At least one in three women diagnosed for breast cancer suffers from lingering fatigue months or even years after treatment ends, but practicing yoga significantly reduces this symptom and also helps lower levels of dangerous inflammation. That’s the finding of a new National Cancer Institute-funded clinical trial that randomly assigned 200 breast cancer survivors to take either a 90-minute hatha yoga class—a gentler form than the popular hot bikram yoga—twice a week for 12 weeks or to be in a control group that was waitlisted for the class.
At the end of the study published online Monday in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, those who practiced yoga reported about 50 percent less fatigue than those in the control group and had 20 percent lower levels of three proteins in the blood that are markers for inflammation. The proteins, generated by the immune system, are known to cause fatigue, headaches, and general malaise when we develop an infection—the body’s way of forcing us to get rest.
Excess inflammation has been linked to a higher risk of breast cancer recurrence and chronic diseases of aging such as diabetes, osteoporosis, and heart disease, according to study leader Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at The Ohio State University College of Medicine.
The more times women practiced yoga each week, the lower the levels of their tiredness and inflammation. What’s more, these benefits persisted three months after the study ended—presumably because many of the study participants were keeping up their yoga practice.
“Sleep was significantly improved in the women who did yoga, and that could be a major reason for the decline in their fatigue and inflammation,” said Kiecolt-Glaser. Many breast cancer survivors suffer from chronic insomnia, she added, often due to anxiety that persists after their diagnosis with a life-threatening disease.
“Studies show that some patients continue to have moderate-to-severe fatigue years after treatment,” states the National Cancer Institute website. Besides lack of sleep, anti-estrogen drugs like tamoxifen—given to many breast cancer patients for 5 to 10 years after their diagnosis to prevent a recurrence—can also contribute to fatigue, according to NCI.
Even in those without breast cancer, yoga has been shown to provide the same—or even bigger—mood-boosting effects than running and other forms of strenous exercise. But newcomers to yoga also need to be careful not to overdo it since pushing too much, too fast, can raise the risk of injuries.
Breast cancer patients who are older or still recovering from surgery or chemotherapy could certainly benefit from the practice. Kiecolt-Glaser recommended starting with a hatha yoga class, a restorative form that focuses on gentle stretching and a period of resting meditation at the end.