Beyond our cognitive abilities, exercise plays a profound role in our mental health. Some theorize that depression is caused at least in part by depleted levels of a category of neurotransmitters called monoamines, which include serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine — all of which are magnified by exercise.
“Going for a run is like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin because, like the drugs, exercise elevates these neurotransmitters,” says John Ratey, MD, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
In the process, exercise helps our brains balance hormones. Ratey believes that, along with alleviating depression, this harmonizing of our hormones also inoculates us against toxic stress and eases anxiety. “Keeping your brain in balance can change your life,” he says.
Exercise has other effects on mood, as well. Just as our muscles demand more energy during exercise, our brains gobble up glucose. In a 2016 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, University of California, Davis, researchers discovered what the brain was doing with all that fuel: making more neurotransmitters.
MRI scans found that levels of glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) swelled in participants after a stationary-bike session. This may aid in tempering depression, according to lead researcher Richard Maddock, MD, MS, because the stores of glutamate were centered in regions of the brain where the neurotransmitter had been depleted in depressed individuals.
This originally appeared as “Your Brain on Exercise” in the May 2018 issue of Experience Life.