Exercise & Mood Part II — New Science

The human brain is a complex marvel. There are more than 15 times the number of cells in your brain as there are people on this planet. Every moment of your life countless electro-chemical messages are being sent in your brain (see image) to regulate everything from your hands picking up a coffee to your feet walking out the door; and from your lungs unconsciously drawing in the crisp morning air to your hopes and worries about the coming day.

When patients or acquaintances used to ask me, “What causes mental illness?” I used to give a standard answer that many doctors give today, “There is a chemical imbalance in your brain and that’s what we need to correct with medication.” But as I learned more about the secrets of the brain and realized how little, in fact, we know I changed my answer. “I’m not sure what causes mental illness. It is probably a unique interaction between your genetics, brain chemicals, life experience and other factors.”

Although this second answer sounds less certain and may seem like it is not instilling hope, I believe that being honest about the complexity of the problem leads to a better acceptance of the need for a variety of treatments. This diversity often means needing an individually-tailored combination of more than one medication rather than the myth (as the research now shows) that using less medications is always better. But it also means that medications alone are NOT enough. Talk-therapy is also essential even if in the simplest of supportive listening techniques. But even using both medications and talk-therapy is NOT enough. Other health-promoting treatments are needed and in the field of mental health, physical exercise is often overlooked or given passing praise.

The truth is that exercise CHANGES the brain. It causes surges of brain chemicals linked to the treatment of depression and other mental illnesses. Brain messengers like noradrenaline, serotonin and dopamine. It promotes a sense of well-being and relaxation through stimulating cannabinoid-like brain receptors. That’s right for those of you who are re-reading that last sentence this is the brain’s “natural cannabis” without the ill effects of marijuana! (of course it is a little more complicated than that but that’s the short version). If you have heard of the ‘runner’s high’ it may be linked to this cannabis-like signalling system. Exercise also strengths the body’s anti-oxidant and anti-inflammation system. This is important because new research is linking several mental illnesses to inflammation and oxidative stress. Finally exercise can promote the health of brain cells so that they can live longer, stay healthier and regenerate. Of course beyond the biological effects physical exercise is a form of activation behaviourally and socially- both important in treatment.

So I hope you are now thinking, “I’m convinced tell me what to do!” I will discuss the dosing, timing and type of exercise in the next post.

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Dr. Mohammad Alsuwaidan is a specialist psychiatrist at Mubarak Al-Kabeer Hospital in Kuwait and an Assisstant Professor of Psychiatry at both Kuwait University and the University of Toronto. He has trained at the University of Toronto, Stanford University and Johns Hopkins University. He is a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Canada and a Diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. More information at www.AlsuwaidanClinic.com