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The Relationship Between Exercise and Serotonin

Exercise is the New "Wonder Drug"!!

Exercise is often touted as the new "wonder drug" ~ without all the negative side effects. Exercise is associated with producing sensations and emotional states: happiness, calm, and well-being are common side effects. Exercise is used as adjunctive to traditional drug therapy for individuals diagnosed with a range of disorders, including depression and chronic pain. It is prescribed as part of a healthy lifestyle regimen to millions of Americans. Exercise is a fundamental and integral part of our society; its impact is far reaching. According to multiple scientific studies, exercise has the potential to contribute significantly to brain functioning; a tool in the maintenance and balance of serotonin.

Neuroscientists and other medical researchers have known for quite some time that serotonin plays a key component in understanding a variety of mental health issues. Serotonin is correlated with mental illnesses such as major depressive disorder, anxiety and ADHD. The topic has spawned several decades of pharmaceutical research (spearheaded in the 1990's), premised on the idea that increased levels of serotonin can alleviate the symptoms of depression. Stephen Stahl reports in his publication, Essentials of Psychopharmacology, the results of early research into the effects of serotonin and other neurotransmitters and that such clinical studies date back to the 1960s.

The Brain and Serotonin

The brain needs serotonin and other powerful chemicals, classified as neurotransmitters, to transmit neural messages. These chemicals communicate among various neurons across an expansive neural network composed of billions of neurons and which directly contribute to a person's mood and behavior. Serotonin, one of over 100 neurotransmitters identified, binds to its respective receptor sites. The brain has specialized neurons just for the production and transportation of serotonin, and serotonin plays a key role, not just in the regulation of mood and behavior, but obesity.

The big S contributes significantly in the reduction of obesity and is fundamental to weight loss among obese patients.

Interestingly, mental health issues such as obsessive compulsive disorder, various personality disorders, and disorders of attention and mood (e.g., depression), also correlate with decreased levels of serotonin and its respective receptors. According to Stahl, serotonin has been strongly linked to depression and anxiety.

Exercise and Serotonin

Terry McMorris, at the Health Sciences Research Center, University of Chichester, UK, reports in his article, “The effects of negative life stress, 5-httlpr polymophisms, social support and physical activity on depressive symptoms,” that increased levels of exercise, especially among women, were directly correlated to an increased presence of the serotonin transporter, 5-HTTLPR. McMorris found that when compared to study participants who did not exercise, those who exercised reported significantly decreased levels of depression.

In his 2010 dissertation titled, The Efficacy of Exercise in Reducing Depressive Symptoms, University of Arizona doctoral student Chad Rethorst reported promising results. Human participants ranged in ages 18 to 23; results showed that the serotonin receptor, 5-HTTLPR, is directly correlated with increased levels of exercise. Mood was also elevated when the participants in the exercise group were compared to participants prescribed selective serotonin re-uptake Inhibitors, a type of antidepressant.

Noteworthy, a 2008 study by Judith Payne, PhD, RN, Joanne Held, RN, Josh Thorpe, PhD, and Heather Shaw MD, published in Fatigue and titled “Effect of Exercise on Biomarkers,” focused on women diagnosed with breast cancer and having undergone hormone treatment. Prior to this study, many of the women reported a variety of problems including sleep disturbances, fatigue, and depressive symptoms. Payne and colleagues found a direct and positive correlation between walking and regulation in serotonin levels. Results of this study show that light exercise helped to alleviate such symptoms; an important implication in the management and treatment planning of patients diagnosed with cancer.

Future Implications

As always, more research is necessary; however, there appears to be some valid and reliable scientific data supporting the value of exercise in regulating mood and controlling weight as well as enhancing quality of life and mitigating the effects of harmful lifestyle factors through the modulation of serotonin. This information may be useful to patients and clinicians alike in providing more comprehensive and non invasive treatment planning.

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