Happy Chemicals

DRUGS! Your brain makes them. Well not really. But it does make some really dope happy chemicals. That pun was intended because dopamine is one of them. I’ll cover it and other chemicals that make you feel happy in this post. 

What is a Happy Chemical?

Well it’s a nickname. The real term is something like “mood modulating neurotransmitters”. (Now you see why I’m using a nickname). These include, but are not limited to: serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, oxytocin and endorphins. You may have heard of these, and it’s okay if you haven’t. I’m gonna break them down one at a time. While each of these neurotransmitters actually does a lot of things in the body and brain, I’m just going to zero in on how they relate to anxiety and depression.


This one has been the focus of a lot of depression research, all based on the serotonin hypothesis of depression. The idea is that, either due to low levels of serotonin, or because of a kink in the processing, depression occurs. It’s the basis for medicines like SSRI’s (serotonin re-uptake inhibitors). 

Re-uptake means that the serotonin that’s loitering in the space between your cells, not getting used, gets vacuumed up. When re-uptake is inhibited, serotonin continues to mill about in this space. The idea is that it keeps the serotonin more available to be used. 

Re-uptake is not a bad process in itself. Your cells do a spectacular job of recycling and reusing all the ingredients needed to make you function. Re-uptake is a part of that process. But the idea behind SSRI’s is that maybe the serotonin needs more opportunity to get used.

That being said, the relation of serotonin in depression is definitely well-researched. However, SSRI’s are based on an old hypothesis about what causes depression. The serotonin hypothesis of depression is over 50 years old! Yet in spite of all those years of research, the theory itself has not been validated. While serotonin is a part of the picture in depression, it’s nowhere near the whole story. Research is uncovering that serotonin is just a tree in the forest of what makes a person feel depressed.

What we can say is that serotonin seems to have antidepressant and anxiolytic effects. In other words, it does seem to help with depression and anxiety to some degree.

Now that we have an overview of serotonin, we want to know what it does in your brain when you exercise. Does your serotonin get a boost when you exercise? Yes! But it’s a bit more complex than that, in a good way. It’s not just that the serotonin levels increase in the brain. When you exercise, the system for processing serotonin in your brain gets modified, or upgraded if you will.

Remember how we talked about BDNF, the caregiver of your brain cells, that helps them grow? Well, as it turns out, serotonin is an important part of helping the brain cells grow too. What does this mean for you? It means that you’re enhancing how your brain uses serotonin when you exercise. 

Exercise may…

1) boost serotonin

2) strengthen the serotonin system

3) help brain cells grow stronger and healthier

In this way, exercise may help depression and anxiety by itself, or along with antidepressants and other therapies. 

Does it really work though?

Does all this brain enhancing actually lead to you feeling better? According to research, yeah, it really does! According to a study, people who were in the exercise group reported fewer bad mental health days. In another study involving people with a form of depression that didn’t get better with medications (treatment resistant depression, TRD), doing a walking program for 3 months improved their symptoms. For 26% of them, their depression went into remission! 


I mentioned that serotonin isn’t the only happy chemical related to depression. In research, dopamine is recognized for playing a role in depression and anxiety. Dopamine is most known for being part of the reward system in the brain. It makes you feel good.

Anxiety involves worrying about negative outcomes of future events. In a broad sense, the expectation is punishment instead of reward. Dopamine responds to how we think we will be rewarded, or not, in any given situation. It comes down to our expectation of reward, versus reality. It’s sort of like a math equation. It is thought that dopamine release matches the difference between our expectation and reality. How much dopamine is released depends on the degree to which a reward matches what we expected.

Dopamine also gets a boost from exercise. As with serotonin, the dopamine processing system gets upgraded little by little when you exercise.

The Catch-22: It Takes Some to Make Some

Like with building a business, where you have to spend money to make money, you also have to have some dopamine to make some dopamine. In a way. Let me explain.

For people who have a healthy dopamine processing system already, there may be more of a natural inclination to exercise.

Shocking, I know. Lab animals can actually be bred according to their preference for exercise, and those with better functioning dopamine tend to prefer exercising more.

If you are like me, and you don’t have a love-love relationship with exercise, you’re not totally out of luck. And here’s why: you can build a better dopamine system by exercising, little by little. Essentially, you can exercise your way into better dopamine function.

Research on this is still fresh, but the signs point this way. It may take a long time to notice a difference. But in theory, small gains can happen each time you exercise.

Moving is What Matters

The great news is that you don’t have to go crazy with your workout, or do one specific type of exercise. Studies are reflecting the fact that moving is what matters. For the sake of setting exercise goals, research shows that the most benefit has been seen for a 30-45 minute duration, 3-5 times a week.
Boosting your dopamine with exercise is like playing offense and defense against depression. You’ll score a better mood, and block stress from getting to you. Several studies have found that exercise leads to better stress resilience due to improvements to dopamine function. Stress resilience leads to better mental health. So basically, exercise acts as a stress buffer. This is good news for people who are experiencing anxiety and depression, but also for those who are not. Exercise might be a useful tool in efforts to prevent depression and anxiety.