A theory is proposed to explain the benefits of yoga practices in diverse, frequently comorbid medical conditions based on the concept that yoga practices reduce allostatic load in stress response systems such that optimal homeostasis is restored. It is hypothesized that stress induces (1) imbalance of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) with decreased parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and increased sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activity, (2) underactivity of the gamma amino-butyric acid (GABA) system, the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter system, and (3) increased allostatic load. It is further hypothesized that yoga-based practices (4) correct underactivity of the PNS and GABA systems in part through stimulation of the vagus nerves, the main peripheral pathway of the PNS, and (5) reduce allostatic load. Depression, epilepsy, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and chronic pain exemplify medical conditions that are exacerbated by stress, have low heart rate variability (HRV) and low GABAergic activity, respond to pharmacologic agents that increase activity of the GABA system, and show symptom improvement in response to yoga-based interventions. The observation that treatment resistant cases of epilepsy and depression respond to vagal nerve stimulation corroborates the need to correct PNS underactivity as part of a successful treatment plan in some cases. According to the proposed theory, the decreased PNS and GABAergic activity that underlies stress-related disorders can be corrected by yoga practices resulting in amelioration of disease symptoms. This has far-reaching implications for the integration of yoga-based practices in the treatment of a broad array of disorders exacerbated by stress.
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