More Happy Chemicals

In the post Happy Chemicals, we talked about two of the happy chemicals that can get a boost in your brain when you exercise. We covered serotonin and dopamine, which are super important for your mental health. But those are not the only ones that support mental health. There are other happy chemicals that improve when you exercise. 


Wow. Your brain has so many kinds of happy chemicals! Norepinephrine is another one. We’ll call it NE. It’s also called noradrenaline, and it’s incredibly important for your mental health. Want to know why? Of course you do. NE has the very important job of turning your stress mode on and off.

The Master Switch

NE is responsible for brain state switching. It responds to the environment, working hard to keep you alive and safe. So let’s say something in your environment triggers you to be on alert for danger. Maybe you’re driving and someone cuts you off, almost causing an accident. In theory, NE gets released in your brain, turning on your stress mode. 

Now, you may have heard of chronic stress. Well it’s very bad. Chronic stress is when your stress switch is stuck in the “on” position. It wears down your physical and mental health and can result in diseases and mental illness.

That may sound like NE is a bad thing then, if it turns on your stress switch. But that’s not actually the case.

Acute stress may be good for you. Acute stress is when your stress is only activated for a very short amount of time, then it switches off.

Now, why is that something we care about when it comes to fighting anxiety and depression through exercise?

Ironically, while some kinds of exercise can “turn on” a stress response, it is doing so in a healthy manner. This prepares the body to also turn off the stress switch. Overall, it can improve how you adapt to stress.

The benefits are not just short term. Exercising can improve how you adapt to stressors later on too. In other words, exercise can strengthen your resilience to stress. Which is key to improving your mental health. As a special added bonus, researchers are seeing the connection between the health of the NE system and protection from Alzheimer’s disease!

NE is such a vital part of mental health. And while there are no drugs on the market that focus on NE (to my knowledge), exercise is a promising way to support the NE system. This gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “movement is medicine” doesn’t it? We could even say that movement is mental health medicine. 


Research on how oxytocin (OT) relates to anxiety and depression is still too new for us to conclude anything. Basically what we can tell so far, is that it is somehow involved in depression and anxiety. Helpful, I know. But it is truly intriguing because OT might actually help hit the brakes on stress in the brain. By putting a stop to stress at its source, OT could help protect your brain and body from the bad effects of stress. We could all use a little less stress in our lives, right?

Okay, it helps fight stress, but what does that have to do with depression and anxiety? Well, it turns out that stress is a big factor in depression and anxiety. Surprised? Yeah, me neither. So you could see how managing stress is good for your mental health. But did you know that there’s two different battlefields in the war on stress? Yes, there’s the external stuff like the stuff that happens to you. But there’s also the internal battle that your brain is fighting for you. And your body gets dragged along, for better or worse. 

Let’s say you are going about your day when something stressful happens. Your brain prepares your body to respond to the situation. Before you even think about the fact that it’s stressful, your brain is processing how afraid you should be. 

Ironically, if a person is already experiencing anxiety or depression, their brain is already somewhat predisposed to experiencing stress in a certain way. But, it’s not like the brain is stuck that way. That’s the good news! Your brain is constantly changing. Wild, right? It can change daily, based on what you experience. Your daily choices of food, exercise, rest and sleep, along with the experiences you have socially, and with the types of settings and situations you find yourself in, may all influence that internal stress battle. 

And that’s really the point, isn’t it? That’s why I’m writing all this, and that’s why you’re reading it. We want to do whatever we can to support the brain as it fights that internal battle. We want to know that it’s working. Because if I’m being honest, it’s really hard to make those healthier choices sometimes. 

 But if there’s evidence that it really works, that if I exercise, it will actually help me feel better and have less anxiety and depression symptoms, then it makes it easier to get out there and move it, move it.

All that to say, the potential of stopping stress before it starts, is really exciting! That’s one reason why researchers are looking at OT. One of the goals of OT research is to make drugs you can take. If an OT drug is made, it will probably be the kind that you snort. Why? Because it can’t cross the blood-brain barrier, but it can get into your brain through your nose. 

So while we watch to see if an OT nose spray will be used to treat depression and anxiety, it would be helpful to know whether or not exercise can boost OT. There’s only been a few studies that confirm this so far. More studies need to be done to be able to say with confidence that it does. After that, research is still needed to see if exercise-boosted OT actually helps with anxiety and depression symptoms. Still, the prospect is exciting. Especially given all the other mental health benefits of exercise. 


Beta endorphins (β-endorphins). You may have heard of them. You’ve probably heard that they start swimming in your brain when you exercise, helping you feel good. If you haven’t heard of endorphins, maybe you have heard of something called the runner’s high. The runner’s high describes that really good feeling and lowered anxiety after exercise. The runner’s high has been associated with β-endorphins. But, they may not be the reason for the runner’s high. Research shows that it’s actually due to endocannabinoids. There are also some other, wonderful mental health benefits to β-endorphins. Let’s take a deeper dive into what β-endorphins do in the brain, and why that matters for your happiness. 

The first question is whether or not it’s true that β-endorphins increase with exercise. And the answer is yes! Many studies over the years reflect this. Next, we want to know what happens when β-endorphins get a boost. Does it just make you feel good in the short term? Or does it have long term benefits for our brain and mood? Let’s jump in.

Pain relief

The first thing that you might be interested to know about β-endorphins is that it’s a big time pain reliever. It’s the real stuff. Believe it or not, it’s a more powerful pain reliever than morphine! I know, you’re skeptical. I am too. But I promise I’m not making this up. Researchers have found that “β-endorphins exert an analgesic [pain-relieving] effect that is more potent than morphine.” In fact, β-endorphins are 18-33 times stronger than morphine! Now, how efficiently your β-endorphins are working depends on a lot of factors, and it varies from person to person. But we won’t get into that now. 

It makes sense that an innate pain-relief would kick in with exercise, because sometimes exercising can be painful. It’s your body’s way of preparing for that. That’s great, but does it help with anxiety and depression? Yeah, in its own way it does. 

Stress Relief

Remember how I said that stress is related to depression and anxiety? Basically, anything that helps us manage stress could theoretically lower anxiety and depression symptoms, and maybe even prevent them. When the going gets stressful, the β-endorphins get going. Research supports the anti-stress effects of β-endorphins 

Now, β-endorphins might only respond to certain kinds of stress. What do I mean by that? Well, β-endorphins might work to lower short-term stress in the moment (acute stress), rather than chronic stress. Based on research that I’ve read, I suspect that β-endorphins help more with lowering stress that is physical, rather than psychological. But it’s too soon to tell, in terms of the research. I’ll get into types of stress in another post. For now, all you need to know is that the anti-stress effects of β-endorphins may not work on all types of stress. But, it still helps the stress response system, and that has benefits to mental health.

 β-endorphins in Depression and Anxiety

β-endorphins, along with dopamine are a part of the reward system in your brain. β-endorphins can act in such a way that it bolsters dopamine, which gives you some happy vibes. 

Since exercise increases β-endorphins, you would think that joggers would have more, and people with depression would have less. But that’s actually not the case. Research shows that it’s the other way around. It’s puzzling. We don’t really know why people with depression have higher baseline levels of β-endorphins. But, we do know that exercise helps people who are depressed.

β-endorphins are messengers that operate heavily in the parts of the brain that deal with emotions. Those parts of the brain have specific receptors that receive the message. You could think of the receptors as an email address, and β-endorphins as email.

Now, let’s say you are doing a work project that requires you to get a list of 50 prospective client’s email addresses. So you make phone calls, but you can only get about 34 email addresses by the due date. Well, you might feel a bit worried about your boss pointing out that you didn’t meet your quota.

What does it mean for the success of your company, if you’re working with less email addresses?

Well, at the end of the day, you wouldn’t have as many clients as you could have had, which could result in less profits for your company.

That’s similar to what some scientists think is going on in the brains of people with depression and anxiety. If you have less receptors than you need, you can’t get as many β-endorphins across. And if you can’t get as many β-endorphins across, then it affects how you feel. So the theory goes. 

So while research is still unfolding on the how and why, I think it’s safe to conclude that generally speaking, β-endorphins increase with exercise and that β-endorphins have several benefits that could be really, really good for preventing or reducing depression and anxiety.

If you remember nothing else from these two posts on happy chemicals, just remember that there are several kinds of happy chemicals that make you feel good when you exercise. It’s not just while you exercise, but they can have enduring effects on how your stress response system operates, which is good news for your future mental health too!