MUSC News Center
Learn this one simple technique for a healthier New Year
Dawn Brazell | MUSC News Center | Jan. 5, 2015
|Dr. Sundaravadivel Balasubramanian combines his knowledge of yoga with his biochemistry background in his research into the health benefits of yogic breathing.|
Tired of feeling stressed out, overwhelmed and harried?
Reducing stress and boosting your immune system may be just a few breaths away, simply a matter of slowing down to do some deep breathing or even just humming. That’s what research by MUSC scientist Sundaravadivel Balasubramanian, Ph.D., is revealing.
Balasubramanian, who was born in India and is now a naturalized U.S. citizen, has been doing yoga practices for years, benefiting from its healing and calming effects. He also noticed how cancer patients seemed to benefit from yogic breathing sessions he leads at the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge and other facilities and noted how it helped lower pain and stress levels.
When he mentioned the benefits of yogic breathing to other researchers, they said prove it.
So Balasubramanian, a research assistant professor at the Medical University of South Carolina, took certain breathing techniques, particularly ones he noticed that create more saliva production, and began to study them. More saliva is a good sign that the parasympathetic nervous system is being stimulated, he said. “There are so many changes that happen in saliva and biomarkers, such as nerve growth factor, that can be measured.”
He did a pilot study with 20 participants who completed either a yogic breathing exercise or read quietly for 20 minutes. Researchers collected samples of their saliva at 5-minute intervals. Samples taken from participants who did the 20-minute breathing exercise had molecules or biomarkers in their saliva after the breathing that weren't there at the start. Sixty percent of the samples showed a marked increase in nerve growth factor level found only in the yogic breathing group.
Interestingly, it took only one session to produce these effects. Nerve growth factor molecules are secreted proteins that are important for the growth, maintenance and survival of certain target nerve cells.
“We are planning to study how yogic breathing could help individuals who have or are prone to Alzheimer's disease and other neurodegenerative diseases. When individuals perform yogic breathing exercises, they secrete saliva, which contains molecules, like proteins, mRNA, DNA that can be measured to give us an idea of what is happening within the brain.”
This pilot study is the first to attempt to stimulate endogenous NGF expression by non-invasive methods. He hopes the findings will lead to future studies that use salivary biomarkers and neuromodulators, which are any one of a number of naturally produced brain chemicals, as outcome measures of yoga interventions.
Biomarkers are being increasingly recognized as a tool for diagnosis and prognosis in various diseases. For example, researchers can measure the amount of a biomarker that they know is decreased in Alzheimer's disease, aging and other neurodegenerative disorders in an individual's saliva, before and after yogic breathing to see the effect. Balasubramanian wants to explore the molecular mechanisms behind the yoga techniques to see how it may be beneficial to patients with, or prone to developing, Alzheimer's disease and other neurodegenerative diseases. Balasubramanian has two other studies measuring salivary biomarkers related to cancer. He expects these studies will shed light on how yogic breathing could be useful in stress management in cancer.
Balasubramanian, known as “Dr. B,” wants to understand molecular signaling pathways in normal vs. disease conditions. He specializes in cell signaling research related to cell growth and survival. Currently he is studying how cigarette smoking affects cancer radiation therapy. Balasubramanian said it’s rewarding to bring his biochemistry background to bear on his Indian yogic heritage. Balasubramanian has been doing yoga since he was a child, influenced by the practices of his father and uncles. He practiced meditation, yoga and prayer for years in India, a tradition he continues in the States.
That background influences his work as a biochemist because now he has the science to frame the ancient practice in modern terms that can be translated to patient care, he said. Not all patients can do the asanas or yoga postures, but everyone can do the breathing, a practice thought to reduce pain, stress and inflammation.
Take the simple exercise of humming, he said, which stimulates the pituitary gland and affects hormones. It stimulates the deep breathing done when a person is very relaxed and helps activate the diaphragm and the body’s relaxation response. The breathing exercises also help to calm the mind.
“When the mind is focused on the breathing, your mind will not wander. Thus breathing brings the mind and body together.”
Singing can have the same effect. Most people are unaware of how shallow their breathing is, which is why singing can feel so therapeutic since it’s an indirect method of deepening the breath. “We all miss the importance of breathing. It’s important to slow down and breathe deeply. It makes you more focused and sharper. Your mind can calm. You’re keeping your mind away from stress.”
Some researchers have thought the only value of yoga techniques would be those experienced by long-term practitioners. “I don’t buy that. You don’t have to have been doing yoga for 10 years to see a difference. You can see changes in one single session. We’re able to show it’s changing the biomarkers.”
It’s rewarding to be able to teach patients how to reduce their stress using simple breathing techniques. He sees yogic breathing as an exciting new research field that can potentially impact a wide array of diseases, including cancer, hypertension, lupus, autism, pain management and cardiovascular diseases. While Balasubramanian isn’t recommending patients stop taking needed medications, he does see yogic breathing practices as a potential adjunct therapy.
“Your body is a drug factory. You take your medicines and do these exercises for the best benefit. And the best thing is while not everyone can run or exercise, everyone can slow down and just breathe.”
How To Do Yogic Breathing
See the accompanying video for Dr. Balasubramanian's favorite breathing techniques. Below are directions for one of the simplest, humming, which is a great exercise for stress release as it extends and deepens the breath. In using this technique, focus on the breathing to help control anxiety and stress. “You can’t control the mind directly. The only way to control the mind is to control your breathing. The mind will not be concerned about anything but the breath going up and down.”
Directions for Humming or Chanting Om
Take a slow deep inhalation through the nostrils and then do a slow exhalation through the mouth while chanting Om or humming a sound – whichever you are comfortable with.
Be sure to exhale completely.
Repeat for 10 minutes, keeping your eyes gently closed.