What do depression, inflammation and yoga have in common?

If you were to ask me what was the one thing I learned in the past year that blew my mind it’s this – there is a link between depression and inflammation. And this might, at least in part, explain why yoga practices can be beneficial for depression.

Depression is a bit like ‘sickness behaviour’

Think about what happens when you are feeling under the weather or are actually sick. Most of us feel tired, lethargic, lacking in motivation to do the things we need to do or even the things we enjoy. We may experience low mood or irritability, and don’t really feel like spending time in the company of others – lying on the sofa and watching Netflix is probably the extend of what we feel we can accomplish (I can pretend that I instead do lots of restorative yoga but that would be a lie).

There is a name for this: sickness behaviour. The theory is that, as your body is fighting an infection, it tries to preserve energy by minimising what you can and want to do.

The infection itself, as well as the stress your body is in, trigger inflammation in the body; the cells of the immune system gather at the site where infection is happening and start producing other molecules to recruit more cells to come and help. A bit like a flare gun. In fact, it’s basically a battlefield – inflammation is a battle and your body is the battlefield.

(I hate war analogies bit they are too deeply ingrained in my brain).

So while that’s all going on, your body needs to rest and preserve its energy, which translates to you not wanting to do anything at all and displaying this so-called sickness behaviour. It makes sense, right?

Now think about the symptoms of depression – they sound a bit like what I just described for sickness behaviour, no? Or rather, the behaviours of someone experiencing depression are similar to those of someone who is ill – so low mood, fatigue, lack of motivation, loss of concentration and a general withdrawal.

If sickness behaviour is caused by inflammation, is the same true for depression?

It’s possible. There is evidence, in fact, that links the two:

  • Patients with major depression exhibit all the symptoms of an inflammatory response – the cells and flare guns mentioned above. In essence, the battle that happens when we are sick can also be seen in those who are depressed, only this time the battlefield is the brain.
  • Genes that predispose to depression are also associated with promoting inflammation
  • Exposure to psychosocial stress (eg things that damage our self-esteem or our self-worth, a lack of support or stress/strain at work or in relationships), which is known to lead to depression, has been shown to actually also activate inflammation
  • Inflammatory molecules have been shown to block the release of dopamine, low levels of which are associated with depression

Phew! There’s more, but I’ve leave it there. I’m glad you made it this far.

How can yoga help?

There is a growing body of evidence that yoga practices, including physical practices and yoga nidra, help to alleviate the symptoms of depression (see, for instance, previous posts here and here).

One possibility is that yoga helps to manage depression by lowering the levels of inflammation in the body, for example, by activating the vagus nerve. This is a long nerve that extends from the brain all the way down to the gut and helps the brain communicate with all the different organs (so picture a long phone line or one of those strings phones we used to make as kids, where each organ can have a direct line of communication with the brain, and vice versa).

We know that stimulating the vagus nerve can lower inflammation (remember, the battle). We also know that stimulating the vagus nerve can help alleviate the symptoms of depression – you can even buy electrical devices that do this directly.

But there is also evidence that yoga practices, in particular through the breath, can stimulate the vagus nerve and thereby reduce the levels of inflammation in the body. Which means bring in a sort of ‘truce’ in the inflammatory battle, including the brain. Which ultimately could mean alleviating those symptoms of depression.

How can I use yoga for depression?

I’m not a yoga therapist. But it would stand to reason focusing on small, manageable practices is probably the best way forward when you are feeling low in energy, mood and motivation. So perhaps parking a full dynamic vinyasa class in favour of some gentle movement and breathing exercises in small doses.

Do you find that yoga helps to alleviate symptoms of depression? What practices are most supportive for you?

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