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Yoga Can Change Your Brain—And Helps You Treat Addiction

Yoga has become more and more popular in the United States over the last few decades—and for good reason. The healing practice follows traditional Indian techniques to strengthen the body, relax the mind, and improve both physical and mental health. It can increase mindfulness (awareness of your body and your mind) while easing pain. The practice is now offered by hospitals and healthcare providers across the country to help patients with a wide array of health conditions, from cancer to arthritis, chronic pain to pregnancy.

New research from the National Institute of Health (NIH) suggests that yoga could also play a role in the treatment of addiction and substance use disorders. While heavy substance use changes the brain, researchers have found, using MRI imaging technology, that yoga can also make physical changes to your brain—changes that could provide extra support in the treatment of addiction disorders.

Addiction’s Effect on the Brain

Addiction changes the structure and chemistry of your brain. To help you survive, your brain naturally provides you with a boost of dopamine (a pleasure chemical) when you perform certain activities. Your brain releases dopamine when you have sex or eat food, which encourages you to keep doing those things and keep surviving.

But addiction hijacks this process. It begins releasing high amounts of dopamine very quickly whenever you use a substance like nicotine, alcohol, or heroin. Now your brain begins encouraging you to continue to seek out these substances, almost as if you need them to survive. At the same time, your brain builds up a tolerance to dopamine—meaning you need more dopamine and more of the addictive substance to feel as good as you did before.

Part of addiction recovery is breaking up this rewards system to help you experience fewer cravings. It is a complex process that requires you to retrain yourself in how you think, feel, and behave. Returning your brain to its former health and function requires multiple techniques, including medication, psychotherapy, and complementary therapies like yoga. Holistic addiction treatment can improve your quality of life during recovery and help you build long-term habits to stay sober.

Yoga Helps You Retrain Your Brain During Addiction Recovery

In addition to boosting your health, yoga helps you start making those important physical changes to your brain. New research shows that people who regularly practice yoga have key differences in brain structure and chemistry than people who do not do yoga.

A study from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the NIH, found that people who performed yoga had more gray matter and brain cells in certain areas of the brain. For instance, they had a larger hippocampus, the area of the brain that helps you deal with stress. They also had larger superior parietal cortexes, a part of the brain that helps you be mindful and pay attention.

These enlarged areas of the brain may help you better control cravings and impulses by allowing you to better handle stress. The practice of yoga increases mindfulness, so that you can recognize when you are having cravings or destructive thoughts and then use techniques you learn in psychotherapy to properly handle these thoughts. As you grow more mindful with continued yoga practice, you may find it easier to maintain sobriety and handle cravings.

Another study, published in the Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, found that yoga boosted production of a chemical called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). This neurotransmitter helps calm nerves, earning it the title of the “chill out” chemical. With higher levels of GABA, you may find that you are less excitable and prone to impulse. You may also have an easier time handling feelings of anxiety or depression, both of which put you at risk for substance use.

Another key aspect of yoga, meditation, can help enlarge and empower your cerebral cortex. In a study conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital, one of the best hospitals in the nation, researchers found that people who regularly practiced meditation had a thicker cerebral cortex than people who didn’t. Even older patients, who typically have less brain matter than younger patients, had this increased thickness.

A stronger, thicker cerebral cortex is no small thing. Your cerebral cortex is a vital part of your brain that helps with numerous functions like memory, attention, awareness, and thought. It helps you recognize and regulate emotions, a vital part of addiction recovery. With a better functioning cerebral cortex, you may find that it is easier to handle feelings of sadness or anger than before without turning to substances.

It may also help repair some damage caused by addiction. As addiction affects dopamine pathways, it also affects your brain’s ability to learn and remember. By strengthening your cerebral cortex with regular yoga and meditation, you can help boost your memory and ability to pay attention. Over time, you may find that you can remember things more easily and even learn new skills.

Yoga Supports Addiction Recovery

While yoga is an excellent practice, it alone is not enough to help you overcome the powerful disease of addiction. It is a supportive tool that can help make other aspects of addiction treatment more effective. Yoga is easy to implement as part of your every day routine. Studios and classes are available in cities and towns across the country. You can watch free videos on YouTube or develop your own self-practice at home.

At Harmony Place in Woodland Hills, California, yoga is an integral part of our holistic addiction treatment philosophy. Our detoxification and residential treatment program provides comprehensive, whole-person care that helps you recover from addiction while improving your quality of life and mental health.

Contact us today at 1-(888)-789-4330 to learn more about our services and how our holistic addiction treatment can help you or a loved one fight the disease of addiction. Harmony Place specializes in drug and alcohol addiction and treatment. View our addiction recovery treatment here for more information, contact us if you or a loved one are affected.