Mind Over Matter
by Juliette Woodmansee

Stress is inevitable! The coronavirus has impacted everyone in ways never before imagined.  I have never experienced anything like this.

We all know chronic stress is unhealthy.  For example, it can cause or exacerbate sleep problems, pain of any kind, autoimmune diseases, digestive problems, skin conditions such as eczema, heart disease, weight problems, depression, and anxiety.  But, did you know that it can also destroy the connections between cells in the brain?

It is important to note that while a lot of stress is bad, a little stress can be very good.  Physical fitness is one discipline that has always advocated introducing controlled stress to your system.  That is, after all, how we break down and build up our muscles.  Neurons in the brain benefit from a bit of stress in the same way our muscles do; the connections become stronger and our mental machinery works better. So, stress can spark brain growth, assuming that the stress is not chronic or too severe that the neurons don’t have time to recover.

In the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, the authors explain how exercise can become your best medicine. Aside from elevating endorphins, exercise regulates all of the neurotransmitters targeted by antidepressants.

For starters, exercise immediately elevates levels of norepinephrine in certain parts of the brain.  It wakes up the brain and gets it going and improves self-esteem, which is one component of depression.  Ideally to get the most mental benefit from your exercise program you need to spend some time pushing yourself and getting a bit outside of your comfort zone. By going beyond where you thought you could, straining and stressing and lingering in that pain for even just a minute or two, you can transcend into a rarefied state of mind in which you feel like you can conquer any challenge. If you’ve ever experienced the phenomenon of runner’s high, it probably came in response to a near-maximum effort on your part. The euphoric feeling is likely due to the mixture of extremely high levels of endorphins, ANP, endocannabinoids and neurotransmitters pumping through your system at this intensity. It’s the brain’s way of blocking everything else out so you can push through the pain and make the kill.

You should also build a routine.  Scientists have found that regular participation in aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and improve self-esteem. Even five minutes of aerobic exercise can stimulate anti-anxiety effects. The stability of a routine can have dramatic effects on your mood and motivation. Exercise immediately increases levels of dopamine, and if you stay on some sort of schedule the brain cells in your motivation center will sprout new
dopamine receptors, giving you new-found initiative.

Lastly, exercising at a moderate intensity serves another important function; it helps “take out the trash.”  Inside your brain cells, the higher activity level triggers the release of metabolic “cleanup crews,” producing proteins and enzymes that dispose of free radicals, broken bits of DNA, and inflammation factors that can cause the cells to rupture if left unchecked.  With that said — get exercising!

Stress is also associated with eating unhealthy foods. While eating junk food might offer temporary relief, research shows that eating junk food will negatively impact your mood and more. Stress will spike cortisol levels which will cause an increase in your appetite.  That can create a bigger problem when you reach for fried, salty or sweet foods that have little nutritional value and a lot of extra calories.  These foods increase inflammation and make blood sugar spike, which will eventually tank your mood and cause unhealthy results.  Factors such as oxidative stress, inflammation, and insulin resistance can trigger the brain changes associated with depression; a healthy diet can combat these mood-altering brain changes.

While the foods you choose have an impact on your mental well-being, the reverse is also true. A research article from Molecular Psychiatry supports the finding:  People who followed a strict Mediterranean diet, which included lots of fish, nuts, vegetables and fruits, had a 33% lower risk of being diagnosed with depression compared to those who ate a so-called western diet that was high in processed meat, trans fat and alcohol.

Bottom line:  Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet and exercising can help improve well-being and alleviate depression. So, check your pantry!  Get rid of the junk food so that you will not be tempted. And, when you are tempted to eat junk food or you are feeling down or stressed, go walk in nature or exercise.