Anyone who suffers from chronic pain knows that the effects go deeper than just your body—chronic pain also affects your mind and your mood. Studies now show that chronic pain can actually change the anatomy of your brain, too, reducing the volume of your brain’s gray matter.
That’s a problem. Gray matter is the tissue in your cerebral cortex that’s responsible for functions like decision making, self-control, speech, and sensory perception.
It’s an incredibly complex part of your brain, and the effects of gray matter loss depend on where exactly the loss occurs. Overall, however, a reduction in gray matter has been linked to emotional problems, memory impairment, and a decrease in cognitive function.
Gray Matter and Pain Management
Gray matter is also responsible for interpreting pain. When this area of your brain is healthy, your brain can modulate pain so that you interpret it as less intense.
Ironically, less gray matter makes your brain less able to control your pain—meaning the pain that caused the gray matter loss will be harder to tolerate, presumably leading to more gray matter loss. It’s the very definition of a vicious cycle.
But there’s good news. New studies show that practicing yoga may have the opposite effect on your brain that chronic pain does.
The Link Between Yoga and Gray Matter
By comparing the brain scans of yoga practitioners against brain scans of non-practitioners, researchers learned that yogis had more gray matter in multiple areas of theirs brains.
In fact, the increase in gray matter growth directly corresponded to the duration of participants’ yoga practice—the longer the yogis in the study practiced, the more gray matter they had.
More gray matter is always good, but the benefits are especially profound for people with chronic pain. Researchers noticed growth in insula gray matter, the part of the brain that controls pain tolerance. An increase in gray matter here means a better ability to tolerate pain, lessening its impact on your quality of life.
These benefits can be widespread and long term. Chronic pain is strongly linked with depression, another condition that reduces gray matter in the brain.
Yoga’s ability to increase gray matter may protect people with chronic pain from developing depression and other mood problems that often occur at the same time. Other studies have shown that yoga can improve symptoms of depression, anxiety, addiction, and PTSD. This study may just be the start of what researchers may discover about the healing powers of yoga.
Yogis have always known that a regular yoga practice can change your life for the better—now we have proof that it can change your brain for the better, too!