ENDOCRINE SYSTEM (HORMONES) AND INVERSIONS


As I drop into the stillness of my body and connect with the breath, I feel a tingling in my toes that spreads up my body and I feel the weight of my legs releasing.   Opening my eyes, I am looking at the world from upside down and I sigh with pleasure to the new sense of a mild pulsation between my ears.  It is interesting how this inverted position offers a new perspective, a reversal of the mind from the literal change of position in life, and somehow a tremendous sense of a place to rest.

Hormones can also turn our worlds upside down.  They regulate our moods, hunger, sleep and growth, not to mention our immune and reproductive systems. They are constantly in demand to balance our internal bodies so that we may then interact most efficiently and meaningfully with the world around us. Life and gravity can weigh us down, and the ability to stay flexible and shift gears when necessary can be an inviting survival skill to invest in.  Yoga asanas or postures offer diverse positions that allow for movement of our body systems and direct the energies within us to flow and interact most effectively. 

One of the most highly regarded asanas, known as the king of all asanas, is Sirsasana or headstand.   It involves inversion of the body, a direct reversal of the feet to the brain. The brain is our control center of the body systems.  It is the center of intelligence and is also stated in yoga texts to be the seat of the soul. The yogic sages developed inversion postures with the goal of preparing the body, our instrument, to attain physical bliss and thus allow a clear path towards enlightenment. 

By definition, inversions involve any asanas that lift the feet above the level of the head.  It seems as if the wisdom of the ages has transcended into our modern day culture as we all have heard the classic recommendation, “relax and put your feet up!”   This simple step can work wonders in times of stress and when in need of rejuvenation. The influence of inversions on the endocrine system may be explained by how blood flow is affected with the change in body position. It is an important topic of investigation as the endocrine system functions to maintain a well-balanced body and mind.

     The endocrine system is an integrated system of small glands that involves the release of hormones into the bloodstream to affect other tissues and organs.  Hormones are chemical messengers that pass rapidly from one part of the body to another, thus they exercise great control over the different actions of the body. The endocrine glands are found from the base of the trunk up to the cranium and are located at the sex organs, kidneys, pancreas, thymus, thyroid, pituitary and pineal glands.  Hormones like testosterone, estrogen, adrenaline or epinephrine, insulin, dopamine and melatonin are released from these glands into the blood.

The position of the endocrine glands corresponds to the location of the recognized energy centers in the body, namely the Chakra system. In the practice of yoga, the life energy or prana from the breath, is raised up the spine along the energy centers to culminate at the crown chakra.  It is by this process that one reaches a state of consciousness that allows one to connect with universal energy or enlightenment.  It is the combination of the purification of the body, the breath and the conditioning of the mind that opens the gate to this state of ultimate connection of the mind, body and spirit. Thus the relative endocrine system, with its purpose to regulate and balance the mind and body systems, holds a key to allow a person to pursue spiritual goals.




ENDOCRINE GLAND FUNCTION

   The effects of hormones vary widely.  The gonad glands are responsible for the perpetuation of life and our own vitality via their regulation of sexual behavior and development, the reproductive cycle and menopause. Think of the last time you could have used help in any of these areas from a highly functioning endocrine system!

  The adrenal glands in the kidney are called upon in emergency situations when the body is set into a fight or flight response. When this gland comes into action, it releases oils to the skin and hair and releases reserve energy often experienced as a “second wind” in inspirational or athletic states where an increased drive is called upon.  During stress, fear, anxiety and other like emotions the hormone adrenalin is released in greater quantities.  When overly or chronically stimulated, it may overly tax the adrenal system and leave us feeling fatigued and depleted.

The pancreas glands are located near the navel and serve functions for our body’s fuel system. The pancreas releases hormones like insulin that signal uptake of sugars from the blood for storage of reserve energy in the liver.  Lack of insulin production results in lower reserve energy when there is increased demands or activity levels placed on the system that exceeds the reserve supply.  Consequently, a feeling of weakness, fatigue and dehydration occurs as in the disease of diabetes.

The thymus gland is located near the heart and serves to promote the immune system. 

Hormones produced by this gland stimulate the production of infection fighting cells as well as adaptation and maturation of these cells to fight new infections.  The thyroid glands are located at the throat and are found in the shape of a butterfly! It is no wonder that its shape relates to the hormones that help regulate beats and rhythms as in the heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature and the rate at which food is converted into energy.

The pituitary gland is the smallest gland, about the size of a pea, located at the base of the brain. It secretes hormones with diverse regulation of other glands such as the thyroid, adrenals and sex organs and influences body processes some of which include the balance of water in our bodies, growth, cell production and bone formation, control of pregnancy and childbirth.  Lastly, the pineal gland, “the window of the soul” is located at the center of the brain. It secretes the hormone melatonin that modulates sleep/wake cycles.


EFFECTS OF INVERSIONS

So how is it possible that inversions affect the endocrine system? The endocrine glands are saturated in blood, absorb nutrients from it and secrete hormones into it. With the assistance of the change in gravity, inversions cause venous blood from the lower extremities to drain towards the heart.   The increased blood perfusion may stimulate a healthier exchange of nutrients and the flushing of wastes from endocrine glands.  Thus this may promote endocrine gland function and hormone secretion, as well as the circulation of hormones in the vascular system to other sites in the body.

The effects of inversions on the endocrine system have not been widely studied, however preliminary research does show some positive trends. A study done by UCLA published in the Journal of Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine concluded that inversions positively affect the states of depression and anxiety, decrease fatigue levels, as well as stimulate higher levels of the hormone cortisol in the morning (Woolery et al, 2004).  In addition, a study done by N.K. Manjunath showed that practice of sirsasana or headstand resulted in sympathetic activation (fight or flight system) with resulting increased temperature, sweat gland activity and blood flow to the skin.



PRACTICE OF INVERSIONS


    Inversions can be done at different levels or be modified to accommodate most people’s health conditions and practice levels.  Checking with your physician is a good place to start to see if there are any concerns about being inverted.  People generally advised to avoid inversions, or seek medical consultation, are those with high blood pressure, those with spinal injuries, or during menstruation or pregnancy.  Inversions are best practiced on an empty stomach or refraining from eating 90 minutes prior to inverting.  It is always best to start inversions with the guidance of a knowledgeable instructor and to progress through the sequence of inversions to build strength and endurance and prevent injury.

Potential negative consequences may occur if the spine is not adequately supported in the correct postural alignment by strong muscles. Degenerative changes in the cervical spine or compression of the brachial plexus, the nerves that exit the spine to the upper extremities may occur.  This presents with symptoms like chronic pain, muscle weakness and numbness and tingling of the upper extremities. 

     Recommended beginning postures with use of props are: 1) Viparita Karani modified by lying on the ground with legs up on the wall, 2) bridge pose with legs extended and elevated on a low bench with bolsters supporting the trunk and 3) down dog with alternating single leg extension.  Poses are best held initially for 3-4 minutes to build tolerance and stamina and maintain breath control in the pose.  So, what are we waiting for? Let’s get those legs up!


Written by: Krista Augius, Doctor of Physiotherapy, Yoga Instructor


Citations


Woolery, Allison et al.  A Yoga Intervention for Young Adults with Elevated Symptoms of Depression.  Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine; Mar/Apr 2004; 10,2; Health Module pg. 60


Manjunath, N.K and Shirley Telles.  Effects of Sirsasana (Headstand) Practice on Autonomic and Respiratory Variables.  Indian Journal Physiological Pharmacology, Vol 47- No.1: January, 2003.



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