“Go for a run, you’ll feel better.”
If you’ve ever been sad, you’ll have heard this. If you’ve been depressed, you’ll have heard it ad nauseum.
What depressed person has the energy, let alone the motivation, to go for a run? Realise that “going for a run” is a multiplex of tasks. First, you must get out of bed. Then, you must get dressed. You must put on shoes. You must (preferably) eat something. You must unlock the door. You must step into the sun. You may have to greet the neighbour. You must put one foot in front of the other. Then you must do it faster, and remember to breathe.
Some days the only thing a depressed person can do is get out of bed. Some days, that will be there achievement.
I’m a runner (sort of). I’ve had the elusive runner’s high. But I’ve always known that running does not and cannot cure my depression. Until recently, I could never substantiate it.
Earlier the year, I attended an Essential Pain Management course, by Professor Romy Parker of UCT*. A large part of the course looks at chronic pain, and naturally there were a lot of parallels with major depression – one such parallel being the endogenous opioid system.
Endogenous opioids are those little chemicals that make you feel good. Endorphins – the ones you get from chocolate and (good) sex? Those are endogenous opioids. The runner’s high involves endogenous opioids (it’s probably a bit more complicated than just that).
As any student of biology will know, for any enzyme/peptide to have an effect on the human body, it must have a receptor. Serotonin has receptors, and that is why we have SSRIs. So do norepinephrine and dopamine. And so do endogenous opioids. If the receptors become damaged, or desensitised, or up- or down-regulated, the effect of that peptide changes. And that is when we get pathology, like depression.
Many people know the monoamine theory of major depression (and much of mental illness, actually). Serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine are all monoamines; and the idea is that changes in the levels of these peptides, be it by production or absorption, will bring about changes in mood.
What is less well-known is that many other compounds are involved in the regulation of mood. We know it, but we don’t know it. We talk about endorphins, but we don’t recognise that we are essentially referring to endogenous opioids, and that these therefore play a role.
Much recent research illustrates that opioid receptors in the brains of those with major depression are somehow dysfunctional, compared to the brains of neurotypical individuals. In other words: people with depression (and chronic pain, and some other illnesses) do not get the same effect from endogenous opioids as do healthy people.
So, when you drag your depressed friend out of the door and make them run, you are not helping. They won’t feel better. They started the day off depressed, and after their run they will be out of breath, sweaty, in pain, and still depressed.
There are other ways to help, but this is not one of them.
For more information:
- Dysregulation of endogenous opioid emotion regulation circuitry in major depression in women; Kennedy, Koepe, Young et al.
- Major Depressive Disorder: Looking Beyond Monoamines (pdf); Gus Alva
- Endogenous opioids: The downsides of opposing stress; Valentino, Van Bockstaele
* I highly recommend attending this course if you find one near you. Check out the EPM SA website.