When it comes to reducing stress and losing weight exercise has been a key go-to route. In the United Kingdom, for example, General Practitioners, routinely prescribe exercise as a means of treating depression, amongst other conditions and finding a way to exercise more has always been at the front of every weight-reduction program. 

We live in times where the tools we have to study the living body and brain allow us to follow pathways and carry out studies which before we couldn’t. As a result we understand more of how our body and brain is connected and what effect one has on the other. 

We now know, for instance, that both food and exercise are energy regulators that affect how the body uses its available stores of energy and then asks for more. The way the body uses this supply of energy is our metabolism and over the last few years, thanks to ground-breaking research we’ve revised many of the myths surrounding it. 

Part of the metabolic process is autophagy. Autophagy is a self-repair mechanism that is activated so that the body can break down aged, damaged or malfunctioning cells and use their components for energy so it can build fresh, healthy, strong ones.[1] The regulation of this process, like so many others in the body, depends on having either more or less of some of the 42 million protein molecules[2] that each cell in the human body, holds. 

Protein synthesis is a process that involves the mRNA transcription of genes and the binding of proteins to specific sites of DNA. This is as complex as it sounds which is why a balanced environment is required for it to happen without errors. 

Stress Changes Everything

When we experience prolonged periods of stress the body produces a number of stress hormones that suppress and negatively affect the production of many other hormones in the body.[3] As a result memory, sleep and metabolism are affected. 

As the body loses its ability to correctly regulate its own energy consumption and its own energy needs a number of mental and physical disorders manifest themselves. These include mood swings, depression and obesity.[4] While the process is complex its function is not: stress creates neurochemical imbalances that upset the mind and body equilibrium. Without that equilibrium the full set of required proteins cannot be produced and without the full set of required proteins the mind and body dysfunction. 

A recently released study[5] charts the pathway that link mental stress to a physical response that affects, in turn, how the metabolic process works and how fat storage is handled by the body. The identification of a protein called FKBP51 that acts as a modulator of the body’s stress response and a switch that activates autophagy and the metabolic response creates a fresh understanding of the importance of managing stress correctly.

Translated into plain English it appears that when we face prolonged mental stress our body’s ability to handle its energy needs becomes compromised. The body then becomes really bad at handling food and converting it into energy and storing its excess into fat. And, it also becomes bad at accessing fat reserves that have been stored in the body. 

Exercise As A Brain Stress Regulator

Because exercise changes blood chemistry[6] and affects the microbiome[7] it mitigates the neurochemicals in the brain that create stress in the first place. This, alongside other neurochemical and structural effects, helps reduce the level of brain stress we experience[8]. When our brain experiences less stress everything that has to do with cognition, executive control and perception, becomes easier. 

When the stress we feel is reduced we are more likely to make better lifestyle decisions that affect our health. We are also less likely to seek mood-modifying substances like alcohol and sugar that help us feel good when the stress we experience makes us feel bad. 

Reset The Chemical Environment Of The Human Body

All this is scientific proof for something we intuitively understand. The human body functions at its best when it is able to maintain an equilibrium in its internal systems. The process is called homeostasis[9] and it means that its neurochemical composition and the function of its internal organs stay within an acceptable range of values. 

When, due to stress, this is no longer possible this stability is lost. The body then goes into a tailspin where different systems negatively affect each other. It then becomes difficult to recover. Physical activity resets the clock by forcing the body’s neurochemical and neurobiological systems to adjust to the physical pressure they experience which defuses the worst effects of stress. 

Long-term goals and sustained exercise, over time, produce results that affect the way the brain and body function and the way they age.   

  1. Rabinowitz JD, White E. Autophagy and metabolism. Science. 2010;330(6009):1344-1348. doi:10.1126/science.1193497
  2. University of Toronto. (2018, January 17). A cell holds 42 million protein molecules, scientists reveal. ScienceDaily.
  3. Ranabir S, Reetu K. Stress and hormones. Indian J Endocrinol Metab. 2011;15(1):18-22. doi:10.4103/2230-8210.77573
  4. Che Y, Wang ZP, Yuan Y, et al. Role of autophagy in a model of obesity: A long term high fat diet induces cardiac dysfunction. Mol Med Rep. 2018;18(3):3251-3261. doi:10.3892/mmr.2018.9301
  5. ALEXANDER S. HÄUSL, LEA M. BRIX. American Association for the Advancement of Science. The mediobasal hypothalamus (MBH) is the central region in the physiological response to metabolic stress. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.abi4797,2022/03/14.
  6. Basso JC, Suzuki WA. The Effects of Acute Exercise on Mood, Cognition, Neurophysiology, and Neurochemical Pathways: A Review. Brain Plast. 2017;2(2):127-152. Published 2017 Mar 28. doi:10.3233/BPL-160040
  7. Monda V, Villano I, Messina A, et al. Exercise Modifies the Gut Microbiota with Positive Health Effects. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2017;2017:3831972. doi:10.1155/2017/3831972
  8. Physical Exercise Prevents Stress-Induced Activation of Granule Neurons and Enhances Local Inhibitory Mechanisms in the Dentate Gyrus. Timothy J. Schoenfeld, Pedro Rada, Pedro R. Pieruzzini, Brian Hsueh, Elizabeth Gould. Journal of Neuroscience 1 May 2013, 33 (18) 7770-7777; DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5352-12.2013
  9. Billman GE. Homeostasis: The Underappreciated and Far Too Often Ignored Central Organizing Principle of Physiology. Front Physiol. 2020;11:200. Published 2020 Mar 10. doi:10.3389/fphys.2020.00200

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