If you have struggled with anxiety or depression, someone may have offered you the unwanted advice to go for a run or hit the gym. If you're like me, you may have reflexively snarled at them, but as it turns out, they might have been onto something.
I read this article recently about some ongoing research out of UC Davis that has used MRI imaging to determine that exercise helps the brain create two important neurotransmitters - glutamate and something called GABA. Neurotransmitters are responsible for carrying messages around the brain, helping us process emotions among other things. Low levels of these two neurotransmitters have been associated with some mental health conditions, like major depressive disorder.
Researchers at UC Davis used MRI imaging to study the levels of these two neurotransmitters before and after brief episodes (8 and 20 minutes) of high intensity exercise, and compared those findings with a control group consisting largely of couch potatoes. Specifically they looked at two regions of the brain, the visual cortex, which processes visual information (go figure), and the anterior cingulate cortex, which helps to regulate heart rate as well as some cognitive functions and emotions. Compared to the couch potatoes, the exercise group experienced significant increases of both neurotransmitters after exercising. And while those neurotransmitters faded over time, there was a modest increase in the gym goers baseline levels of those neurotransmitters, suggesting that exercise not only triggers the brain to create these two important chemicals, but that regular exercise can help sustain their levels.
These findings suggest that exercise-based treatments may offer viable alternatives or at least supplement traditional treatments for people suffering from some types of depressive or anxious disorders. This is especially good news for people under 25 that tend not to respond as well to the traditional SSRI-based therapies. Bottom line - it turns out that exercise might help sustain healthy brains as well as healthy bodies.
P.S. For you fellow nerds out there, this study also revealed how our brain uses energy during exercise. You would think that the brain is working hardest while playing chess or cramming for an organic chemistry test or figuring out how Nicolas Cage keeps getting work. However, the brain actually works hardest - meaning it consumes the most energy (calories) - when we exercise. Researchers have been largely stumped by what the brain is doing with all that energy while we exercise. As it turns out, a small but significant portion of that energy is used to create these two important neurotransmitters.