Yoga can decrease inflammation, fatigue in breast cancer survivors

Yoga isn’t just for improving muscle strength and flexibility. New research published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that yoga may be a safe way to reduce fatigue and improve overall health in breast cancer survivors.

Women recovering from breast cancer often experience troubled sleep as result of their treatments – which can lead to increased fatigue and inflammation.

“Fatigue is a downward spiral—the less you do, the less you’re able to do. The less you’re able to do, the less you do,” lead author Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, professor of psychiatry and psychology at The Ohio State University, told

Lowering inflammation can maximize overall health post-cancer treatment, since it is associated with a number of negative health outcomes – including coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease.

For women recovering from breast cancer, exercise is one of the best ways to lower fatigue and inflammation.  However, cancer treatment often leads to a substantial decline in cardiorespiratory fitness, because the therapies are so debilitating. Breast cancer survivors have a 30 percent lower level of cardiorespiratory fitness compared to their sedentary counterparts who haven’t had treatment.

Researchers chose to try yoga with breast cancer survivors, because it can be used with all levels of fitness and can be adapted for women with physical limitations.

“Yoga is easier to have women to try. Rather than saying, ‘Let’s try running,’ it may seem less demanding and daunting,” Kiecolt-Glaser said.

Over a period of six years, researchers at Ohio State University studied the effects of yoga on inflammation, mood and fatigue levels in breast cancer survivors who had completed cancer treatment within the past three years.

In the randomized controlled trial of 200 women between the ages of 27 and 76, the women followed a 12-week hatha yoga intervention. The women performed a set sequence of yoga postures created by yoga teacher Marcia Miller, which included breathing and meditation.

Miller’s yoga sequence emphasized mindfulness and used yoga bolsters and blankets to make the movements as safe as possible for the women. All yoga group subjects did the same sequence and practiced for 90 minutes twice a week.
Immediately after the trial, the yoga group had a 41 percent drop in fatigue, and markers for inflammation were lower compared to a non-yoga control group. Researchers followed up with participants three months later and again discovered improved health measures. Women who had practiced yoga had 57 percent less fatigue and 13 to 20 percent less inflammation compared to the non-yoga group.

“We found that the more women practiced [yoga] during the trial, the bigger the change,” Kiecolt-Glaser said.

In yoga, students are taught to pay attention to their bodies and their breathing. For survivors especially, this emotional support and understanding of their changing bodies can be helpful, according to Kiecolt-Glaser.

“[Yoga] may turn down the thermostat in terms of stress response,” Kiecolt-Glaser said.

The yoga sequence included three specific breathing practices so the women could learn how to maximize the efficiency of their lungs and balance their breathing patterns. It also included meditation in the form of brief, quiet sitting and a guided relaxation known as savasana at the end of class.

“I chose those practices because yoga isn’t just about stretching, it’s about shifting the person’s relationship with their nervous system and feeling a sense of calmness when life is painful and scary,” Miller, co-founder of Yoga on High in Columbus, Ohio, told  “Breathing and meditation are practices that… help calm the nervous system in a way that promotes healing.”

While some may have doubts about yoga and its effects, Kiecolt-Glaser said the team’s findings show that yoga itself was the biggest cause of the positive changes.

“It wasn’t just a secondary effect of being with a group of survivors and feeling supported,” she said.

Furthermore, compared to traditional treatments for fatigue, inflammation and mood, yoga doesn’t have dangerous side effects.

“It’s an intervention that offers many benefits and has little downside when done with good supervision,” Kiecolt-Glaser said.