Depression is a chemical imbalance. People with depression are passing through somewhat of a neuro-chemical traffic jam. Their brain chemicals and functioning are depressed – slowed down, out of balance.
While depression may be genetic/inherited or situational and reinforced by behaviour patterns developed over a lifetime, there are ways to help alleviate the chemical imbalance of depression.
The mainstream approach to depression relief is antidepressant medication. Medication alters the chemical balance in the brain. It is effective for about 30% of the population, without therapy. However, when medication is combined with therapy the efficacy increases.
Unfortunately, medication is not a viable option for everyone. Anti depressants can have side effects such as flat affect, weight gain, anxiety, and insomnia.
And, some people just don’t want to be medicated.
There are several side effect-free alternatives to medication. Exercise is one of them and in one way or another, exercise is helpful for everyone. Exercise, or if you prefer movement, helps to improve your mood, decreases anxiety, reduces stress, and increases self esteem.
Exercise doesn’t always have to be flat out, high intensity struggle.
Just move, get warm, feel your heart rate change, let the neuro-chemical juices begin to flow, and allow yourself to have some fun.
Here are 9 neurochemical reasons why exercising can help you fight depression:
- Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF) – is an important protein that influences brain function and the peripheral nervous system. BDNF prevents the death of existing brain cells and induces the growth of new brain cells.You can increase BDNF by engaging in regular, moderate to intense exercise. Do it outside in the sun and you have an even better chance of increasing BDNF.Interestingly, anti depressants also increase BDNF but exercise does it naturally.
- Serotonin carries signals along and between nerves. It is a neurotransmitter. A deficit of serotonin is highly correlated with depression. Serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac and Celexa are the most commonly prescribed antidepressants.Serotonin is said to increase motivation and will power.Movement also increases serotonin.You don’t have to do intense exercise, just some type of movement – walk, take the stairs, use a stand up desk, take a yoga class.The presence of serotonin also increases BDNF and the presence of BDNF increases serotonin. They create a mutually proliferating cycle.
- Norepinephrine is a stress hormone that affects parts of the brain where attention and concentration occur. Lack of norepinephrine contributes to the reduced ability to concentrate that often exists when you are depressed.Exercise increases norepinephrine. Intense exercise increases it even more than moderate exercise. So, if you want to increase your ability to concentrate, add exercise to your daily routine.
- Dopamine is a neurotransmitter. Low dopamine contributes to lack of motivation, mood swings, memory loss, trouble making decisions, and a reduced ability to experience pleasure.The release of dopamine in the reward centre of the brain is a primary influence behind addiction. Uppers like cocaine and methamphetamine basically increase dopamine. They reward the user with positive emotional experiences. Addictions take over the brain’s natural capacity to enjoy things, making the user dependant on their vice to experience enjoyment.Exercise, on the other hand, naturally increases dopamine. As an added bonus, increased dopamine improves will power. So the more you exercise, the more you feel empowered to continue exercising.
- Endorphins are neurotransmitters. They have a similar effect to opiates, like morphine. This means that they can decrease pain and relieve anxiety. Intense exercise will get endorphins flowing enough to alter your state of mind causing that blissful sense of ease or flow known as the runner’s high.
- Endocannabinoids are naturally occurring chemicals in your brain that cannabis was named after. They are involved in physiological processes like pain sensation, mood, appetite and memory.Exercise increases the presence of endocannabinoids in your brain and nervous system. It offers all the bonuses of cannabis without a prescription. Unfortunately both cannabis and exercise can leave you smelling a little off:).
- Cortisol and adrenaline are stress hormones. When your body is placed in a stressful circumstance it creates cortisol and adrenaline. Too much or prolonged exposure to either hormone is taxing on your system and can create adrenal fatigue. Fortunately, you can decrease both hormones and reduce feelings of stress and anxiety by exercising.
- Blood flow is increased when you exercise. Because of the deep breathing, the blood that is flowing has more oxygen in it. During cellular respiration, cells combine oxygen with carbohydrate to release energy. So when you exercise you have more energy, which is often lacking in depression.When the blood is flowing faster you end up with increased blood flow everywhere including the prefrontal cortex of your brain. The prefrontal cortex helps you with things like decision making and regulating your behaviour. So when the brain has more energy to burn in the prefrontal cortex it facilitates your ability to regulate emotion and think things through better.
- You sleep better when you exercise. Sleep problems and depression often go hand in hand. People with depression typically have more REM sleep. REM sleep is active relative to the other stages of sleep. It is the portion of your sleep where dreaming and mental processing occurs. Due to the level of activity in the brain, REM sleep is less restful for the brain.Serotonin reduces REM sleep, anti-depressant medication can reduce REM sleep and research shows that exercise reduces REM sleep. This does not mean it reduces overall sleep just the active REM portion. Thus, it allows the brain more time in the restful stages of sleep so that you wake up feeling more clear, balanced, and focused.
While more intense exercise appears to make a bigger difference in your overall health, there is evidence that even getting out of bed earlier results in more overall movement in the day and therefore better quality sleep.
So again, if you’re not a real “exerciser” just find ways to increase the amount that you move during the day – park 2 blocks from your office, play with your kids, juggle a ball, walk with a friend instead of sitting down for coffee.
Exercise causes lots of changes in your brain and physiology that you may not notice. The next time that you are discouraged by the idea of exercising, simply recall the sometimes subtle ways that exercise makes you feel better. At the end of the day, feeling better is likely the reward you are looking for.
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(Most of the information in this post came from Chapter 5 of The Upward Spiral written by Alex Korb PhD.)