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in its early stages, several studies have pointed to important ways that yoga can make a difference.

In 2005 Beth Cohen, an internist at both the University of California, San Francisco, and San Francisco VA Medical Center, studied the effects ofyoga on hot flashes in a small pilot study of 14 women. The women in the study took part in a weekly 90-minute yoga class designed around eight restorative poses. They also practiced for one hour at home three days a week. After eight weeks, the frequency of the women's hot flashes decreased by 30 percent and their severity diminished by 34 percent. Cohen suspects that the results may be due to yoga's ability to calm the sympathetic nervous system, although she can't yet be certain, because researchers don't fully understand what causes hot flashes.

Cohen says that the study also revealed some unexpected findings, such as improved sleep among the participants. But since the study didn't include a control group, it's hard to say whether some of the response can't be chalked up to the placebo effect.

Last year, however, researchers in Bangalore, India, examined how yoga affected menopausal symptoms in a larger group of 120 women, this time with a comparison group. Half the women took yoga classes five days a week for an hour a day, while the others did supervised gentle exercise. After eight weeks, the yoga group had substantially fewer menopausal symptoms—hot flashes, memory problems, and sleep disturbances—as well as lower scores on a measure of perceived stress.

There's also evidence that yoga can do more than just ease bothersome symptoms. Kim Innes, assistant professor at the University of Virginia's Center for the Study of Complementary and Alternative Therapies, reviewed the medical literature about ways that yoga (and other mind-body practices, including tai chi) may affect the physiological and neuro-psychological processes that contribute to the increase in heart disease risk for postmenopausal women.

The hormonal changes that occur during menopause, particularly the sharp drop in estrogen, can lead to numerous health changes that make women much more vulnerable to heart disease and other chronic conditions. For instance, menopause itself is associated with a rise in insulin resistance and other adverse changes, including high blood pressure. Insulin resistance is a precursor to diabetes, in which the body becomes less sensitive to insulin, in turn causing blood-sugar levels to rise. In addition the menopausal transition is associated with increased activation of the sympathetic nervous system and related deterioration in both mood and sleep. All of these factors are interrelated, and all raise the risk for heart disease.

Yoga, Innes says, has been shown to counter these risk factors. "I wasn't expecting to see such a widespread effect on so many parameters," she says. "But the more you look, the more you see that so many of these are related to stress. And the thing that's startling is how quickly these beneficial changes can occur, even over the course of six weeks or less."

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