If you look for information on natural ways to treat low mood or depression, you are likely to find advice on the benefits of nutrition and supplementation with products such as vitamin D, high-EPA fish oils or herbs such as St John’s Wort. All these products can influence the production of mood chemicals or combat the side effects of stress – itself a key player in the initiation of the complex pathway that can lead to depressive symptoms. You may also read about the benefits of meditation and exercise, but how exactly can these help and, more importantly, do they help?
The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA-axis) is a highly complex system involving the hypothalamus (a part of the brain), the pituitary gland (also part of the brain) and the adrenal or suprarenal glands (at the top of each kidney). It is this system that regulates how we deal with stress through the release of the ‘fight or flight’ hormones cortisol and adrenaline. When we are chronically exposed to stressors, or fail to recover sufficiently from past stress, our bodies remain, to some extent, engaged in the fight/flight/fright mode of the sympathetic nervous system, which over-stimulates the HPA-axis. This can affect our mood as well as our digestive and immune systems.
Studies show that the HPA-axis is activated in different ways during chronic stress, depending on the type of stressor, the person’s response to the stressor and other factors. Chronic stress can result in impaired HPA-axis function, as implicated in mood disorders including depression. Meditation and exercise, in contrast, have a placatory effect on HPA-axis activity by increasing melatonin and serotonin production (mood-enhancing products) whilst decreasing cortisol production.
It is well accepted that engaging in regular moderate exercise can have a positive effect on mood and sleep patterns. Further, it seems that non-depressed individuals who take regular exercise are at a much lower risk of ever developing depression. 1 To stay healthy or to improve health, adults should do at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week, most beneficially spread out at 30 minutes over five days.
- Harvey SB, Hotopf M et al. Physical activity and common mental disorders. The British Journal of Psychiatry (2010) 197: 357-364
Did you know that Dr Nina Bailey is available to answer any of your health-related questions? Call 0845 1300 424 9-5pm Mon-Fri or send her an email.