It’s very easy for us to fall into the trap of thinking that our minds and bodies are completely distinct from each other. Our minds are capable of advanced critical thinking, adaptive self- reflectivity, and creative artistry that seem to be on a level above the rudimentary physical processes we associate with our bodies. The truth is that the working state of our mind and especially our emotions are inextricably linked to the condition of our body. A good example of this is when we exercise. This month’s post will take a close look at exactly what this link looks like, and how you can take care of your body to improve your mental health, most especially your mood.
Physical Activity and Mood
When I was growing up, and sulking around the house, my mom would tell me to go outside and get some exercise. While my natural reaction was always to think she didn’t understand me at all (a natural reaction, given that I was a teenager!), I always did feel better when I took her advice. As an adult, I’m grateful that she told me to go and get active so often. That voice still echoes inside me to this day, and whenever I feel down or frustrated, I know that physical activity of some sort will help. No, it doesn’t solve the problem I might be facing, but it puts me in a mood where I feel better able to deal with it. So what gives? How does exercise make us feel better, even if the problem/issue/stress hasn’t been resolved?
Our bodies are programmed with various natural mechanisms to deal with stress and pain. We are also programmed to want to exercise as a self-maintenance function of the body. When your brain detects physical activity, many various chemicals are released that ‘reward’ you for taking care of your body. We won’t be going through the whole list, but we will be exploring the primary neurotransmitters (the body’s chemical messengers) that support and reward our bodies during workouts.
Neurotransmitters that Help Us Feel Better
Endorphins: You’ve likely heard the term ‘runner’s high.’ Until a few years ago, scientists thought that all good feelings associated with sustained exercise involved this single hormone. It turns out this was only part of the whole picture. Endorphins can be thought of as the body’s natural pain reliever, and in fact, act in much the same way as an opiate: they relieve pain and help you feel relaxed. Endorphins are processed by the exact same receptors inside the body as codeine or morphine and produce a similar effect (with the exception that your body’s natural endorphins are non-addictive!). Recent studies, however, have discovered that endorphins, while activated immediately with the brain’s detection of pain, do not significantly accumulate in the bloodstream until after about an hour’s worth of exercise. This doesn’t explain those mood boosters that happen much sooner in a workout, which we will turn to next.
Serotonin: This is a complicated hormone that has a variety of functions. For the purposes of this post, it is enough to say that serotonin contributes significantly to feelings of happiness and well-being. Serotonin is now considered to be one of the key neurotransmitters released during exercise that enhances positive mood. As a general rule, the four best non-pharmaceutical strategies you can use to increase serotonin levels in your body include exercise, sunlight, meditation, and massage.
Dopamine: Dopamine is the ‘reward’ hormone that provides you with that sense of satisfaction after solving a puzzle or accomplishing a challenging task. Your body also provides you with a healthy dose of it during exercise, as a way of saying “thanks, I’m loving this, please do this again soon!”
Norepinephrine: If you’ve ever wondered why you can sometimes feel so differently when faced with the same levels of stress, chances are norepinephrine is a primary culprit. This hormone helps regulate stress and contributes to the “I got this!” feeling that motivates us to tackle our stressors head-on. This is why, after you exercise, you sometimes feel like you are ready to tackle whatever the world throws you next.
Mood Enhancing Strategies We Practice at LiveWell
Although here at LiveWell we certainly advocate for exercise as a primary activity to help boost your overall mental health and well being, we also recognize that not all of our clients are able to achieve the necessary levels of activity, or require additional sources. Here is a list of our services that will help you achieve better overall moods and a more positive outlook, without having to turn to pharmaceuticals:
Massage: Massage therapy is much more than simply working out the knots in sore muscles! Our professionally trained Registered Massage Therapists practice soft-tissue manipulation that promotes the production of endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, and also oxytocin. Not listed above, oxytocin is a hormone that plays a key role in individual and social trust (among other things). A hit of oxytocin will actually provide you with the perception that the world is a better place, a key component of positive mental wellbeing. Yes, you will come out of our massage sessions feeling relaxed, but you will also experience a significant boost to your mood due to the cocktail of natural hormones that are released! Check out our Massage page for more information or to book an appointment.
Pilates: More and more research suggests that Pilates not only assists with physical conditioning but has a lasting significant positive effect on mental health as well. In particular, Pilates encourages the body’s production of endorphins, serotonin, and helps regulate cortisol, which is a hormone associated with the body’s stress response. Think of Pilates as where exercise meets mindfulness – you will receive a healthy dose of each in our classes and meet others like you who are striving to build a more positive resilient self! Check out our Pilates page to find out more.
Acupuncture: Acupuncture assists in the release of a variety of ‘neuropeptides’ which encourage the body to heal and deal with pain. In addition to helping increase blood flow to areas of the body requiring it, acupuncture promotes the body’s production of serotonin and endorphins, as well as also assisting with the regulation of the body’s cortisol stress response. Find out more about our acupuncture services here.
We hope that you’ve found this primer on the link between physical and mental health useful. Our professional staff members have worked with hundreds of clients who have benefitted through one or more of our natural mood-enhancing services that have been key for them in their quest for a more balanced life and overall feeling of well-being.