Yoga Can Reduce Common Side Effects

CURE, Fall 2010, Volume 9, Issue 3

While several small studies have suggested the benefits of yoga in reducing the side effects of cancer treatment, the largest study to date is also the most definitive.

While several small studies have suggested the benefits of yoga in reducing the side effects of cancer treatment, the largest and most definitive study to date on its benefits was highlighted at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, held this past June.

In this study, researchers randomized more than 400 cancer survivors who had significant sleep disturbances to either simple monitoring or 75-minute yoga sessions twice a week for one month. The results, said lead researcher Karen Mustian, PhD, of the University of Rochester Cancer Center in New York, were remarkable.

The benefits of the intervention were seen across the board, reducing several common side effects reported by cancer survivors. Individuals in the yoga group reported less fatigue and daytime sleepiness, decreased use of sleep medication, and increased quality of sleep and quality of life.

"If you ask a cancer patient who is suffering with sleep problems...who is trying to work, raise children, take care of elderly parents, or live their life in a healthy manner and this is interfering with the ability to live their life...I think these findings are striking," she says. "The fact that we can reduce the amount of fatigue by almost half—42 percent—is huge as well because it's probably the most prevalent and troubling side effect reported by the greatest number of cancer patients across all diagnoses."

In planning the study, Mustian noted researchers chose types of yoga that would be most readily available to people in as many communities as possible in the U.S. The two types of yoga—gentle Hatha yoga and restorative yoga—are also gentle on the body and focus on various poses, breathing exercises, and mindfulness.

"Those gentle Hatha yoga poses are almost in every type of yoga," Mustian says. "By using that, we felt people would have a good chance of finding instructors after the study was done to teach them these poses."

While restorative yoga is less widespread, it's gaining in popularity. For most of the poses, pillows, blocks, towels, and other props are used to support the body. "You're in different positions, but you're fully supported by blankets and bolsters, and your eyes can be covered with eye pads. The idea is to completely let your body be supported by something else," Mustian says.

For survivors who are looking to incorporate yoga into their lives, Mustian recommends finding a yoga instructor certified by the Yoga Alliance, and if he or she has prior experience working with cancer patients and survivors, that’s an added plus. She also stressed that these outcomes may not extend to other types of yoga, such as yoga in a heated room or vigorous yoga that raise the heart rate.

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For more on this study, and to comment on this topic, read CURE's blog on:"" by Elizabeth Whittington