A small study suggests that practicing yoga for as little as 3 months can ease fatigue and reduce inflammation in women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer.
The research was published online on Jan. 27, 2014 by the Journal of Clinical Oncology. Read the abstract of “Yoga’s Impact on Inflammation, Mood, and Fatigue in Breast Cancer Survivors: A Randomized Controlled Trial.”
Breast cancer treatment can be very hard on the body. Many women report feeling stressed and exhausted during and after treatment. When the body is stressed, it tends to become inflamed as a response. Chronic inflammation is linked to a number of health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and almost all autoimmune disorders.
Earlier small studies suggest that yoga can improve quality of life, as well as ease sleeping problems in women who’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer. So the researchers who did this study wanted to know if yoga could help reduce inflammation and fatigue, too.
The study involved 200 women who had been diagnosed with stage 0 to stage IIIA breast cancer. The women were between 27 and 76 years old and had had their last surgery or radiation treatment 2 months to 3 years earlier. None of the women had done yoga before.
The researchers randomly assigned the women to one of two options:
- two small-group, 90-minute hatha yoga classes per week for 12 weeks
- being placed on a waiting list for the yoga classes
While the women attended only two yoga classes per week, the researchers encouraged the women in the yoga group to practice the yoga postures at home. The women kept track of the total time per week they practiced yoga.
The researchers measured the women’s levels of inflammation by measuring the levels of three proteins in the blood that are markers of inflammation:
- interleukin-1 beta
- tumor necrosis factor-alpha
The researchers also measured the women’s levels of fatigue, vitality, energy levels, sleep quality, physical activity, moods, and eating habits using standard surveys.
All these variables were measured before the yoga classes started and then 3 months after the study started (when the yoga classes ended), and 6 months after the study started (3 months after the yoga classes ended).
Overall, compared to women who were on the waiting list, women who took the yoga classes had lower inflammation levels and higher vitality scores.
Three months after the study started, at the end of the yoga classes, compared to women on the waiting list, women in the yoga group had:
- 41% lower fatigue
- 12% higher vitality scores
- 11% lower interleukin-6 levels
- 15% lower interleukin-1 beta levels
- 10% lower tumor necrosis factor-alpha levels
Six months after the study started, 3 months after the yoga classes ended, compared to the women on the waiting list, women in the yoga group had:
- 57% lower fatigue
- 13% to 20% lower inflammation levels
When the researchers looked at the amount of time the women practiced yoga, they found that women who practiced yoga for the most time per week had even lower levels of fatigue and inflammation, as well as higher levels of vitality. These women also reported sleeping better than the women on the waiting list.
Yoga, which means "union," is a 5,000-year-old system of principles and practices originating in India. Yoga incorporates exercise, stretching, breathing, and meditation with the intention of bringing together the mind, body, and spirit. One of the most frequently practiced types of yoga is hatha yoga, which uses physical poses and breathing techniques to increase strength, flexibility, and well-being. Hatha yoga was the kind of yoga used in this study.
If you’re experiencing fatigue or inflammation because of breast cancer treatment, you might want to talk to your doctor about yoga to see if it’s right for you and your unique situation. If you're thinking about doing yoga, consider a class that is taught by an instructor familiar with the special needs of breast cancer patients. An experienced instructor can tailor poses to accommodate any physical limitations you might have because of your treatment. Some breast cancer patients can have arm and shoulder problems that could be aggravated by some yoga poses.
In the Breastcancer.org Complementary & Holistic Medicine pages you can learn more, including:
- what to expect
- how to find a qualified practitioner
- important things to consider before trying a technique
And stay tuned to Breastcancer.org to read about the latest scientific research on complementary and holistic medicine techniques.