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5 Ways Yoga Boosts Brain Health

When you think of the benefits of yoga, better brain health probably isn't the first thing that comes to mind—but maybe it should be.

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Sure, yoga makes for a great workout, but did you know that it can also boost your brain health? Here are 5 science-backed reasons why.

1. Yoga tames inflammation

Chronic low-grade inflammation—from poor diet, lack of exercise, sleep deprivation and ongoing stress—has a serious impact on brain health and your overall smarts. Higher levels of inflammation are related to lower levels of baseline cognitive function, and research suggests inflammation disrupts a specific critical process in the brain related to staying aware and focused, interfering with the readiness of the brain to reach and maintain an alert state. The result: fuzzy thinking, mental fog and forgetfulness. A regular yoga practice dampens the flames of inflammation to help your brain stay sharp and alert. In one review, C-reactive protein and other markers of inflammation were significantly decreased after doing yoga, and longer practices led to greater improvements in inflammation. Plus, yoga amps up levels of protective chemicals in the body that guard against inflammation.

2. It vetoes stress

Another way yoga boosts brain health is by calming stress. Tension, anxiety, worry and other kinds of mental distress can seriously diminish brain power. Psychological stress has an immediate impact on cognitive function, reducing attentional resources available for information processing. So, for example, if you’re fretting over that fight with your spouse or agonizing over challenges at work, your brain’s preoccupied, less able to pay attention to the task at hand. In the long run, chronic stress creates wear and tear, causing dysregulations in how neurons communicate and boosting inflammation, which can impair the brain’s structure, function and performance. Over time, ongoing stress also dampens mood; that, and continued inflammation, are both linked with fatigue, diminished brain power, cognitive decline and an increased risk of dementia.

Research shows a regular yoga practice lessens stress, relieves anxiety and can make you think better and faster. Dozens of studies suggest yoga relieves stress and anxiety, enhances overall well-being and strengthens mental performance, and other research shows a regular yoga practice can improve attention, brain processing speed and executive function—a set of skills that include memory, focus, flexible thinking and self-regulation.

3. It makes you breathe better

If your yoga practice is the kind that includes breathing practices, all the better. Slow, deep breathing is thought to stimulate areas of the brain that control alertness,  and research shows it can enhance a variety of complex cognitive tasks. Relaxed, slow breathing also relieves stress, lessens inflammation and brightens mood, all related to better brain performance. In one study, meditation significantly improved executive functions like self-control and working memory, and was more effective than a session of aerobic exercise. And yoga also encourages meditation, increasing blood flow to the brain, enhancing focus, and improving cognition and memory. Research shows meditation eases stress and anxiety, lessens depression, cools chronic inflammation and promotes a healthy gut-barrier function—all key to cognitive health. In one study, even a single session of yogic meditation boosted memory. Over the long term, deep breathing and meditation can slow and even prevent cognitive decline with aging and lessen the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

4. It boosts blood flow to your brain

Sluggish circulation from obesity, heart conditions or even a sedentary lifestyle, can impact brain function, impair memory and disrupting concentration. Slower blood flow means less oxygen, glucose and nutrients for all those hungry neurons in your brain. The result: slower processing time, forgetfulness and foggy thinking. And over time, diminished blood flow to the brain is linked with cognitive decline and a higher risk of dementia.

The bending and stretching in yoga boosts brain health by amping up up circulation and turning on the body’s parasympathetic nervous system—associated with rest and relaxation—increasing blood flow, oxygen and nutrients to the brain. Research links a regular yoga practice with better circulation and enhanced cognition—not only for long-time yogis, but also for beginners. In one study, new-to-yoga participants who did a training program in Iyengar yoga showed significantly enhanced blood flow to the brain after only 12 weeks. And if your practice includes meditation, even better; it’s been shown to relax vessels, promote blood flow, and sharpen focus and memory.

5. It makes you happier

Depression, anxiety and other mood disorders can damage brain health and lessen cognitive function. Mood disorders are linked with higher levels of inflammation and disrupted sleep, both of which hamper mental performance. And some research suggests long-term depression leads to structural changes in the brain, decreasing the volume of gray matter in areas related to learning, memory, emotional control, stress regulation and higher-level thinking and planning. In the short run, being depressed impairs memory and attention, impacts information processing and decision-making, and lessens your ability to reason. Depression also diminishes cognitive flexibility—your brain’s ability to adapt to shifting situations—and executive function. Over time, long-term depression and other mood disorders significantly increase the risk of cognitive decline and dementia.

Dozens of studies show yoga lessens depression, eases mental distress and significantly enhances overall well-being. Yoga relieve stress and promotes sleep, associated with a sunnier disposition; it also stimulates reward and pleasure centers in the brain, promoting a more cheerful outlook. One review of 23 studies found yoga interventions were effective in improving mood disorders, and in one study, men and women with mild to moderate depression who did hatha yoga for eight weeks were significantly less depressed.