of pranayama. If you’re a type-A agro person, you might need the quiet of yin to reset your cortisol. If you’re more of a kapha dosha, it may help your hormones more to practice vinyasa. I’d say it’s more about being in conversation with your body, and perhaps tracking your mood, energy, stress symptoms, and maybe your hormone levels.
If I want to try yoga or get restarted, what do you suggest?
The key is to dive in. A great starting place is my “Just One Pose” free series on YouTube. Commit to practice for 5 minutes, ideally in the morning or before pouring a glass of wine at the end of the day. Doctor’s orders! Click here for a favorite, Butterfly pose.