Yoga for Mental Health Recovery

Dr. David Wiss

January 12, 2022

Mental Health

It is well-established that bodily movement contributes to healthy aging, improves sleep quality, and preserves cognition across the lifespan [1]. In fact, exercise is considered a form of medicine known as complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), as defined by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

At Wise Mind Nutrition, we are committed to describing the broad implications of nutrition for mental health. Our experience suggests that regular physical activity can also help people become more in tune with their cravings for specific foods. When the body utilizes nutrients, it creates demands for these nutrients, which can manifest through the appetite. In sedentary individuals, cravings often stem from the palatability of foods rather than their specific nutrient profile. For this reason, daily movement is an important ingredient in the quest for optimal nutrition. It can help your body get in touch with what it truly needs and reduce chronic inflammation. 

While several forms of exercise have proven benefits for mental wellness, we highlight yoga because many forms of it contain teachings with spiritual underpinnings. Yoga is a mixture of physical activity and cognitive concentration that seeks to encourage general healing and mental equilibrium [2]. Yoga is generally considered a safe form of physical activity for healthy people when it’s done under the guidance of a qualified instructor. While the general perception of yoga has been that it is expensive (and therefore only available to socially advantaged groups) many classes are available online for free or for nominal membership fees. The downside to this approach is that when an instructor is not present there is an increased risk of injury.

Yoga has a distinct community that is now expanding across all age groups. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends yoga as a safe and potentially effective therapy for children and adolescents coping with emotional, mental, physical, and behavioral health conditions. Yoga’s popularity among older Americans is growing. Yoga also has a strong evidence base, and we highlight some of the important findings from recent scientific research.

A recent systematic review evaluated several randomized controlled trials that studied yoga as an intervention in adults with various types of substance use disorders (SUDs) [3]. Seven out of eight trials showed significant improvements in primary outcomes such as anxiety, pain, and substance use. Alternative treatments for SUD have become increasingly popular due to their widening evidence base and patients’ desire for treatment options outside those of traditional medicine. Thus, yoga is a cost-effective adjunct treatment for SUDs and is especially effective when combined with nutrition intervention.

Depression is a complex disorder associated with an increased incidence of other complex disorders; therefore, it must be treated by an integrated holistic approach that can address this complexity. Holistic nutrition for depression is also becoming increasingly effective. There are challenges in discerning the proper treatment for major depressive disorder (MDD). Potential mechanisms of benefit from yoga-based lifestyle intervention for MDD include: [2]


  • Anatomical concepts.

  • Genetic, epigenetic, and molecular mechanisms.

  • Cellular mechanisms related to aging and oxidative stress.

  • Neural mechanisms include neuroplasticity, neurotransmitter homeostasis, and circadian rhythms.

  • Mind-body communicative mechanisms include the stress response, immune response, and nutrient sensing.

  • Lifestyle and social mechanisms.

Finally, a randomized controlled trial recently compared the efficacy of yoga vs. cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) vs. stress education for the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) [4]. This study investigated Kundalini yoga as a modality, which involves all the traditional components of yoga, including breathing practices and meditation. It was found that Kundalini yoga can reduce anxiety for adults with GAD, but study results support CBT as a first-line treatment. Other research has shown that an 8-week Kundalini yoga intervention reduced symptoms of GAD among women [5].

Taken together, various forms of yoga have documented benefits for mental and behavioral health disorders, including substance use disorders, depression, and anxiety symptoms. If you were considering incorporating yoga into your wellness routine, the available data suggests that it may work to your advantage. The incorporation of yoga along with the Wise Mind Nutrition program may kickstart a revolution in your inner world!

When you become aware of your body and know what foods to eat on an anti-inflammatory diet, the body gets the signal that is “safe” and can begin to heal. This may be particularly important for individuals exposed to high levels of adverse childhood experiences. It is exciting to see recent evidence on the gut-brain axis and mental health treatment begin to converge. This may be particularly important for bulimia nervosa treatment, where it is important to “drop out” of diet culture and move toward “body trust.” The promotion of yoga and other forms of lifestyle medicine including nutrition for anxiety is a primary purpose of Wise Mind Nutrition. We believe in healing work to develop a new relationship with food. 

 References

1. Ashdown-Franks G, Firth J, Carney R, Carvalho AF, Hallgren M, Koyanagi A, et al. Exercise as Medicine for Mental and Substance Use Disorders: A Meta-review of the Benefits for Neuropsychiatric and Cognitive Outcomes. Sports Medicine. 2019;1–20.

2. Tolahunase MR, Gautam S, Sagar R, Kumar M, Dada R. Yoga in major depressive disorder: molecular mechanisms and clinical utility. Frontiers Biosci. 2021;13(1):56.

3. Walia N, Matas J, Turner A, Gonzalez S, Zoorob R. Yoga for Substance Use: A Systematic Review. J Am Board Fam Medicine. 2021;34(5):964–73.

4. Simon NM, Hofmann SG, Rosenfield D, Hoeppner SS, Hoge EA, Bui E, et al. Efficacy of Yoga vs Cognitive Behavioral Therapy vs Stress Education for the Treatment of Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Jama Psychiat. 2020;77(12).

5. Gabriel MG, Curtiss J, Hofmann SG, Khalsa SBS. Kundalini Yoga for Generalized Anxiety Disorder: An Exploration of Treatment Efficacy and Possible Mechanisms. Int J Yoga Ther. 2018;28(1):97–105.