Exercise beats depression


Q: I have heard that exercise is one of the best things to help combat depression, is this true?

A: Yes, absolutely. Exercise is one of the best treatments to help combat and prevent depression.

With estimates upward of 350 million people worldwide living with depression, finding ways to manage and alleviate it is critical.

Recent research indicates the anti-depressive effects of exercise come from a chemical produced in muscle.

Researchers have known for some time that mild, moderate and even high intensity exercise can help to alleviate the symptoms of depression, although the mechanism(s) by which this occurs had not been clear until recently.

It had long been hypothesized that exercise increases levels of hormones or chemicals that exert a positive effect on the brain. While exercise can increase endorphins, this is not the mechanism by which exercise exerts its anti-depressant affects.

It should come as no surprise that regular exercise training creates changes muscle.

We know that some types of exercise training can induce hypertrophy (size) and others can increase mitochondrial density for better energy production. We also know exercised muscle improves nutrient and glucose uptake, reducing risk of gaining unwanted weight and diabetes. However, exercise training also increases the concentration of certain proteins within the muscle that may act to protect the brain.

Researchers have found that the concentration of one specific protein, PGC-1alpah1, was remarkably higher in trained muscle compared to untrained muscle. Muscles that contained higher concentrations of PGC-1alpha1 also had a higher concentration of another enzyme called KAT.

KAT enzymes are responsible for converting kynurenine into kynurenic acid. Kynurenine is produced during times of stress and can cross the blood brain barrier. Too much of this stress-signal compound causes damage to the brain and depression. However, Kynurenic acid cannot cross the blood-brain barrier; therefore the conversion from kynurenine to kynurenic acid is an important one.

Stressed out... mice??

Researchers used two groups of mice; one specifically bred to have higher concentrations of PGC-1alpha1 and one that was not. Both groups were exposed to a stressful environment for a period of five weeks.

After five weeks of exposure to a stressful environment (one which authors refer to as ‘mild stress’) the normal mice had developed behaviors indicative of depression. The mice that had higher levels of PGC-1alpha1 did not.

It appears that biochemical changes that occur in the muscle during exercise can affect how vulnerable we might be to depression. The presence of the chemicals PGC-1alpha1 and KAT produced in exercised muscle appear to help to protect the brain from stress-induced damage.

The authors even compared well-trained muscle to being similar to organs such as the liver or kidneys in their ability to help remove substances that build up in the blood during times of stress.

What type of exercise might be best, we don't know. We do know that to get the build up of these powerful anti-depressive compounds, frequent exercise is needed. So no matter what type of exercise you enjoy, do it regularly!

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Exercise as a treatment for depression: A meta-analysis adjusting for publication bias. Schuch FB, Vancampfort D, Richards J, Rosenbaum S, Ward PB, Stubbs B. J Psychiatr Res. 2016 Jun;77:42-51.

Leandro Z. Agudelo, Teresa Femenía, Funda Orhan, et al. Skeletal Muscle PGC-1a1 Modulates Kynurenine Metabolism and Mediates Resilience to Stress-Induced Depression. Cell, September 2014

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