Yoga: Decreased sympathetic release, stress relief and effect on migraine

These days, stress is so common that it needs no introduction. Tell a friend you’re feeling stressed out, and they’ll nod in unison or mutter “I know how you feel.” The chronic stress of daily living — the pressure to excel at your job, care for your kids, and meet social obligations — is something we can all relate to. Unfortunately, though, this stress does a lot more than make us tired and grumpy. It can also have deleterious effects on health. More specifically, stress is a very common trigger for migraines.

The question then becomes, how do you lower your stress levels to better manage your migraines? There are a lot of possibilities, but one that has been working well for many migraine patients is practicing yoga. Stress sends your sympathetic nervous system into overdrive, which in turn, leads to migraines. Yoga helps restore healthy sympathetic nervous system function, combating migraines. Let’s take a closer look at this relationship.

Stress and the SNS

The sympathetic nervous system is the division of your nervous system that deals with involuntary responses to stressful situations. When you’re faced with a stressful situation, your sympathetic nervous system releases a flood of hormones, primarily adrenaline and cortisol, to increase your heart rate, breathing rate, and alertness. You’re then ready to either fight or flee from the threatening situation that’s creating the stress.

This system works really well if a tiger is about to attack you or if a tree branch is about to fall on your head. When you’re under chronic daily stress, however, the constant barrage of hormones from your SNS can have troubling effects on your health. In the U.S., 77% of people regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress. One of those symptoms is migraine.

The SNS and Migraines

Stress is such a common contributor to migraines that 4 out of every 5 migraine patients list it as a trigger. Stress can contribute to migraines in a few different ways. It can keep you from getting good sleep, which increases your risk of migraines. Stress also makes patients more likely to miss doses of medications that are needed for migraine relief. However, a primary connection between stress and migraines seems to be the release of hormones triggered by your SNS.

When your SNS is pumping out stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, these hormones send blood to your muscles and heart, preparing these tissues for the fight or flight response. Other blood vessels, including some in the brain, will constrict, which can contribute to migraines. Sustained high levels of adrenaline and cortisol can also interfere with sleep, elevate blood pressure, and cause tension headaches — all of which can subsequently trigger a migraine.

As you can see, breaking free of the stress – sympathetic release – migraine cycle can be tough unless you find a way to combat stress

Yoga, the SNS, and Migraines

Researchers have found yoga to be a very useful tool for managing migraines. In one study, researchers asked migraine patients to practice yoga in addition to taking any medications they had been prescribed. Their scores on the MIDAS test — a test assessing how migraine affects a person’s daily life — dropped 37% by the completion of the study.

Yoga seems to help manage migraines by reducing activity of the sympathetic nervous system. It lowers stress levels, which in turn, reduces the amount of adrenaline and cortisol your body is releasing. After a yoga session, participants experience a lasting sense of calmness, which helps prevent migraine in the coming days. Yoga can also help address migraine by alleviating stress-related tension in the neck and back. The more you practice, the greater the effects.

Getting Started With Yoga for Migraines

When seeking to manage migraines with yoga, it is important to choose the right style of yoga. Avoid hot yoga, Bikram yoga, power yoga, and other very physically demanding forms of yoga that could actually put you under stress and make migraines worse. Instead, look for yoga classes that incorporate a lot of deep breathing, relaxation techniques, and gentle poses. Hatha yoga is good choice. Developed in the 15th century, it is a very flowing, gentle form of yoga that incorporates a lot of meditation and allows for the use of props, when needed, to make participants more comfortable.

If possible, take yoga classes in-person rather than simply trying to follow along with a video at home. An instructor can correct your position to ensure you’re getting the greatest benefit from each pose, and they can offer suggestions if certain poses are too challenging for you as a beginner. Poses that are great for migraine relief include Child’s Pose, which helps open the shoulders and neck, and downward-facing dog, which stretches out the back. Once you’ve participated in classes for a few months, you can begin incorporating at-home sessions, as needed, for greater relief.

Remember, yoga is not a substitute for any migraine medications your doctor has prescribed. Do check with your doctor before beginning a yoga practice just to ensure it’s a safe choice for you.

Stress is ubiquitous in our society these days, and its effects on the sympathetic nervous system contribute to migraines in many patients. Yoga can help counteract those effects, decreasing the severity and frequency of your migraines.

If you are interested in learning more about yoga for migraine, or if you’re in need of a comprehensive migraine treatment plan, contact me, Dr. Risa Ravitz. I offer personalized, online consultations and will worth with you to explore the migraine treatment options that work best for your lifestyle and health.