You will find it on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and more. Like everything else that you can set your sights on with social media, you can find instructions, videos, and advice on yoga—and more—on thousands of websites and links. “Yoga Girl” might be one of my gurus if I did not know about Richard Hittleman (an American yoga instructor, and media personality on yoga, who died in 1991) or Krishnamacharya (an Indian yoga master, Ayurvedic healer, and scholar, who lived to be 100 years old and died in 1989). In the practical sense, I have enjoyed dabbling in and out of yoga classes solo, or with friends. At their 2016 annual meeting, the Virginia Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (VAND) gave us a new cause to explore yoga: What are the plausible connections among yoga, complementary and alternative medicine, and nutrition?
Yoga science, or the “science of yoga” is gaining momentum as a physical activity in the gym, and among scientists on research teams. Is yoga a “science”? No. Is there scientific evidence to suggest a health benefit”? Yes. Is it a cause célèbre that could stir some controversy in the clinical nutrition research community? Maybe.
“Yoga is a mind and body practice with historical origins in ancient Indian philosophy. Like other meditative movement practices used for health purposes, various styles of yoga typically combine physical postures, breathing techniques, and meditation or relaxation,” according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). The Science of Yoga, an NCCIH link, offers a window into how yoga can benefit healthy adults, and adults with disabilities. Some caveats about current yoga research are appropriate. So far, scientific studies tell us that yoga may provide relief in some individuals experiencing back pain, and it may reduce stress and stress-related conditions in others. Although yoga research is beginning to take off and is receiving funds through prestigious backers like the National Institutes of Health, imperative and generalizable statements about its health benefits to U.S. populations are premature.
VAND guest speaker, Sat Bir Khalsa, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, awakened the afternoon with a bright snapshot of “the science of yoga.” Anu Kaur, MS, RD, Registered Yoga Teacher, Nutrition Consultant, and Wellness Coach at A Nu Healthy You, and the National Cancer Institute – Nutrition Science Research Group, led a brief but brilliant discussion on the connection between yoga, nutrition and Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM).
Did you know that:
- Yoga is increasingly popular among the 18-44 age group (in the United States);
- Yoga is an increasing practice in Hispanic communities;
- Yoga is connected with a growing body of evidence linking it to glycemic control and blood pressure control;
- Mindfulness is associated with connecting, paying attention, and being aware of the moment and state of consciousness. Yoga increases mindfulness.
… And the Nutrition Connection with Yoga Is …
Khalsa referenced his book, Your Brain on Yoga (2012), saying “evidence suggests that yoga not only reduces high blood pressure in patients, but it has been demonstrated to lower blood glucose level, cholesterol level and body weight, risk factors for major heart and other diseases that affect Americans today…” In a 2014 randomized control study, Khalsa’s research advanced a hypothesis detailing specific metabolic pathways where yoga interventions may influence high blood pressure and cardiovascular risk profiles. The idea is that yoga stimulates metabolic pathways connecting the nervous system to organs, such as the lungs and the heart. For example, the deep breathing from consistent yoga exercises may activate the parts of the nervous system that send signals to the lungs to relax or rest. Those signals trigger biochemical messages creating a change in the metabolic profile resulting in decreases in heart rate and blood pressure, better glucose tolerance, and improved mood/sleep. From a dietetic standpoint, this research builds on what we know about exercise, diet, and disease risk profiles. Khalsa also pointed out the benefits of mindfulness. Mindfulness, related to yoga, is mind-body awareness, the practice of realizing the connection between internal and external experiences occurring in the present moment. He introduced the concept of mindfulness-based interventions connected with eating disorders, and obesity.
Clinical researchers are amassing evidence that demonstrates how yoga interventions may affect the entire body, including health conditions such as diabetes, cancer, and hypertension (in addition to obesity). Still, overall evidence on the benefits of yoga interventions for specific health conditions is less than strong. The lack of strong evidence associated with the body of research on this subject warrants professional diligence in all practice settings, especially those involving individual and group counseling, and education.
Bridging the Gap: Nutrition, Dietetics and CAM
As a nutrition consultant, Kaur collaborates with researchers who are expanding specialty of complementary and alternative medicine, with the expectation of building the scientific and knowledge base. She clarified key terms and identified a federal resource for dietetics professionals, and highlighted trends for dietitians.
Some people seek complementary medicine approaches, and others alternative medicine. Kaur explained the difference. Whereas the complementary approach applies non-mainstream practice that is used together with conventional medicine, the alternative approach is used in place of conventional medicine. Have you ever attended a yoga class, sought the benefits of aromatherapy, or considered an acupuncturist? If you have, then perhaps you are one of the increasing number of Americans, approximately 30% of adults, who are using health care approaches beyond conventional Western medicine.
Kaur introduced the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), which is the federal agency for scientific research on complementary and integrative health approaches. Kaur noted, among other things, that:
- In 2014, NCCIH replaced the name for the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) (at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland);
- The mission of NCCIH is to define, through rigorous scientific investigation, the usefulness and safety of complementary and integrative health interventions and their roles in improving health and health care; high scientific evidence that is safe and effective is a main focus within NCCIH;
- CAM features links to national consumer surveys that include data from the National Health Interview Survey; National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES); National Home and Hospice Care Survey (CDC) and the Complementary and Alternative Medicine and People Aged 50+ (AARP and NCCIH). For more information on these government-led studies, go to https://nccih.nih.gov/research/statistics.
- CAM patients tend to be follow macrobiotic diets, meaning they would rely mainly on whole grains and vegetables while avoiding processed foods and limiting intake of fish and seafood, fruits, seeds and nuts.
Khalsa and Kaur’s presentations brought us into a 21st century reality that patients are the true driving force behind the use of CAM. Growth trends signal an increasing use of CAM in the U.S. among all age groups. An encouraging note is that the informed dietitian has access to tools that may be integrated into the nutrition care process, where the professional recognizes the needs and values of each individual and uses the best evidence available to make decisions.
Some Useful Links:
- Consumers: National Center for Complementary and Integrated Health, https://nccih.nih.gov/.
- Dietetics and Nutrition Professionals: Dietitians in Integrative and Functional Medicine (DIFM), a practice group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The website for this DPG is a creative and rich source of inspiration, at http://integrativerd.org/.
- Everyone: Nutrition Care Process, the quality of care you can expect from a Registered Dietitians and Nutritionist (RDN), at http://www.eatrightpro.org/resources/practice/nutrition-care-process.
Bernice Reyes-Akinbileje, MA, RDN is VAND’s Assistant Chair for Member Services. She is a nutrition consultant with a food security organization and a health policy analyst.