By Anne Gagliano
We Americans are stressed out. In the past 20 years of mass media, obesity has doubled in our country. The constant flood of heartbreaking, tragic news causes the amygdala (the fight or flight center of the brain) to fire at all times, producing more stress hormones (such as cortisol) than our body needs. The amygdala tells the body to prepare for action, but the action is seldom required. We use less than 38 percent of the energy that our ancestors did to survive. The result? No outlet for all that stress.
Firefighters tend to expel more energy than the average citizen, but they experience far more stress, as they are on the frontlines of tragedy, witnessing firsthand what the rest of us only experience secondhand. The bottom line? We all need to burn off that excess cortisol and adrenaline or suffer the consequences. Exercise is the key; some is good, more is better. Three 30-minute workouts a week will reap incredible benefits; six 45- to 60-minute workouts a week, even more so. For the firefighter couple, exercise is especially important to you for the following reasons:
Exercise counters depression and anxiety. Depression is serious business, as it can lead to health issues and even suicide. The World Health Organization lists depression as the leading cause of disability in the United States ahead of coronary heart disease, any cancer, and AIDS. About 17 percent of American adults experience depression at some point in their lives. And every 17 minutes, someone in our country commits suicide. Tragically, we are seeing more and more firefighter suicides.
Chronic stress is the leading cause of depression, and firefighting is the most stressful profession in the nation. The stress response triggers massive amounts of cortisol, which, if unused, can damage the brain and affect how a person thinks and feels. Brain-derived neuro-trophic factor (BDNF) protects neurons against cortisol damage in areas of the brain that control mood, such as the hippocampus. Cortisol over time decreases levels of BDNF; autopsies on suicide brains revealed significantly lower levels of BDNF.
Cortisol can also cause an imbalance of the three “feel-good” neurotransmitters: dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. A deficit of any one of these can lead to depression.
Hormones have a powerful influence on mood as well. Women are two to four times more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety than men because of massive hormonal fluctuations. After puberty, a man’s hormones fluctuate two percent a day, for life. On average, a woman’s hormones fluctuate 25 percent a day, and even more so during pregnancy, postpartum, and menopause.
Too much stress causes anxiety as well, the evil twin of depression. Firefighters can be both depressed and anxious at the same time. Anxiety is fear—fear is the memory of danger. If unchecked, the fight or flight response can lead to being trapped in the memories of fear, tricking the body into believing the danger has not passed. Cortisol damages the pre-frontal cortex (PFC), which controls the amygdala; if the amygdala is not controlled, hyperarousal results and can snowball. Sufferers of PTSD show a smaller than average PFC.
Anti-anxiety and anti-depressive drugs have a powerful allure–the quick fix, the magic pill. Sometimes these medications have amazing, even life-saving results. But these drugs have problems; they don’t work for everyone, they don’t work long-term, and all of them have formidable side effects. These include dry mouth, sweating, dizziness, weight gain, nausea, and sexual dysfunction. None are safe for pregnant women. Prozac, the mother of all antidepressants or SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), works by leaving more serotonin in the system to be used by the brain. SSRIs do raise serotonin levels, but serotonin is only one of the three feel-good chemicals your body needs to control mood. And take note, SSRIs are used to treat both premature ejaculators and sex offenders, as they deaden the sex drive. What firefighter wants to have his sex drive diminished? Thus, the likelihood of a firefighter using these medications is pretty low.
Here is the beauty of exercise: It elevates endorphins, raises BDNF, and regulates all of the neurotransmitters targeted by antidepressants, not just one. Exercise helps to balance fluctuating hormone levels, making them not so drastic or severe. When done properly, it’s not only safe for pregnant women but beneficial (to the baby as well). Exercise has no dangerous side effects, and it is a solution that works long term, for everyone.
As little as 10 minutes of vigorous exercise can immediately improve mood and vigor. Every 50 minutes of weekly exercise correlates to a 50 percent drop in the odds of being depressed. And only exercise alleviates sensitivity to the physical arousal of anxiety by burning off stress hormones. Exercise literally snaps your brain out of the downward spiral of depression or anxiety by naturally restoring the proper balance of chemicals needed to do so.
Exercise spurs PFC growth (which houses memory), helping the brain to remember “the good stuff” instead of being trapped in the negative, fear-inducing thoughts spurred by chronic stress–out with the negative thoughts, in with the positive ones.
Exercise strengthens mental acuity. The stress hormone cortisol temporarily increases norepinephrine, which arouses attention, and dopamine, which sharpens focus. This is necessary during the fight or flight response to be able to perform scary tasks such as fighting fire or public speaking (which is ranked as the #1 fear). The bigger the threat, the more the fluctuations, and the bigger the fluctuations, the more likely an imbalance will occur. If cortisol is left unchecked in the brain, cognitive skills cease to be sharpened and eventually begin to erode, resulting in attention deficit. With attention deficit, one can become unfocused, unproductive, and unmotivated, and decision making becomes tough.
Exercise increases dopamine and norepinephrine levels the same way that stress does, minus the cortisol. These two neurotransmitters are the leaders in regulating the attention system. Exercise accomplishes this by spurring the growth of dopamine receptors in the basal ganglia, which is the area of the brain responsible for attention (this is what the drug Ritalin does). Exercise increases norepinephrine, which calms an overactive cerebellum to decrease fidgetiness and noise distraction. Exercise does what Ritalin does, only better.
As stated before, exercise increases the volume of the pre-frontal cortex by actually helping it grow back to its original size. The brain is always trying to rejuvenate itself by producing new cells, but if they are not “plugged in” within 28 days, the new brain cells will die. Stress blocks this process, but exercise immediately “plugs” them in. Move it or lose it.
The PFC regulates mental acuity. A shrunken PFC can lead to lack of concentration and procrastination, forcing the already stressed out firefighter couple to always live on the edge. But with a healthy balance in the brain, sharpness and productivity return and, with it, the ability to make decisions in a timely fashion.
If you’re struggling with depression, anxiety, or a little “fuzziness,” get moving—it feels good, especially when you realize you can help yourself.
In my next column, more issues that plague the firefighter couple will be addressed, including addiction, sleep issues, and disease.
Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 30 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.