Stress is a part of all of our lives. From work, to family, to waiting in rush hour traffic, stress comes at us from all directions and in many shapes and sizes. Stress and other physical and mental health problems have been linked to increases in depression, which is a globally recognized public health problem.
To understand how stress leads to depression, it’s important to look at how the brain communicates with the rest of the body. Chemicals in the brain, known as neurotransmitters, send messages to help regulate brain activity, emotions, memory and health. The brain has receptors that help decode these messages so the body can act on them. One neurotransmitter, serotonin, has been linked to feelings of happiness and general well-being. Decreases in the level of serotonin and its receptors have been associated with feelings of sadness, fatigue and depression.
Luckily, there is a powerful tool that we can use to pump up serotonin levels and increase health and happiness: exercise. It is well known that exercise improves heart health and can leave a person feeling invigorated after a workout. But can it also decrease depression and improve mental health? Researchers say yes.
A recent mouse study in the International Neurology Journal supports exercise as an important part in the treatment of stress-related depression. The study demonstrated that stress decreased serotonin levels and quantities of the serotonin receptor. Serotonin and serotonin receptor levels could be elevated toward normal when the subjects participated in low-intensity exercise. The subjects also demonstrated anti-depressive behaviors after exercise, despite being exposed to stress.
So the next time you need to lift your spirits, get moving. Your body and your brain will be glad you did. For more information on depression and when to see a doctor, visit the Anxiety and Depression Association of America website.
Jessica C. Taylor, PhD, is an assistant professor of physiology in the College of Osteopathic Medicine at William Carey University in Hattiesburg, Miss.