A new imaging study from UC Davis Health has found that people who exercise have better mental fitness. This study found that intense exercise increases levels of two common neurotransmitters —
glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA — that are responsible for chemical
messaging within the brain. Published in The Journal of Neuroscience (Feb 2016), the finding offers insights into brain metabolism and why exercise could become an important part of treating disorders like depression linked with deficiencies in neurotransmitters, which drive communications between the brain cells that regulate physical and emotional health. The researchers found that exercise activates the metabolic pathways that replenish the neurotransmitters which are depleted in stress and depression, particularly, glutamate and GABA. These hormones return to normal when mental health is restored.
Their research also helped to solve a persistent question about the brain, an energy-intensive
organ that consumes a lot of fuel in the form of glucose and other carbohydrates during exercise
and what it does with its extra fuel. We know that vigorous exercise is the most demanding
activity the brain encounters from a metabolic standpoint, much more intense than calculus or
chess. And according to the results of this study, apparently, one of the things it’s doing is
making more neurotransmitters. This research also provides a peep into the negative impact
sedentary lifestyles might have on brain function, along with the role the brain might play in
athletic endurance. In other words, there may be other reasons people hit the wall or suddenly
become fatigued when working out besides depleted oxygen and energy molecules. Part of it
may actually be the brain reaching its limit.
To understand how exercise affects the brain, the team studied 38 healthy volunteers.
Participants exercised on a stationary bicycle, reaching around 85 percent of their predicted
maximum heart rate. To measure glutamate and GABA, the researchers conducted a series of
imaging studies using a powerful 3-tesla MRI to detect nuclear magnetic resonance spectra,
which can identify several compounds based on the magnetic behavior of hydrogen atoms in
The researchers measured GABA and glutamate levels in two different parts of the brain
immediately before and after three vigorous exercise sessions lasting between eight and 20
minutes, and made similar measurements for a control group that did not exercise. Glutamate or
GABA levels increased in the participants who exercised, but not among the non-exercisers.
Significant increases were found in the visual cortex, which processes visual information, and
the anterior cingulate cortex, which helps regulate heart rate, some cognitive functions and
emotion. While these gains trailed off over time, there was some evidence of longer-lasting
These findings point to the possibility that exercise could be used as an alternative therapy for
depression. This could be especially important for patients who sometimes have more side
effects from selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), anti-depressant medications that
adjust neurotransmitter levels.
For follow-up studies, Maddock and the team hope to test whether a less-intense activity, such as
walking, offers similar brain benefits. If you are not up for the bike, you can consider natural
sources to boost your GABA levels. Gamma-aminobutyric acid is a naturally calming, inhibitory
neurotransmitter involved in relaxation, healthy sleep, digestion, and the easing of muscle
tension, pain, and anxiety. GABA appears to regulate the activity of the stimulating
neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, and noradrenalin. It calms us down and indirectly helps
with fat loss because of its beneficial effects on sleep, stress and tension reduction, and mood.
Clear Calm GABA Enhancing Formula: Inositol, GABA, taurine, and passionflower help to
make this the perfect formula to ease tension, improve sleep, and reduce anxiety. The
recommended dose is two to four capsules in the evening, before bed. Alternatively, GABA may
be taken 10–20 minutes before meals, beginning with your evening meal. The standard dose of
200 milligrams three times daily can be increased to a maximum of 450 milligrams four times
daily if needed, but this should not be exceeded. Passionflower, a calming herb, appears to
improve the activity of GABA. An excellent choice for anxiety and sleep disruption – even for
children (check with ND for dosing).