My Brain is Inflamed and What I’m Doing About It

By Whitney Dean

The comedian, Louis C.K., has a funny bit about us humans having taken ourselves out of the food chain. He jokes what a drag it would be if predation was just one more thing we had to worry about on top of all the other day-to-day tedium we have to endure. “You’re already having a bad day. You wake up in the morning, you make your breakfast, you burn your toast, and it’s too late to try again…And then you’re walking to work like ‘Why do I even bother…Oh $%^&!' Louis runs around the stage. “There’s always cheetahs at the train station!"

There was a time when we had to worry about the wild cat outside the cave. We’d hear the animal, we’d freeze to listen harder, we’d anticipate the worse case scenario. Then, according to Dr. Daphler, a psychiatrist at Denver Health Hospital with whom I had this discussion, our bodies would start in motion the response to injury that the predator could potentially inflict. The mind would prepare for the impending bite to the neck, the evisceration, the mauling, and get that healing ball rolling while it had the chance.

In a state of fight or flight, it’s the sympathetic nervous system that gets activated. The resulting chemical reactions induce inflammation of the brain and muscle tissue. We don’t worry about cheetahs at the train station any more, but the acute stress of predation, perhaps, might beat the hell out of the persistent, chronic stress we put our psyche through every day: work, family, relationships, diet, etc. Dr. Daphler suggests that stress and depression have a direct correlation to inflammation, the body’s response to infection and injury.

She makes several comments about my physique, how strong I am. It makes me uncomfortable, or at least, irritated because I don’t see what that has to do with why I’m in her office to begin with: my mental conditions. Then she explains the reduction of inflammation that manifests in the body after exercise. I get it. The more I stress my body physically, the easier her job is.

A recent study on depression published in the British Journal of Nutrition suggests that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) offers anti-inflammatory benefits, which the medical community tries to mimic with psychotropic medication, but this is the real deal. Research has found that the protein, myokine, produced by muscle fibers, “offer potent protection against metabolic syndrome.” These anti-inflammatory myokines are released from our muscles during high-intensity exercise, more so than less strenuous exercises such as jogging or lap swimming. In other words, bearing weight and pushing my body to exhaustion is actually reducing inflammation in my brain, activating the parasympathetic nervous system, resulting in a calmer, happier me.

How’s that for a CrossFit pitch?

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