What you need to know about yoga for Parkinson’s disease
Health & Fitness
Author: Johanna Stiefler JohnsonPublished: 29 April 2021
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We speak to Dr Indu Subramanian (pictured above), a movement disorder neurologist based in Los Angeles, US, about how yoga may support people with Parkinson’s disease – from managing stress to improving balance
How does yoga help people with Parkinson’s disease?
Yoga can have tremendous effects on the mind and body. It is thought to be very powerful for the autonomic nervous system, which can help manage stress. The stretches and poses are helpful for posture, which makes yoga good for ageing populations in general. For anyone who is spending too much time on Zoom, getting up and doing some simple yoga poses to break up the sedentary day can be very therapeutic.
Yoga may help with mood, especially anxiety and depression, and sleep – which are all non-motor symptoms of Parkinson’s. Meditation may help cognition, and breathwork may help non-motor problems as well as autonomic nervous system issues that are exacerbated in Parkinson’s disease.
The poses may improve balance, stretch tight body parts and allow for better range of motion, while the flow between poses is thought to improve cardiovascular fitness. Poses are modifiable, so the practitioner can increase or decrease the complexity of the pose to adapt to changing issues in the body – day-to-day or year-to-year.
When did you first learn about the benefits of yoga for Parkinson’s disease symptoms?
I have culturally been interested in Ayurveda, a holistic medicine system, for a long time. As a child, I grew up with many practices that were in this system of health – even though my mother is a western trained family medicine doctor. Yoga fits into this system, which has been around for thousands of years and focuses on thinking about a person or patient in a holistic way. After the birth of my first child, I gravitated toward yoga to help my own sense of balance and wellbeing.
There are a lot of folks doing yoga here in California, US, and I see the benefits in my patients as well. As a physician who works largely with men who are veterans, it always amazes me to see the most seemingly unlikely patients thrive with yoga. A Latinx plumber in my practice really enjoyed yoga and looked better, both physically and mentally, after diving into his practice – which he started after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Dr Indu Subramanian has practiced yoga for two decades.
How can people with Parkinson’s add yoga into their exercise regime?
Yoga can be incorporated a few days a week, with other more cardio-heavy regimens such as running, fast walking or cycling. It can be very restorative for muscles on days in between heavier cardio workouts.
There are many styles that may benefit people with Parkinson’s disease. Hatha yoga and Iyengar yoga, which uses a lot of props and modifications, are good places to start. For people interested in starting yoga, particularly through social distancing restrictions, I recommend Mind Body Solutions with Matthew Sanford.
What advice do you have for people interested in starting yoga?
Yoga in popular media has been sold as an extreme commercialised version of reality. There is no need for fancy memberships to an exclusive studio or expensive yoga outfits. It is not only for ballerina dancers who can contort into increasingly crazy shapes.
This year, for example, I mostly studied under a teacher who is a wheelchair user and teaches very accessible, powerful poses to people who are of all shapes, sizes and abilities. It has been an amazing exploration.
Keep trying. Maybe shift the time of day that you practise. Try a new style or teacher. There is a tremendous range of poses and styles. Don’t get discouraged.
Need to know
Dr Indu Subramanian is a movement disorder neurologist and director of a Veterans Affairs Parkinson’s Disease Research, Education and Clinical Centre in Los Angeles, US. Originally from Canada, Subramanian completed her fellowship training in Movement Disorders at the UCLA School of Medicine, US. She is drawn to integrative treatment for Parkinson’s disease, with a special interest in mind-body approaches and alternative systems of healthcare. Mother to three boys, she enjoys yoga, photography, world travel and jazz.
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Researchers at the University of Turin, Italy, have identified that Parkinson’s-related cardiovascular problems may increase a patient’s risk of developing dementia within five years. According to the study, it is estimated that more than half of people with Parkinson’s experience an impairment of the autonomic nervous system – which helps to regulate bodily functions such as blood pressure, body temperature, respiration and heart rate. The researchers investigated the effects of this impairment on key functional Parkinson’s outcomes – including dementia, falls and postural instability – by observing 65 patients at the university’s movement disorders centre and following up after five years. Evaluations throughout the study assessed patients’ cognitive function, automatic symptoms and other motor and non-motor features. In the findings, which were published in the ‘Journal of Neurology’, the researchers noted that worse cardiovascular assessment scores were “associated with a sevenfold higher risk of developing dementia”.
A “revolutionary” step in stem cell therapy for Parkinson’s disease?
Scientists in China have developed a method to help improve stem cell research in mice models of Parkinson’s – which could potentially lead to promising new treatments. The researchers, based at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, identified two cell surface markers of dopamine neurons, which are reduced in Parkinson’s. They injected cells with these markers into the brains of the mice and found that this resulted in “higher therapeutic potency” for improving motor symptoms of the condition. As part of their research, the team also worked to control the variability of donor cells, to help improve therapeutic outcomes for Parkinson’s cell therapy. The researchers, whose study was published in ‘The Journal of Clinical Investigation’, described the findings as a “revolutionary step on the road towards more effective and safer stem cell therapies”.
Could frequent nightmares be an early sign of Parkinson’s disease?
A new study has suggested that experiencing recurrent nightmares and bad dreams could be an early symptom of Parkinson’s disease. Researchers from the University of Birmingham, UK, used data from an existing US study that followed 3818 men, aged 67 or older, over a period of 12 years. Participants who reported experiencing bad dreams at least once a week were followed up. During the follow up, 91 people were diagnosed with Parkinson’s. The results suggested that participants who had frequent bad dreams were twice as likely to develop the condition as those who did not. Commenting on the study, lead author Dr Abidemi Otaiku said: “While we need to carry out further research, identifying the significance of bad dreams and nightmares could indicate that individuals who experience changes to their dreams in older age – without any obvious trigger – should seek medical advice.”