Health is personal and complex, but yoga can help with hormonal imbalance and allow your body to improve its overall functions. As a mind-body exercise that’s accessible to almost everyone, here’s how and why adding a little yoga to your day can bring immediate and long-term benefits for your hormones.
The answer to how and why yoga can help with hormonal imbalance
Every day, many of us walk around carrying the internal and external pressures that come with modern life. We can’t disconnect from work. We’re reachable 24/7. And we scroll through media and consume news so often that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. So much so that a recent study found most of us check our phones 96 times a day. (And some studies suggest it’s even higher.) At a minimum, we’re looking at our phones once every 10 minutes.
But all of that constant hyper-connection comes at a cost: stress. Stress is a well-studied underlying cause to a variety of health conditions, including hormone imbalances. By raising the amount of adrenaline and cortisol we produce, stress has far-reaching effects on your endocrine system (and other systems.) It can reduce thyroid function, lower certain sex hormone levels, raise your risk of insulin resistance, deplete serotonin and dopamine, lead to HPA-axis dysfunction, and more.
Because of its influence in the body, reducing stress is incredibly important to hormone health and balance. Yoga helps with hormone imbalance because of its proven ability to enhance the mind-body connection. Its therapeutic nature naturally reduces stress–both in the moment and also after.
What’s happening in your body when you stress
Knowing how yoga can help with hormonal imbalance starts with understanding how your body responds to stress. When you’re stressed, the hypothalamus gets stimulated. (The hypothalamus is located in the brain. It plays a critical part in regulating your body temperature and other vital functions. It signals hormone release from the pituitary gland and adrenal medulla, helps control your stress response, and more.) The hypothalamus responds to stress by releasing a hormone that helps regulate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This hormone lets your adrenals know to release cortisol and other glucocorticoids.
Cortisol gets a bad reputation, but it’s actually helpful in so many ways. It reduces inflammation and can suppress an overactive immune response. It also readies your body to deal with threats. (Something you might hear as your “fight-or-flight” response.) But healthy cortisol levels should ebb and flow with your circadian rhythm and also in times of stress. However, it should return to lower levels once a stressor has passed. Only, for many of us, we operate in a stress state constantly. This elevates cortisol to unhealthy levels. Your body begins to use insulin differently. Hormones and body functions that are not immediately essential to survival (sex hormones, reproduction, digestion, memory, and more) slow down. Eventually, we see and feel those effects surface in a number of ways. Sometimes, the constellation of symptoms can be confusing.
How yoga downgrades your body’s stress response
When you practice yoga, you focus on the present moment and your breath. This helps your body downgrade your fight-or-flight response and activate your parasympathetic nervous system. (Often called your “rest and digest” response.) Your blood pressure lowers, cortisol levels decline, and your heart rate slows. Functions that are non-essential to immediate survival but still necessary are able to work optimally again. At the same time, yoga increases activity in the medial forebrain, where your reward and pleasure centers are. This also helps reduce your response to stressors.
The best types of yoga to help with hormonal imbalance from stress
A follow-up question to Can yoga help with hormonal imbalance? is usually Are all types of yoga good for reducing stress? That’s difficult to answer because, really, it’s individual. Most traditional yoga classes are highly effective at reducing stress. However, there are lot of variations between types of yoga and even studios and instructors.
Two good examples are hot yoga and power yoga. Some people will have no problem spending an hour in a power yoga or a highly heated yoga class. They’ll come come out feeling invigorated. For many others, the same class would be physically and emotionally depleting–and that is the antithesis of yoga. The demand these types of yoga place on the body might create more stress rather than alleviate it. In my opinion, anyone with chronic pain of any type, acute or chronic illness, who is pregnant or wants to become pregnant, or who is experiencing perimenopause or menopause or hormone imbalances should not try hot or power yoga. Instead, practice at home. Or, find a class that is restorative, gentle, or even an intermediate flow but in a cool room. Listen to your body. Don’t attempt to go into asanas that lead to pain or discomfort–or where you end up holding your breath.
If you can help it, don’t skip centering or savasana
It’s common for people to really enjoy going through the asana part of class. But it’s also not uncommon for some to be uncomfortable during savasana or leave just beforehand. Many yoga instructors understand that it’s difficult to “go inward” and settle, rest, and meditate. Find one who can guide you through savasana in a way you feel comfortable. If you have traumas that are the reason you avoid this time, search for a trauma-informed instructor in your area. (Or, take classes online with a trauma-informed instructor like Shayla.) You can even search for savasana guidance on YouTube and “practice” on your own at home, so you become more comfortable. Even though savasana is a challenge for many people, it’s very helpful at lowering stress and it’s best not to skip if you can help it.
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