Exercise can activate the brain’s pleasure circuit just like sex, food, gambling and addictive substances through the release of naturally rewarding brain chemicals called endorphins. Following physical activity, our brains naturally release rewarding chemicals called endorphins in the brain, spinal cord and other parts of the body. Endorphins (i.e., endogenous opioids) are released after exercise and act by binding to the same opioid pain receptors as analgesic (i.e., pain-relieving) drugs such as morphine to produce a runner’s high — sudden pleasant feelings of euphoria, sedation, hypoanalgesia (i.e., reduced perception of pain) and stress relief.
This release of endorphins following physical activity is considered to be evolutionary advantageous for reinforcing behaviors that promote survival (e.g., chasing down food or running away to protect ourselves from danger). Numerous studies indicate that people who regularly exercise experience improvements in stress, mood, self-esteem and sleep, the lack of which are associated with mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. Physical activity has also been proposed as a beneficial treatment for patients with substance abuse and addiction.
Gregory N. Ruegsegger and his colleagues from the University of Missouri suggested that since the brain responds to surges in endorphins released after exercise, activating these receptors could be helpful for providing people with addiction with rewards without engaging in alcohol or drug use. There is convincing evidence supporting the use of exercise-based interventions for reducing the compulsive use of drugs including alcohol, nicotine, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana. For example, a 2010 study found evidence for the benefits of exercise in reducing alcohol use.
Another study conducted by researchers from Vanderbilt University demonstrated that exercise could be used to reduce and prevent marijuana use, even among those who don’t want to stop. Twelve participants who reported heavy marijuana use were asked to run on a treadmill for 30 minutes five times a week over a two-week period. Among the participants who exercised, there was a significant drop in the cravings and use of marijuana.
Exercise has even been found to reduce the risk of relapse in rats withdrawing from methamphetamine. Chitra D. Mandyam and colleagues at the Scripps Research Institute found that the rats who exercised more frequently exhibited reductions in the use of methamphetamine and drug-seeking behavior. The researchers also found a reduction in the number of dopamine neurons in the periaqueductal grey (PAG), an area of the brain responsible for sensing pain. This finding substantiated earlier research that found exercise to decrease drug-seeking behaviors in rats addicted to cocaine and nicotine.
Regularly engaging in physical activity may be useful for helping to prevent and even reverse damage to the brain associated with alcohol and drug use. A study conducted by researchers from the University Colorado Boulder used Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI), a type of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), to examine the white matter (i.e., bundles of nerve cells that help communication between nerve cells in various parts of the brain) in the brains of 37 men and 23 women who were moderate to heavy drinkers. They found that the participants who regularly engaged in aerobic exercises such as walking, bicycling or running had less damage to the white matter in the brain. Regular exercise can also prevent changes in the capillaries of the brain among mice addicted to methamphetamine, which can prevent toxins and inflammatory cells from crossing and disrupting the blood-brain barrier that normally occurs among heavy methamphetamine users.
Exercise is becoming an increasingly important component of treatment programs for patients with substance abuse and mental health disorders. As there are many advantages of incorporating physical activity into treatment for substance abuse, the Sovereign Health Group incorporates exercise into its comprehensive and individualized behavioral health treatment programs for substance abuse and addiction, mental illness and co-occurring disorders. For more information on the benefits of exercise or how exercise is incorporated into treatment programs at Sovereign Health of Texas, please contact our 24/7 helpline to speak to a member of our team.
Amanda Habermann is a writer for the Sovereign Health Group. A graduate of California Lutheran University, she received her M.S. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in psychiatric rehabilitation. She brings to the team her background in research, testing and assessment, diagnosis and recovery techniques. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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