What has happened to our bodies in modern, technological life is a travesty: we were never designed to be couch/mouse potatoes. Body and mind totally interconnect. Our sedentary lifestyle designed around sitting, often slouching in front of a screen has robbed our nervous systems of the organizing sensations needed to regulate our emotions and to be alert to and learn from the world.
Exercise is a drug that literally balances our neurochemistry and organizes our nervous system. Whether you need to calm down, rev up, concentrate, wind down into sleep, or cope with traffic, you will get there quickest if you get your daily dose of exercise.
But a casual stroll through the park won’t do it. You need to tap heavily into the vestibular system (sense of balance that happens when your head changes position), proprioceptive system (input into joints and muscles) and tactile deep pressure touch system. This happens naturally when dancing, taking power yoga, and from most sports, and is the reason why you feel settled and at peace after engaging in these activities.
Still resistant to the thought of exercising? Let me shake you up by enlightening you about what happens in the brain when you move your body for all its worth.
BDNF: Movement and exercise increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF. This protein supports the survival of existing neurons, encourages the growth of new neurons, fosters long-term memory formation, and improves mood, all of which encourage neuroplasticity, the rewiring of the brain.
BDNF serves many purposes.
- It strengthens the myelin sheath that surrounds the nerve cell so nerve cells can fire faster.
- It protects neurons against cortisol, the “fight or flight” hormone in areas that control mood and memory in the hippocampus of the limbic system.
- It encourages neurons to connect to one another and grow making it vital for neuroplasticity and neurogenesis.
- It turns on genes to produce more neurotransmitters, like serotonin and neurotrophins.
- It releases the neurotransmitters glutamate and ACH, both critical to learning and building memory.
- It releases GABA in the cerebellum, an inhibitory chemical that turns the volume down on sensations so that you don’t get overstimulated.
- It releases just the right amount of dopamine, the reward neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure and euphoria and for focus, attention, concentration, planning ahead and resisting impulses when necessary. ADHD, Alzheimers, Parkinson’s depression, bipolar disorders, binge eating, addiction, gambling and schizophrenia all involve dopamine problems. Basically, if you have too little dopamine, you become manic and seek sensation and this leads to binge eating, addiction and gambling. If you have too much dopamine, you can become psychotic. Illicit drugs that dump loads of dopamine, including cocaine and methamphetamines, cause euphoria, aggression and intense sexual feelings.
A caveat. Sugar suppresses BDNF so carefully monitor your sugar intake.
Basal Ganglia: Exercise creates new dopamine receptors in the basal ganglia. Located in the forebrain, the basal ganglia is believed to ensure that actions the cortex plans get executed. It does so because of dopamine. In other words, exercise makes us happier, more motivated and more successful. The more you exercise, the more pleasurable it becomes –and it will once you develop muscles and better coordination — and the more you will exercise. Growing evidence indicates that dysfunction of the basal ganglia may be partly responsible for the symptoms of schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression and autism.
Amygdala: Exercise quiets the amygdala in the limbic system, your fear alarm.
Prefrontal Cortex: Exercise helps grow the prefrontal cortex, giving you greater control over impulses and thought processes.
Serotonin: Exercise increases serotonin, the feel good neurotransmitter that keeps you calm and focused.
Norepinephrine. Exercise puts the reign on norepenephrine, the neurotransmitter and stress hormone that is produced by the adrenal glands along with adrenaline (epinephrine) to trigger the fight-or-flight response. Over-release is a problem in those with autism, sensory processing disorder (SPD) and the fearful.
NTs and Neurotropins: Exercise releases NTs and neurotropins, the fertilizers of the brain.
Macrophages: Exercise boosts macrophages, the body’s immune system warriors that work better with movement, joint input, and deep pressure touch.
Hormones: Exercise normalizes insulin resistance to control mood swings and depression.
Resiliency: Exercise combats anxiety by making your brain more resilient during times of stress.
Now itching to get moving? Great. Your body and brain will be eternally grateful!
Sharon Heller, PhD is a developmental psychologist who specializes in books on holistic solutions for anxiety, panic and sensory processing disorder (SPD). She is the author of several popular psychology books including “Uptight & Off Center: How sensory processing disorder throws adults off balance & how to create stability” (Symmetry, 2013), “Anxiety: Hidden Causes, Why your anxiety may not be ‘all in your head’ but from something physical” (Symmetry, 2011) and “Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight, What to do if you are sensory defensive in an overstimulating world” (HarperCollins, 2002). She can be contacted via email at [email protected] and via her website, www.sharonheller.net.