Is Exercise the Best Drug for Depression?
- on July 14, 2010
Research has shown again and again that patients who regularly follow an exercise regimen see improvement in their depression -- improvements comparable to that of those treated with medication. Exercise not only relieves depressive symptoms but also appears to prevent them from recurring. And unlike medication, exercise has no negative side effects!
According to Times Magazine: "Molecular biologists and neurologists have begun to show that exercise may alter brain chemistry in much the same way that antidepressant drugs do -- regulating the key neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine." Studies on exercise as a treatment for depression are showing that there is a strong correlation between improved mood and aerobic capacity. So there's a growing acceptance that the mind-body connection is very real, and that maintaining good physical health can significantly lower your risk of suffering from depressive symptoms and even developing depression in the first place.
Regular, appropriately intense exercise is a must for most people suffering from depression. And unlike the other common treatment, antidepressants, it will not cause any negative side effects. However, since no one is going to be making tens of billions of dollars on encouraging you to exercise, it has not received the amount of funding for studies that antidepressant drugs have received. But, when the studies are performed, exercise continually comes out on top, demonstrating benefits above and beyond what antidepressant drugs can achieve.
Exercise for Depression: What does the Research Say?
Increasing evidence is showing that exercise leads to improvements in depression that rival or surpass those from antidepressant drugs.
One study conducted by Duke University in the late 1990's divided depressed patients into three treatment groups:
- Exercise only
- Exercise plus antidepressant
- Antidepressant drug only
After six weeks, the drug-only group was doing slightly better than the other two groups. However, after 10 months of follow-up, it was the exercise-only group that had the highest remission and stay-well rate.
The results really are impressive when you consider that exercise is virtually free and can provide you with numerous other health benefits too. For instance, one study found that 30-minute aerobic workouts done three to five times a week cut depressive symptoms by 50 percent in young adults.
In another study, which involved 80 adults aged 20 to 45 years who were diagnosed with mild to moderate depression, researchers looked at exercise alone to treat the condition and found:
- Those who exercised with low-intensity for three and five days a week showed a 30 percent reduction in symptoms
- Participants who did stretching flexibility exercises 15 to 20 minutes three days a week averaged a 29 percent decline
The results of this study are similar to that of other studies, which involved patients with mild or moderate depression being treated with antidepressants or cognitive therapy -- proving patients need not rely on drugs to treat depression.
The caution I would mention, however, is that most of the medical world is seriously confused about exercise and biased heavily toward aerobic exercises. I am convinced that you simply need some higher intensity exercises.
A Prescription for Exercise …
I've long said that you can use exercise like a drug to help heal numerous ailments, and now in some countries like the UK, antidepressants are no longer recommended as the first line of therapy for mild to moderate depression. Instead, doctors there write out a prescription to see an exercise counselor instead. As medical journalist and Pulitzer Prize nominee Robert Whitaker shared: "With that prescription… you now get either a reduced rate or a free rate at a gym for six months. Part of the exercise might be "green gyms"… gardening outside, nature walks, repairing trails, hiking trails. And they are finding that people really like this. People comply with it… People who have gone through this course and have been prescribed exercise, they say that rather than seeing themselves as a victim of depression, and helpless before it -- that they have this sort of biological problem they can't do anything about -- they say, "Aha, I can make a change, I can do something. It's in my willpower to do something that will help this problem lift." So it empowers the patient in a different way that drugs do not."
How Exercise Alters Your Brain for the Better
As Time magazine reported, neuroscience professor Philip Holmes and colleagues from the University of Georgia have found that exercise regulates serotonin and norepinephrine, two key neurotransmitters in your brain. And in just a few weeks, exercise "switches on" genes that increase your brain levels of galanin, a neurotransmitter that helps lessen your body's stress response. Time magazine stated:
"The result is that exercise primes the brain to show less stress in response to new stimuli … A little bit of mental strain and excess stimulation from exercise, in other words, may help us to keep day-to-day problems in perspective."
Four More Natural Tips to Beat Depression
This illness can be truly tragic on a person's life, so I urge you to seek out a knowledgeable natural health care practitioner who can help you on your healing journey. Along with exercise, below you will find the four cornerstones of healthy living that would be part of any successful treatment plan.
Address your stress -- Depression is a very serious condition, however it is not a "disease." Rather, it's a sign that your body and your life are out of balance. This is so important to remember, because as soon as you start to view depression as an "illness," you think you need to take a drug to fix it. In reality, all you need to do is return balance to your life, and one of the key ways to doing this is addressing stress. Meditation or yoga can help. Sometimes all you need to do is get outside for a brisk walk.
Eat a healthy diet -- Another factor that cannot be overlooked is your diet. Foods have an immense impact on your mood and ability to cope and be happy, and eating whole foods will best support your mental health. Avoiding sugar and grains will help normalize your insulin and leptin levels, which is another powerful tool in addressing depression.
Support optimal brain functioning with essential fats -- I also strongly recommend supplementing your diet with a high-quality, animal-based omega-3 fat, like fish oil or krill oil. This may be the single most important nutrient to battle depression.
Get plenty of sunshine – Making sure you're getting enough sunlight exposure to have healthy vitamin D levels is also a crucial factor in treating depression or keeping it at bay. One previous study found that people with the lowest levels of vitamin D were 11 times more prone to be depressed than those who had normal levels. Vitamin D deficiency is actually more the norm than the exception, and has previously been implicated in both psychiatric and neurological disorders.
This information has been brought to you from the newsletter of Dr. Joseph Mercola (Mercola.com)