The Neuro-Bestiary

I am fascinated by the ways exercise changes my mind, how it opens the metaphorical Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and lets the bad things out into the open air, where they can drift away or settle at the side of the trail like the falling leaves. I think a lot about the neurochemicals dancing around in my head, how I might be increasing their concentration or amplifying their benefits. What I’m about to say is not me informing you about medical science. If anything, this is me expressing confusion, fear and wonder at what goes on, chemically, in my brain, both when I exercise and when I don’t.

For background, I have had episodic depression since I was a pretty young kid, and there is a family history, on both sides, of this particular illness, so it’s a thing I have some experience with, if not much expertise. I take an SSRI, low dose, that keeps me from having very deep, drawn out spells of depression. I still have times where I feel badly, but I have come to view them like colds. Sure, I don’t feel good, but I know what it is, and I know it will pass in a few days or a week. That scenario is a great improvement on how I used to live.

My facile understanding is that there are a couple neurotransmitters that play a key part in determining my mood, serotonin and dopamine. When you exercise you introduce endorphins to that mix, or at least hopefully you do.

I believe I do.

As a (not very) brief tangent it is worth saying that I really have no clue what goes on in my head. I’ve never seen serotonin or dopamine. I’ve never seen an endorphin. These are names attached to feelings I feel, but no one has measured them, as they exist, in my actual cranium. It’s as if someone has described London to me, and I, having been to a city that answers the description, have decided that I’ve been to London. What I’m saying is that it’s all very abstract, this thing where you have a set of symptoms and conclude that certain things are going on in your body without testing them in any concrete way. You might even have a doctor lob a bottle of pills at you. It happens every day. If anything is clear to me, it’s that very few medical professionals have a strong grasp on how it works, why it works, and when it might work for one person rather than another. Doctors mostly guess. There are no very reliable or specific tests beyond you telling them you feel bad. So…


I believe I have to exercise. My experience suggests that my mood is better and more stable when I’m diligently active. Part of the pain of physical injuries for me is that I know that diminished mobility comes with a mental price tag as well as the physical one.

The upside of knowing I need to exercise for my mental health is that it creates an urgency beyond my ability to maintain motivation for running/riding/hiking unto themselves. Motivation comes and goes, but in my case (and maybe yours) exercise is medicine I need to take.

Here again, I’m unclear. There is research that connects exercise with increases in serotonin and dopamine activity, but none of it is very straightforward. I wonder if the benefit I feel from all the running around I do comes from serotonin and dopamine, or from endorphins, which is a group of hormones that stimulate our opiate receptors, suppressing pain and (again only in my experience) in concert with generous doses of caffeine, are like the athlete’s cocaine.

All of that is, allegedly, aided and abetted by Vitamin D and Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Now what we’re talking about is like the chemistry sets that were still a vaguely plausible children’s toy when I was a kid. Like those cheap and cheerful sets of yore, there’s nothing in the cauldron of chemicals I’ve mentioned here that will kill you. At worst, you’ll chase after some sort of effect and get none.

I do get effects though. Sometimes I worry that one of my active experiments will cease to be effective, that the SSRIs will stop working, or that the endorphins will tail off, and that I’ll be back where I started. That worry is amplified by not really understanding how the recipe works, what quantities the ingredients ought to come in, and quite how they are best combined. That no one else can really tell me, is simultaneously empowering, because I can be self-reliant for my own treatment, and scary, because sometimes, with science, you can know just enough to get yourself in trouble.