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Yoga Benefits Heart Health

November 17, 2009

The medical research pipeline is showing that yoga leads to healthy heart function.

Research out of India is showing that yoga practicioners strengthen their control of the parasympathetic nervous system, leading to heathier heart function.

What is Heart Rate Variability (HRV) ?:

Heart rate variability (HRV) is an indicator used to measure heart health. When you do jumping jacks for 2 minutes as fast as possible your heart rate rises. This is a normal reaction. How quickly your heart rate falls and returns to normal is a good indicator of heart health. The heart rate of a couch potatoes will remain higher for longer than that of an elite athlete. The elite athlete’s heart rate will fall to near normal much more quickly. In other words the athlete’s heart is much more responsive to the demands placed on it. It’s flexible.

What is actually controlling your hearts response to the increased demands (jumping jacks) and the decreased demands (resting) is your autonomic nervous system (ANS)[quick overview of ANS]. Thus by looking at the variability of your heart rate, or your Heart Rate Variability (HRV), researchers can infer how well your heart responds to changes in the ANS. This is why someone with high HRV (athlete; good) my be referred to as having “good parasympathetic (vagal) tone”. The parasympathetic nervous system would be the part of the ANS that slows your heart rate down to normal once you stopped your super jumping jacks.

Now onto the juicy results of those studies, after the jump.

Results of Studies:

The researchers looked at the HRV of 84 healthy male participants with ages between 18 and 48 years. 42 were yoga practioners; 42 were non-practitioners.

The yoga practioners had higher HRV than the non-practitioners. The researchers concluded from their data that

There is strengthening of parasympathetic (vagal) control in subjects who regularly practise yoga, which is indicative of better autonomic control over heart rate and so a healthier heart.

In other words: do yoga, improve parasympathetic control (that’s awesome), improve heart health.

Heart: check. Now all we need are some good studies on how yoga effects the brain. Still waiting.

An Earlier Study

also looking at Heart Rate Variability shows a similar results. The abstract follows but the key result is highlighted:

Hence yoga practice during the day appears to shift sympatho-vagal balance in favor of parasympathetic dominance during sleep on the following night.

In other words, yoga during the day leads to parasympathetic–Rest and Digest– dominance (through the mechanism of the vagus nerve) when you go to sleep that night. More reasons to recommend yoga to students with sleep problems, especially insomnia or anxiety.

Heart Rate Variability During Sleep Following the Practice of Cyclic Meditation and Supine Rest. Patra S, Telles S. Appl Psychophysiol Biofeedback. 2009 Oct 17. [Epub ahead of print]

Day time activities are known to influence the sleep on the following night. Cyclic meditation (CM) has recurring cycles. Previously, the low frequency (LF) power and the ratio between low frequency and high frequency (LF/HF ratio) of the heart rate variability (HRV) decreased during and after CM but not after a comparable period of supine rest (SR). In the present study, on thirty male volunteers, CM was practiced twice in the day and after this the HRV was recorded (1) while awake and (2) during 6 h of sleep (based on EEG, EMG and EGG recordings). This was similarly recorded for the night’s sleep following the day time practice of SR. Participants were randomly assigned to the two sessions and all of them practiced both CM and SR on different days. During the night following day time CM practice there were the following changes; a decrease in heart rate, LF power (n.u.), LF/HF ratio, and an increase in the number of pairs of Normal to Normal RR intervals differing by more than 50 ms divided by total number of all NN intervals (pNN50) (P < 0.05, in all cases, comparing sleep following CM compared with sleep following SR). No change was seen on the night following SR. Hence yoga practice during the day appears to shift sympatho-vagal balance in favor of parasympathetic dominance during sleep on the following night.

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