Why do I cry when I exercise?

The colour supplement in today’s Sunday paper proclaimed, “The joy of crying”. Apparently, the author thinks “there’s something great about having a good old-fashioned sob”.  I don’t agree.

Last year, I worked out how to stop the incessant crying that seemed to be an entrenched result of too many funerals and too many unpleasant people.

With solution in hand, I didn’t need to dig any further. But I’m a curious girl. Perhaps there’s an even better solution out there, somewhere? And growing up with Professor Julius Sumner Miller on the TV who continually asked “Why is it so?”, I want to know why it is so.

Well, I did find another possible solution, but before I get to that, let me return to the information that I found last year that appear to be ringing true in my life:

  • The health of the gut biome has an impact upon mental wellbeing.
  • Exercise and other stressors have a negative impact on mental wellbeing.
  • Probiotic foods counter the negative impacts of exercise on mental wellbeing.

These findings are, in themselves, controversial to some. I acknowledge that there are pieces of the puzzle still missing. Why doesn’t everyone who exercises have the same problem? And how does exercise have a negative effect on gut health?

Ignoring the word “exercise” in my searches, because including it proved unfruitful, I switched my attention to the world of stress and its impact on our physical body. Cortisol kept coming up in the search results.

I had previously dismissed cortisol’s involvement in my case as my pathology test was fine. After thinking on it, I realised that the cortisol test was looking for an overall elevation, not periodic spikes triggered by particular events. Any damage that might be done would likely be done during those spikes and not necessarily at 8 o’clock in the morning on the day of the blood test.

What damage does cortisol do?

According to a 2011 article in the journal Dose-Response, thankfully deciphered by Dartmouth Medicine in its Spring 2012 issue, cortisol’s role varies depending on the context.

“At normal levels, cortisol neither promotes nor suppresses inflammation. When it is at a high level during an acute, stressful event—as when facing a snarling dog—cortisol suppresses inflammation. But several hours after the jump in level, it can promote immune responses.”

This led me to ask, “What is an immune response?” Medline Plus advises that:

“The immune system protects the body from possibly harmful substances by recognizing and responding to antigens. Antigens are substances (usually proteins) on the surface of cells, viruses, fungi, or bacteria.”

“Immune system disorders occur when the immune response is inappropriate, excessive, or lacking.”

To boil all that down to something I can digest (pun intended), anything that encourages the body to produce extra cortisol can promote an immune response. If the immune system is out of kilter, a bit wonky, or even shonky, then the body may mistake helpful bacteria as harmful and take it out.

This might explain why only some people have a negative response to exercise … only some people have an immune system that doesn’t work like it should.

Does this mean there’s a relationship of some sort between the rise in immune disorders and the rise in obesity?

It’s probably not that straight-forward, if a 2006 study into the relationship between caffeine and cortisol is correct. This study looked at cortisol responses to mental stress, exercise and meals following caffeine intake in men and women. There were a number of results but the one that interested me was that “Exercise alone did not increase cortisol, but caffeine taken before exercise elevated cortisol in both men and women.”

This leaves me with more questions for further exploration and experimentation. If I were to give up caffeine, would there still be a negative immune response to exercise or only to exercise that could be described as stressful, ie over doing it? Or does my pre-disposition to allergies indicate a dodgy immune system that will deplete healthy gut bacteria regardless of how much caffeine I consume or how stressful the exercise?

Or is it all about timing? Would heart-starting exercise first thing in the morning, before heart-starting caffeine, be a useful compromise. Giving up caffeine is not an option at the moment. This brain needs to keep up with everything the day, and life more broadly, throws at it.

In the meantime, I’ll keep eating yoghurt reguarly and taking the occasional probiotic supplement whenever I start to feel a little teary.

Related posts

♦  Why is exercise making me depressed?

♦  How much exercise per week; or how to stop my eyelids turning yellow?


Yeager MP, Pioli PA, Guyre PM, 2011, “Cortisol exerts bi-phasic regulation of inflammation in humans”, Dose-Response, Vol 9 Issue 3, pp332-47.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22013396

Durgin J, 2012, “Inflammatory findings about cortisol”, Dartmouth Medicine, Geisel School of Medicine, Dartmouth, Spring 2012, p5. http://dartmed.dartmouth.edu/spring12/html/disc_cortisol/

Medline Plus, “Immune response”, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.  http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000821.htm

Lovallo WR, Farag NH, Vincent AS, Thomas TL, and Wilson MF, 2006, “Cortisol responses to mental stress, exercise, and meals following caffeine intake in men and women”, Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behaviour, Vol 83, Issue 3, pp441-447.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2249754/



2 responses to “Why do I cry when I exercise?”

  1.  Avatar

    Cherrie, this is a very interesting question. Like you, I couldn’t imagine going without my morning coffee. I have thought about it, though. I’m glad I don’t get teary with exercise and I was amazed at the research you uncovered about the gut/brain relationship.


    1. Cherrie Zell Avatar

      There are a lot of variables involved, that’s for sure. The evidence assembled for the recent changes in Australia’s physical activity guidelines don’t include any studies where 100% of the participants experienced less anxiety or depression. No argument from me that exercise will be beneficial for some. I just wish the research community would put more effort into connecting up the dots for those who struggle. It’s not all about will power.

      Thanks for your feedback.


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