I previously wrote about why we should be moving not only for our bodies, but for our brains. All kinds of good stuff happens in our brains when we move!
And while I went into some detail about it in my previous post, I didn’t go full nerd so I’m taking that opportunity now by writing about the trifecta of neurotransmitters.
Our brains have traditionally been a black box to us, but when we understand them in simpler terms, we have more control.
Plus, unlike a pill or drug that we could take to up- or down-regulate these neurotransmitters, exercise serves as the master balancer for our brain’s neurotransmitters. It doesn’t just raise or lower one of them, it balances them out for optimal brain function.
So when they say there’s no magic exercise pill, this is a prime example of why there likely will never be a pill that mimics the effects of exercise. Our body’s response to activity is so nuanced and intricate that we won’t likely be able to replicate it.
Serotonin has a few names – the policeman of the brain because of its ability to keep brain activity under control; the happy chemical because of its role in wellbeing and happiness. And if you’ve probably heard about it being tinkered with in cases of depression by using drugs in the SSRI class (SSRI stands for Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor).
It influences mood, impulsivity, anger and aggression, social behavior, sleep, memory, appetite and digestion and more so you can quickly see how having suboptimal levels of serotonin can go downhill in a hurry.
Norepinephrine is the second amigo in our trifecta and while it also can impact mood, it’s better known for its effects on attention, perception, alertness, motivation, and arousal. It has an impact on our sleep-wake cycle so it makes sense that it would have an effect on those things which can be enhanced or inhibited by a good sleep-wake cycle.
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter you might be the most familiar with because we’ve been taught that it’s the reward chemical in the brain. It does have effects on learning, attention and movement as well, but it’s much more well known for the pleasure or satisfaction feeling in the brain.
It helps explain addiction – whether to drugs or sugary food – and it’s easy to become desensitized to dopamine so we crave more and more of that feel good feeling, meaning higher doses of drugs or more sugary foods.
I mentioned above that because of the complexities of our bodies and their need for and response to exercise, we’ll likely never come up with a pill that mimics all the good things exercise does for us.
Don’t count me a pessimist, but there are just certain things nature has a way of keeping all to itself.
But we can harness the power of exercise by (gasp) exercising! And remember, when I say exercise I’m really referring to activity – it can be gardening or walking or doing your favorite Crossfit workout. As long as you’re moving, you’re going to see some of the benefits.
And before you continue reading, understand that just because you don’t feel depressed or anxious or unfocused doesn’t mean you can’t feel better! You don’t have to wait for something to be wrong with your body or brain to begin doing something about it.
Exercise has the unique ability to get us back to even keel when we’re feeling a little ‘off’ but it can also just amplify the good things that are going well. Keeping the momentum of our health can’t be overstated – when you’re in good health, keep it that way by maintaining it with exercise!
I don’t want to give the impression that these three neurotransmitters are all there is to it when it comes to exercise and the brain. No, no, no! There’s so much more! It’s like a chemical orchestra in our brains and exercise is the maestro working their magic on our mood, focus, motivation, and the like.
In sticking with the orchestra metaphor, when you don’t exercise and don’t stimulate that maestro, it’s as if all the instruments are slowly falling out of tune and doing their own thing, which can make for some pretty unbearable music… nails on chalkboard kind of music.
So armed with the knowledge of specifically what exercise can do in the brain, I hope the next time you’re running or doing a Nike Training Club workout you’ll remember that it’s not just for vanity and your body that you’re doing that workout, but for your brain as well!
Even just by understanding the workings of exercise on our brains, we have additional incentives to move (as if we needed more!).