In a previous article, I discussed about relationship of yoga and schizophrenia. I shared views about impact of yoga on certain brain regions which improve the mental health of people with schizophrenia. Symptoms of schizophrenia are caused by deficits in particular brain regions, and a treatment is effective if it can influence the activity in those areas. So we saw how yoga effects the mechanisms in precuneus and hippocampus of the brain by improving memory and self-conscious thinking. In this article, I will discuss about the role of chemicals in causing schizophrenia symptoms and how yoga can help to alter the levels of these chemicals so that symptoms can be managed.
The important chemicals which are said to mediate the symptoms of schizophrenia are - oxytocin, BDNF, cortisol, GABA, and inflammatory markers. Let us first discuss the role of oxytocin in schizophrenia and how yoga impacts its levels. Oxytocin is called a "love hormone", because it is involved in feelings of attachments and emotional connectivity across individuals. This hormone is crucial for forming bonds in groups and increase social relationships. It is also responsible for values like honesty, empathy and prosocial behaviors. Healthy social relations are developed when oxytocin levels are high. In schizophrenia, oxytocin is produced less in the body. These lower levels are associated with poor social involvement, deficits in social cognition. Social cognition implies how we perceive and think about social world around us. So oxytocin effects the brain by reducing the social cognitive abilities of the person, thereby making it difficult for the person to form social bonds. Yoga improves oxytocin levels. Through 2-3 months of regular yoga in company of an instructor or a group, oxytocin levels of schizophrenics were shown to increase in a study. This led to better functioning in social contexts and individuals were observed to form new social relations as well as interact more frequently with others. They were less hesitant to initiate social transactions and participated more in group gatherings.
Next we come to BDNF i.e. brain derived neurotrophic factors. These are required for production of new nervous system cells (neurons) and tissues in the brain. They accelerate the growth of new neurons and repair the older ones that are damaged or have poor connections in the brain. Damaged or injured cells impair memory, thinking, emotions and motivation of the people. BDNF are specifically responsible for regulating higher thinking functions like reasoning, language, planning and imagination. In schizophrenia, these functions are severely effected and reduces the quality of life of people. Studies show that BDNF levels are reduced in schizophrenia, so it gives a good reason to think that lower BDNF are not able to repair the injured cells in the brain of schizophrenics. Yoga improves the levels of BDNF in the body and brain. It can be clearly assumed that due to improvement of BDNF levels through yoga, thinking functions of schizophrenics tend to improve.
Cortisol is a stress hormone. It is released in the body when body undergoes some stress due to toxins or pathogens or injuries. Higher cortisol levels are related to deficient functioning of heart, kidney, lungs and brain. Depression and anxiety are common manifestations of high cortisol in the body. High cortisol is also related with poor thinking and decision making. In schizophrenia, cortisol levels are found high due to various kinds of stresses that schizophrenics go through. Yoga reduces cortisol levels in the body. This leads to state of relaxation and calmness, and increased happiness. Yoga does the same impact in people with schizophrenia. Lower cortisol levels through yoga improve the thinking processes too.
GABA i.e. gamma amino butyric acid, is a neurotransmitter that plays a significant role in regulating mood and thoughts. Depression and anxious moods are high due to lower GABA levels. Negative symptoms of schizophrenia are related to low GABA levels in the brain. Yoga increases GABA in the brain and lowers the mood symptoms. In some studies, high GABA production is found associated with lowering of negative symptoms in schizophrenia. Yoga therefore improves negative symptoms like social withdrawal, poor motivation, and anhedonia.
Last chemical in our present discussion is inflammatory marker. Certain injuries, toxins, and pathogens cause inflammation in the body cells at different sites. This inflammation can also occur in brain cells. Apart from causing various physical diseases, inflammation reduces the performance of individuals on various thinking and behavioural tasks, as well as harmfully impacts the emotions too. In schizophrenia, higher inflammation is seen in various parts of the body tissues, including neurons, which is expected to reduce the cognitive functioning of these individuals. During inflammation, certain chemicals called markers are produced to accelerate the process of inflammation. These markers are indicators that there is some injury inside the body. In schizophrenia, percentage of these markers increases compared to non-schizophrenic people. Yoga is found to heal inflammation. After practicing yoga for 8-12 weeks, people are found to have lower number of inflammatory markers in the body. This in turn effects the regular functions of the person which were effected harmfully by the inflammation. In schizophrenia, yoga lowers the level of these markers and enhances the mental functioning.
As you see above, yoga has a significant and good effect in improving the psychological functioning by altering the levels of various chemicals in the body and brain. Various effects are seen in healing the mental state of schizophrenics. The research in this area is new, and scientists are beginning to understand how yoga can improve the severe condition of schizophrenia in some ways.