I began my first yoga class almost 20 years ago as a means of reducing my stress. I was running a center for reproduction and women’s health and was looking for a non-pharmacologic way to relax. The yogini I enrolled with was Hari Khar Khalsa, and I took classes from her for a period of time. One day after class I asked her if she would be interested in teaching a yoga class to my patients to lower their stress. We began a series of yoga classes with the first hour consisting of us sitting on mats on the floor with my patients and discussing a health topic. I called them “Mat Chats.” The second hour was devoted to yoga with a focus on the medical topic we had just covered.
Over time, I not only received the benefit of lowering my own stress level through yoga, but also the benefit of Hari’s friendship and ultimately collaboration on A Woman’s Book of Yoga, a book that combines Eastern and Western medicine to help women at different stages of their lives. Since that time, I’ve suggested yoga to many of my patients. One group that I find it particularly useful for is women in and around menopause. They often tell me it helps them deal with their symptoms. Because many women either can’t or won’t take hormone therapy, finding an effective alternative is really important.
I was delighted to discover that the February 2012 issue of the journal Menopause, finally proves yoga reduces menopause symptoms, hot flashes and improves sleep. This is the first study to do so. The article studied women between the ages of 50 and 65 with no yoga experience and who were not taking hormones or antidepressants. The study lasted four months and included two one-hour yoga sessions per week, which combined stretching exercises and breathing techniques. Compared to a group of women who only did stretching, the yoga group improved their sleep and their mental health, and also their menopausal symptoms. The researchers believe this is because yoga increases levels of the brain hormone g-aminobutyric acid, which calms the brain. Yoga also seems to increase levels of the sleep inducing hormone melatonin.
Another benefit of yoga is that it amplifies the parasympathetic tone in the body, which aids relaxation and reduces the sympathetic tone – the so-called fight or flight hormones. This may be an important part of why sleep patterns improve and hot flashes are reduced. Most women observe that when they are stressed, their hot flashes increase.
As more and more women question whether or not to take HRT – and women with breast cancer are typically not able to take HRT – finally getting proof that an alternative approach reduces symptoms of menopause, lowers hot flashes and improves sleep is a great thing. So if you are looking for an alternative to HRT, or even if you are taking HRT and just want to help your insomnia, improve your mental health and your menopausal symptoms, grab your yoga mat, enroll in a yoga class with a good instructor, practice several times per week, and sleep tight. Namaste.
Resources from Dr. Seibel:
- Free eBook on HRT: whether or not to take it, how to take it and an explanation of bioidentical estrogens.
- Free Sleep Diary: to help your doctor treat your sleep problem.