It’s no secret that exercise is good for your physical health, but it can also boost your overall mood and improve your mental health. Research from UCLA reports those who exercise experience a 40% decrease in poor mental health days per month compared to those who don’t. Physical activity can reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress, but what chemical is released when you exercise that causes this effect?
In recent years, exercise research has focused on “hope molecules,” or chemicals released during pleasurable activities that positively affect the brain and body. Keep reading to explore the science of hope molecules and how they can improve your mental well-being.
The Science of Hope Molecules
During exercise, your muscles contract, secreting chemicals into the bloodstream. One of these chemicals is myokines, which are small proteins that travel to the brain and act as antidepressants. Myokines, also referred to as hope molecules, can enhance your overall health by improving your mood or ability to learn and protecting the brain from the effects of aging.
Because hope molecules cross the blood-brain barrier, they can also positively impact your mental health by reducing symptoms of depression or trauma and increasing resilience to stress. One study even suggests exercise has such a profound impact on reducing symptoms of depression that it should be offered as an evidence-based treatment option.
While myokines are directly linked to exercise and improvements in the body and brain, it isn’t the only happy molecule that can make you feel good. Neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin, are also released during exercise and can positively impact the brain.
What Chemical Is Released When You Exercise?
Exercise can help regulate stress and reduce mental health symptoms because it releases mood-boosting neurotransmitters throughout the nervous system. If you’re wondering what chemical is released when you exercise, take a look at the following hope molecules and how they promote feelings of positivity and well-being.
Known as the “feel-good” chemical, dopamine plays an important role in how you experience pleasure and reward. It’s also responsible for several body processes, including:
- Heart rate regulation
- Sleep cycles
- Working memory
- Pain processing
Dopamine acts as a chemical messenger, communicating information between the brain’s nerve cells and the rest of the body. When engaging in a pleasurable activity, your brain releases large amounts of this substance, creating feelings of happiness and optimism that can make you feel like you’re on top of the world. When dopamine levels are low, you may feel tired, unmotivated and unhappy.
Serotonin is another neurotransmitter that communicates between the brain’s nerve cells and the rest of the body. It plays a key role in several bodily functions, including:
- Mood regulation
- Body temperature regulation
- Nausea and digestion
- Sexual behavior
- Wound healing
- Bone health
Low serotonin levels are linked to many mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and panic disorders. Exercising regularly can lower stress levels, boosting the amount of serotonin in your body and making you feel happier and more optimistic.
Also referred to as the love hormone, oxytocin is produced by the hypothalamus and released into the bloodstream through your posterior pituitary glands. It manages key aspects of the reproductive system, playing an important role in many behaviors, including:
- Sexual arousal
- Romantic attachment
- Parent-infant bonding
- Labor and delivery
Low oxytocin levels can disrupt contractions during birth and prevent lactation after. Because the chemical is associated with arousal, trust and relationship building, oxytocin levels can increase when you hug someone or engage in sexual activities. High-intensity exercises, such as running or martial arts training, have also been linked to increased oxytocin levels.
The most well-known exercise-related neurotransmitters are endorphins, which are chemicals your body releases when it feels stress or pain. These chemicals are typically released during pleasurable activities, such as exercising, eating and sex. There are over 20 types of endorphins in the body that are beneficial in:
- Easing symptoms of depression
- Improving self-image
- Helping with stress and anxiety
- Contributing to weight loss
- Alleviating childbirth pain
Low levels of endorphins can cause health complications, such as sleep issues or body aches and pains, and result in self-harming behaviors, including substance abuse or self-mutilation, to provide stress relief. Exercising regularly, whether it’s through walking, hiking or swimming, can naturally boost endorphins and increase positive feelings.
How to Increase Hope Molecules
Because hope molecules are chemicals naturally found in the body, there are many ways you can increase their levels to improve your mental health. Almost any type of physical activity that gets your body moving can contribute to higher levels of hope molecules. Examples include:
- Power walking
These chemicals can also be boosted by engaging in pleasurable activities that aren’t necessarily physical. While this can vary depending on a person’s interests and preferences, pleasurable activities may include:
- Painting or drawing
- Listening to music
- Getting a massage
- Laughing with friends
- Watching a favorite TV show
- Getting acupuncture
- Volunteering at a nonprofit
- Eating dark chocolate
Social connection is another integral part of human life that can boost hope molecules. Research shows social connectedness can improve your well-being and overall quality of life. It can encourage people to eat healthier and engage in regular exercise, reducing stress and symptoms of anxiety and depression. People with strong social bonds also tend to live longer and are less likely to experience serious illnesses, such as heart disease, stroke and dementia.
Overall, engaging in healthy self-care practices, activities you enjoy and social gatherings with loved ones can increase hope molecules, enhancing your ability to foster positivity, resiliency and mental well-being.
Take Care of Your Mental Health
While participating in regular exercise and enjoyable activities is crucial to your overall well-being, it can be difficult to find the motivation if you’re struggling with poor mental health. At FHE Health, we offer various mental health treatment programs that can be tailored to fit your unique needs, helping you gain the coping skills necessary to getting your life back on track. Contact us today to speak with a trained representative and learn what services are right for you.