Depression is a major problem, and when it chooses a life to shadow, its hold can be fierce. The most popular treatment for depression is antidepressant medication. Though antidepressants seem to bring relief to many people, there are at least as many who do not respond to treatment. Thankfully, researchers are working hard on finding a more effective way to manage depression, and the world is edging ever so closer to finding a cure.
With the research steering in new and promising directions, there has been an overwhelming amount of evidence to find that certain lifestyle factors have great potential to alleviate the symptoms of depression. A combination of exercise and mindfulness has been found to reduce the symptoms of depression by up to 40%. As well as this, gut health has been found to play a critical role in mental health, particularly in relation to the symptoms of depression.
Whether medication is part of the healing or not, exercise, meditation, and gut health clearly have enormous capacity to strengthen the mind and body in a way that can protect them against depression. Now, new research from the University of Pennsylvania has found that a breathing-based meditation practice known as Sudarshan Kriya yoga (‘SKY’) can provide significant relief from the symptoms of severe depression and anxiety.
What are the symptoms of major depression?
People are diagnosed with major depression if they experience at least five of the following symptoms for nearly every day for at least two weeks. The symptoms need to cause significant intrusion into day-to-day living, and need to not be the physiological effects of a substance problem or other medical condition. The symptoms include:
- Feelings of sadness, emptiness, hopelessness, or tearfulness or irritability;
- Loss of interest or pleasure;
- Weight changes or changes in appetite;
- Sleep changes – difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much;
- Psychomotor agitation or retardation. This needs to be noticeable to others, not just feeling restless or slow;
- Fatigue or loss of energy;
- Feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt;
- Diminished ability to think, concentrate or make decisions;
- Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide, an established suicide plan or suicide attempt.
Let’s talk about the research.
The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, involved people who had been diagnosed with major depression. On average, participants were in the severe range. All participants had been on antidepressant medication for at least eight weeks and had seen no significant improvement in symptoms.
As part of the study, the participants were randomly placed into either a Sudarshan Kriya yoga group, or a ‘waitlist’ group. Participants in the waitlist group did not practice Sudarshan Kriya yoga for the duration of the study, but were offered the yoga intervention at the end of the eight weeks.
After two months, the group who practised the Sudarshan Kriya breathing technique had 50% lower depression scores. There was also a significant reduction in anxiety scores. The waitlist group showed no improvements. The depression scores were measured using the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale – the most widely used clinical-administered depression measurement and it measures scores on various criteria such as mood, interest in activities, energy, suicidal thoughts, feelings of guilt, as well as other symptoms.
The SKY group also showed significant reductions in their scores on the Beck Depression Inventory and Beck Anxiety Inventories, which both involving the self-reporting of relevant symptoms.
‘With such a large portion of patients who do not fully respond to antidepressants, it’s important we find new avenues that work best for each person to beat their depression … Here we have a promising, lower-cost therapy that could potentially serve as an effective, non-drug approach for patients battling this disease.’ Anup Sharma, MD, PhD, lead author and Neuropsychiatry research fellow in the department of Psychiatry at Penn University.
Yoga and Depression: How does it work?
Sudarshan Kriya involves a series of rhythmic breathing experiences that bring on a deep, restful, meditative stage.
‘Sudarshan Kriya yoga gives people an active method to experience a deep meditative state that’s easy to learn and incorporate in diverse settings.’ – Anup Sharma, MD, PhD.
According to a paper presented at the 2016 International Conference on Emerging Technologies in Engineering, Biomedical, Management and Science SKY has a 68-73% success rate in treating depression regardless of severity, and produces positive effects on brain and hormone function. SKY works in a number of ways including:
- removing stress from the body by flushing negative toxins from cells;
- releasing neuropeptides which help to strengthen the immune system;
- within 90 days of SKY, the brainwave patterns which are abnormal in many people with depression are returned to normal;
- increasing levels of plasma prolactin, a hormone in the blood that is believed to have a central role in easing the symptoms of depression (an increase was seen after one session of SKP);
- significant decrease in levels of cortisol (the stress hormone);
- increased defence against oxidative stress. Specifically, SKY has been found to produce an increase in antioxidant enzymes, superoxide dismutase, catalase and glutathione which are the major defence against oxidative stress. Research has found a link between oxidative stress and depression.
Previous research suggests that yoga and other techniques that involve controlled breathing can potentially calm the nervous system and reduce cortisol, the stress hormone. Some stress is motivating and healthy – it can help us to be more alert and more responsive in certain situations. When stress is too high, or when it lasts for too long, it can cause a chemical reaction that can slow down or stop neurogenesis – the growth of new brain cells. When this happens, we become vulnerable to all sorts of mental health issues, such as depression. It is thought that one of the reasons exercise, mindfulness, and other lifestyle factors can help with depression is because of the way they stimulate the healthy growth of new brain cells and protect existing brain cells from dying.
Exactly what is Sudarshan Kriya yoga?
For a demonstration of the Sudarshan Kriya yoga, see here.
But first, a warning: This link is intended only as a general guide, and is not intended to replace the guidance and expertise of experts or medical professionals. This meditation is not to be used by any person in any stage of pregnancy, or by people with high blood pressure. This breathing-based meditation is best done under the supervision of an experienced yoga practitioner. This meditation is not intended to be a substitute for medication. If you are on medication, it is critical that you do not decrease or stop your medication without close consultation with your doctor. Your own circumstances need to be considered before engaging in the activity, so as not to do harm or injury. If you have not practiced this type of yoga before, it may take time to work up to the full 48 beats demonstrated in the video. As with any physical activity, go gradually and do not do more than is comfortable for your body. Please consult your medical professional if you are unsure about the suitability of this activity for you.
And finally …
There can be no denying that the connection between the mind and the body is a critical one. Increasingly, research is finding that depression is not a ‘disorder’ of the mind, but a physical illness that has its origins in other parts of the body, such as the gut or at more systemic cellular level. It makes sense then, that a powerful way to manage the symptoms of depression has to involve strengthening both the mind and the body. Meditation, specifically Sudarshan Kriya is one way to strengthen the mind, the body and the spirit and maximise the potential for health and healing to be restored.