There is no doubt that mental health is becoming a major concern for individuals, families, health professionals and the community at large. Researchers and the medical profession are working hard to better understand these conditions in the hope of finding ways to prevent and treat them.
While genetics plays a part in who suffers from these conditions, it is widely accepted that lifestyle plays a significant role in increasing or decreasing the severity of these conditions.
For many people exercise helps to manage their mental health however how it helps still not fully understood.
A recent study has shed more light on the mechanisms by which exercise helps to protect people from stress-induced depression.
In this study, published in the journal Cell, researchers at Karolinska Institute in Sweden showed that exercise in mice induces changes in muscle that can clear the blood of a substance that accumulates during stress and is harmful to the brain.
The researchers state that their findings provide an explanation for the protective biochemical changes induced by physical exercise that prevent the brain from being damaged during stress.
It is known that a protein PGC-1 1 (pronounced PGC-1alpha1) increases in skeletal muscle with exercise. In this study researchers used a genetically modified mouse with high levels of PGC-1?1 in skeletal muscle that shows many characteristics of well-trained muscles.
These mice, and normal control mice, were exposed to a stressful environment, such as loud noises, flashing lights and disrupted sleep patterns (the equivalent of night shifts) at irregular intervals.
After five weeks of mild stress, normal mice had developed depressive behaviour, whereas the genetically modified mice (with well-trained muscle characteristics) had no symptoms of depression.
The researchers initially thought that the trained muscle would produce a substance that would protect the brain. What they actually found was that well-trained muscle produces an enzyme that purges the body of harmful substances associated with depression.
For the wanna-be biochemists, the researchers discovered that mice with higher levels of PGC-1?1 in muscle also had higher levels of enzymes called KAT. KATs convert a substance formed during stress (kynurenine) into kynurenic acid, a substance that is not able to pass from the blood to the brain.
The exact function of kynurenine is not known, but high levels of kynurenine can apparently be measured in patients with mental illness.
In this study, the researchers demonstrated that when normal mice were given kynurenine, they displayed depressive behaviour, while mice with increased levels of PGC-1?1 in muscle were not affected. In fact, these animals never show elevated kynurenine levels in their blood since the KAT enzymes in their well-trained muscles quickly convert it to kynurenic acid, resulting in a protective mechanism.
This study helps reinforce that depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions are physical illnesses where the bodys chemistry is changed.
Exercise plays a major role in balancing the bodys chemistry and as this study demonstrates, is an essential part of optimising mental health.
If you suffer from mental health challenges, and even if you dont, the right exercise can help to keep your brain free of the damaging substances that accumulate with stress.