Why is exercise making me depressed?

You try asking medical professionals why exercise is making you depressed! All I got was puzzlement and shaking of heads. “Exercise is supposed to help depression” was the standard response.

I’m looking for someone to draw a line that shows how research that suggests a link between gut health and mental well-being relates to research on the impact of exercise on gut health.

Do people who exercise after a bout of diarrhea find themselves unusually emotional? Is it only a problem for people on limited diets?

Given all that’s been written about the tragedy of the obesity epidemic, clearing out these obstacles to regular exercise seems very important. It’s evident from my internet searches that I’m not the only one for whom exercise caused depression.

Before we proceed, I must acknowledge that there are many types of anxiety and depression. This blog post is only recording my personal experience and my attempts to find a solution that works for me.

How I discovered exercise was making me depressed

I found myself in a situation where I was able to compare, on the one hand, my life with exercise and, on the other, 10 months in 2012 when I didn’t exercise.  Is what I noticed so unusual?

The non-exercise period started early in 2012 when I hurt my foot. Walking was my exercise of choice, and I couldn’t be bothered to find an alternative. My foot would get better and I start again then. I didn’t bother to exercise at all.

Towards the end of 2012, I realised it had been a pretty good year with none of the usual crying. I was even looking forward to Christmas. This surprised me; Looking Forward to Christmas.

Then, in 2013, I started exercising again. Things were getting a bit odd, emotionally, but the crash came after my first tennis lesson. There were only three of us on the court, which meant very little resting over the course of the hour. I was bright pink from exertion. 24 hours later and I couldn’t believe how crappy I felt. The crying was back.

At this point in my story, I should explain what I mean by “crying”. It might be described by some as excessive. I only thought of it as disruptively annoying. I thought of myself as just a very sad person who’d been to too many funerals and was too introverted to cope as well as others with a predominantly extroverted world of overt and covert bullies.

But it’s really not OK to burst into tears when the theme from Star Wars comes on the radio while I’m driving at 80kph across a bridge on the way to work. And it really doesn’t explain the years of darker days.

Finding a solution

Exploring involves finding some high ground from which to survey the landscape, work out where you’ve been and where you’re headed. Exploring is also about mapping the detail.

In my story so far, I’ve highlighted the big pattern … how the lack of exercise made 2012 a stand out year. The next step was to canvas the details. That’s difficult if you have no idea what you’re looking for.

Canvasing the details involves finding information. Asking people. Searching the internet using various combinations of words. Unfortunately, I wasn’t turning up anything useful. The standard internet responses of hormonal imbalance, blood sugar and cortisol didn’t ring true. The blood tests agreed that they weren’t the problem. Plus my liver’s fine.

The potentially useful information turned up on a radio show called All In The Mind and that Michael Mosley documentary on the gut.

In the briefest of summaries, researchers are finding interesting links between our gut and our brain. There’s increasing belief (and accompanying research) that the conversation could be two-way with critical information that may affect mood travelling from our digestive system to our brain.

My decision

If there is a two-way conversation between my belly and brain, I want my belly to engage in that conversation in the most healthy manner possible. Time to improve the quality of my gut flora.

Time to engage with the world of probiotics!

I’ve introduced two new items to my diet. Yakult is a small probiotic drink that I down in two gulps each morning. That was easy.

Harder was finding yoghurt that I would eat everyday. Most of the big brands are too sweet, and at the other end of the scale are the tart ones. A bit of trial and error, and I found two that suit.

There was one other change. When I added the yoghurt, I dropped the ice cream. There wasn’t room for both.

What happened

I didn’t expect change to be immediate. It takes time for gut bacteria to grow and colonise. I kept exercising. There were still some tears during the first week. By the second week, I was feeling so much better. Given how much better I now feel, that last statement is actually an understatement.

A couple of points to note. First, this is not about eliminating sadness. It is an important human emotion that we cannot do without. Second, this is not about eliminating the usual cycle of hormone-related female moods. They are still there, but possibly not as extreme?

Progress reports

Four weeks

It’s early days – only four weeks. There may be other variables I haven’t noticed.  I cannot overlook the possibility of placebo.  I shall monitor the situation, but I’m hoping that I’ve worked out how to prevent exercise making me depressed.

Eight weeks

It’s now 5 August 2013 – that’s a little over 8 weeks. Only one down day after a bout of diarrhea .

But there have been other impacts … the worst gas and loose bowel movements I’ve ever experienced after I added muesli to the yoghurt. I can’t attribute it to anything else I’ve been eating. As carbohydrate is a prebiotic, that is, food for the colonisers, it seems I overdid it.

So, the next step is to work out a balanced intake for the amount of exercise I’m doing, while keeping an eye on the many possible variables that could be impacting the results

Six months

The balance was easy enough to find. I stopped the muesli yoghurt combo, and eventually the Yakult drink. My gastro system settled down. Then, when I started to feel teary again, I popped a probiotic supplement in a tablet form. I pop a probiotic everytime I feel teary. It’s working.


2nd February 2014 … It’s taken nearly two weeks to recover from a bad run of the gastro. I suspect the source was food affected by this heatwave. The gastro itself only lasted 6 or so hours (thanks to the Imodium), but the emotional plummet was more than a couple of supplement tablets could handle. So, for the last week I’ve been back on the Yakult drink and yoghurt, as well as the tablets. Finally, on Friday, no more crying and none since.

The next installment

Having worked out a solution, there was no need to explore further. But I did. The following post is the next installment in this exploration:

Important to note

The following are important statements to include in any blog post about mental health:

  • If you are having suicidal thoughts, like some I’ve read on the internet who were looking for answers to this type of question, you must talk to your nearest health professional immediately.  Check out beyondblue.
  • If you are already taking prescribed medications for depression, do not swap them for probiotics.  Abruptly stopping medications can cause more harm than staying on them. There are many types of anxiety and depression that I’ve never experienced. Things that seem to be helping may not work for everyone.

BBC News Health – “The second brain in our stomachs” – Michael Mosley – 11 July 2012 – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-18779997

Radio National – “All In The Mind: Linking body and mind” – broadcast 19 May 2013 – http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/allinthemind/new-document/4689134

David Geffen School of Medicine, ULCA – “Consumption of fermented milk product with probiotic modulates brain activity” – published in Gastroenterology, Vol 144, No 7, June 2013 – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23474283

Beyond Blue – http://www.beyondblue.org.au/

National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, US Department of Health and Human Services – “Oral probiotics – an introduction” – NCCAM Pub No: D345 – last updated December 2012 – http://nccam.nih.gov/health/probiotics/introduction.htm

Better Health Channel, Victorian Department of Health – “Lactose intolerance” – last updated 9 October 2013 – http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Lactose_intolerance


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