Though hope molecules are often mistaken for dopamine or serotonin, they’re actually myokines, a type of protein secreted by muscles. While the science behind hope molecules can go in-depth, you don’t have to have a degree in microbiology or neuroscience to understand how it works – or to reap the benefits.
The rate of prescribed selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), or antidepressants, is at an all-time high – yet more than ever before, people are grappling with mental health problems and struggling to find effective solutions. Perhaps the more we understand how physical activity mitigates these effects, the better informed we become about what will actually work for our bodies, both physically and mentally.
Poor Mental Health Affects Everything
A diagnosis like depression is often characterized by two prominent symptoms: a lack of interest in things you once found enjoyable, and feeling fatigued or exhausted, to the extent that it affects your mood. While a mental health issue like depression or anxiety originates in the brain, its effects often manifest physically.
It’s possible that you’ve never received a clinical diagnosis of depression or anxiety, but you might find yourself suffering from symptoms that seem to have no apparent cause. Depression affects your blood pressure and immune system, as well as your weight and appetite and your sleep cycles. If you’re suffering from depression, you may find yourself inexplicably losing or gaining weight, and sleeping too much or not sleeping at all.
Our body could be bearing the brunt of our poor mental health.
We know at this point that mental health affects both body and mind, and in addition to a range of emotions and mood swings, our body could be bearing the brunt of our poor mental health. Eventually, this kind of debilitation creeps into our daily life, specifically in our ability to do tasks or basic things, or make decisions. After receiving a diagnosis or going to a medical professional for help, it’s likely more often than not that they’ll prescribe or recommend an SSRI.
What’s intriguing about SSRIs is how untouchable they’ve become in recent memory. Over time and even within the last decade, our culture has become more comfortable with discussing mental health openly and honestly instead of encouraging those who are suffering to be silent. While this has made us more acclimated to acknowledging the importance of mental health, it has simultaneously made certain topics sacrosanct – like SSRIs – and enabled TikTok psychologists and so-called “experts” to dish out advice and diagnoses with no self-awareness or critical thinking behind them.
But on a more practical note, seeing an antidepressant as the solution to every individual’s mental health issues just isn’t practical. As many know, it’s disheartening to hope that one prescription will change your life, without having a real grasp of its potential side effects – side effects that include weight gain, chronic headaches, insomnia, and suicidal ideation, to name a few. It’s crucial to remember that antidepressants are a man-made innovation and with that comes a margin of error. With more individuals being prescribed SSRIs but with mental health continuing to decline, that margin shouldn’t inspire overwhelming confidence in their efficacy.
Activating Hope Molecules
Treating a mental health condition isn’t necessarily a destination, but a journey. Therapy and counseling could be our preferred method of treatment, or we could rely on traditional medication or naturopathic remedies. Medication might be the go-to recommendation of some medical professionals, but based on the science of hope molecules, exercise should be one as well.
How our brain connects to our body through exercise is referred to as “muscle brain cross-talk” by scientists. We know that exercising releases floods of endorphins, or euphoric, feel-good peptides, but hope molecules are different. Hope molecules, or more specifically myokines, are secreted into our bloodstream when muscles are contracted. From the bloodstream, they go to the brain where they act as “antidepressants.”
The discovery of hope molecules means a few things – for one, our muscles can act like an endocrine system, secreting hormones into our bloodstream to send signals to our body’s major organs, like the brain. Secondly, our body has the capability to naturally produce molecules with antidepressant properties without the added assistance of SSRIs. Myokines are considered an “antidepressant” because they make the brain more resilient to both trauma and stress.
The largest study to date (in actuality, a compilation of over 40 studies) on hope molecules examined over 2,200 participants over the age of 18 who had all been diagnosed with major depressive disorder or depressive symptoms. A group of participants who exercised was compared against a non-exercise control group, which led the authors to conclude that the exercise group received “moderate to large” amelioration of their depressive symptoms. The study infers that “exercise is efficacious in treating depression and depressive symptoms and should be offered as an evidence-based treatment option focusing on supervised and group exercise with moderate intensity and aerobic exercise regimes.” Ph.D. Kelly McGonigal surmises that “every time we move our muscles, we are giving ourselves an intravenous dose of hope.”
If muscle contraction is what it takes to activate hope molecules, you might be picturing a bodybuilder doing bicep curls in one of those gyms that looks like a warehouse. But psychologists say any muscle contraction can trigger this response, and that includes activities like jogging, walking, hiking, yoga, and, yes, lifting weights.
The Power of Hope
What’s curious about hope molecules is the word “hope.” How can an abstract concept like hope be present within our bodies and be activated through physical activity? Isn’t being hopeful something we have to choose, making it increasingly more difficult to do so when we’re faced with depression?
Every time we move our muscles, we are giving ourselves an intravenous dose of hope.
Just as we know that exercise boosts our mood and mental health, we know that there’s actually a science behind hope. Knowing that there is a conclusion to pain and stress gives us much-needed perspective during difficult times, making us strong and resilient. A condition like depression could be viewed as a complete absence of hope, which is why it acts as the antidote to such an issue. Those of us who have dealt with depression know that despair and hopelessness are often the most prevalent emotions dictating our mood and behavior. If depression is the absence of hope, a healthy and happy mental state is greatly influenced by an influx of hope.
Hope has been proven to increase our self-esteem and our coping abilities, both of which are affected by depression. But hope and hope molecules, like a mental health journey, aren’t something that can be acquired overnight or through one day of working out. Hope is something we have to pursue, similar to a regimen of physical exercise. It can be frustrating to learn that this isn’t something that will be solved quickly, but something that will take time. But the benefits are overwhelming – not only are we practicing and acquiring more hope, but we’re also becoming physically fit through activating our hope molecules and bettering our mental health.
It’s pretty incredible that our bodies have the capability to both experience mental illness and improve those issues. Activating hope molecules is as easy as flexing your arm. Not only will you grow strength and resilience in your body, but your mind will increase its optimism and positivity through the power of hope. As excruciating as it can be to get out of bed when you’re experiencing depression, physical activity will benefit both body and mind, and when both are healthier, both are happier.
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